Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Hong Kong, Interviews, Screenwriters

Mabel Cheung interview: “Alex usually writes the last draft, he’s good with details. I’m better with structure, I think!”

We talk to one of Hong Kong’s most prominent female directors about her career and latest film, based on the lives of Jackie Chan’s parents…

Mabel Cheung’s career goes back to the 80s, with her first film Illegal Immigrant. The film picked up on themes of diaspora that reflected a hot topic of the time, and one she returned to several times, including the much-loved An Autumn’s Tale. Throughout her constant collaborator has been Alex Law, writing scripts together and then one or other directing them. Together their filmography also includes Painted Faces, The Soong Sisters, Echoes Of The Rainbow and City Of Glass.

It also includes Mabel’s latest work, A Tale Of Two Cities, based on the lives of Jackie Chan’s parents. The film screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2015, where she also served as a jury member for the Official Competition. The night of the UK premiere, I was lucky enough to be invited to a special reception for the film, briefly introducing myself to both Mabel and Alex ahead of my interview with her the next day.

What I’d like to start with is your connection to the life story of Jackie Chan. The obvious place is your documentary Traces Of A Dragon, but I almost wonder if we shouldn’t start with Alex’s film Painted Faces (1988)?
Well actually that film is more about Master Yu, and the Peking Opera School than Jackie Chan himself. But we got to know him better, and interviewed Sammo Hung. It’s Sammo Hung who helped us most with the story. Of course he played the sifu (teacher). But that was the beginning of our friendship, and from then on we got to know him better. Because we belong to the same directors guild, the Hong Kong Film Directors Guild, we’d see him from time to time at dinners, meetings and things like that. But that was a long time ago, and we had never thought to make a film about his family, and I didn’t even know his father.

So it was only with Traces Of A Dragon. We began making that in 1998, that was the year when Jackie’s father Daolong said to him, ‘I’m getting old, I have to tell you your life story before it’s too late. So you have to come back to Australia.’ By that time his father lived in Australia, working in the Embassy. So he asked Jackie to go there for the New Year, so he can tell him the story. But then being Jackie, he wanted to record everything down as a family album [laughs]. So he asked me if I was interested in going with him, and Alex and I decided it would be really interesting, with Jackie paying for everything, so we went. But Jackie also asked a really major cinematographer, Arthur Wong, working in Hong Kong film. [His filmography includes The Warlords, Iron Monkey, Once Upon a Time in China.] We shot everything on 35mm [laughs]. That’s a family album for Jackie Chan! [Laughs again.]

When we started off we didn’t know what was going to happen, but then when his father started to tell the story it was really interesting, and I thought, ‘oh wow, maybe we can make it into a feature-length documentary?’ That’s how it all started.

So was there a sense that Jackie himself was finding out all this information at the same time as you?
Yeah, well, if you watch the documentary, you can see that he was as surprised as we were listening to the story for the first time. His father treated him like a child, ‘What do you know.’ It’s a very interesting exchange between father and son. Initially when he was in a directors meeting, Jackie had the nickname ‘Big Brother’, but with his father he’s like a little boy [laughs]. So I saw a brand new Jackie when he was with his father. Jackie’s father’s dialect is really difficult to understand; nobody understands what he is saying. Because he’s been escaping from his hometown in the North Eastern part of China, Shandong and then he went to Anhui, Shanghai, Hong Kong and so on. Actually he doesn’t belong to any specific place. His accent is so strange, that when he speaks Mandarin, it’s like he’s speaking Cantonese; and when he’s speaks Cantonese, it’s like an Anhui dialect. Nobody could actually understand him, including Jackie! So I had to listen to him very carefully, or I wouldn’t be able to ask him questions. Eventually I became the one who could understand him most, and Jackie would sometimes ask me, ‘What’s my father saying?’ So it was fun to do that documentary.

So how did you come to turn the documentary into a dramatized film?
Well, first of all the documentary had a wider scope about the whole family and how they get separated and reunited, and the Cultural Revolution and all that. But then I thought that the story between his father and mother is really intriguing: the love story between a spy and an opium smuggler. Jackie’s mother, Lily, she’s so gentle and so maternal; just the sort of woman you’d expect a mother to be. You’d never suspect that she could gamble so much in a gambling house, that she’d smuggle opium, and that she’d do anything to protect her family.

So after we finished the documentary, I thought I had to make a story about their generation. It’s my parent’s generation. Where they had escaped from city to city in search of a better home, and in search of their loved ones. I think that it’s arguably the first generation of Hong Kong people that helped to shape modern Hong Kong. And they gave birth to our generation, who eventually got settled and led to the prosperity of the 80s and 90s.

So my original plan was to ask my mother her story, because I’m sure people who have experienced war and survived, and escaped to Hong Kong, every one of them must have a very interesting story. But being a very bad daughter, I didn’t have time to talk to my mother. I thought she would always be there, but she passed away in 2003. Then I felt really guilty, and I became very friendly to all these older people. And I continued to be friends with Daolong, Jackie’s father. He liked drinking, and I like drinking to [laughs], so we had a great time drinking and eating. He continued to tell me the rest of his stories, so I began to write a script for A Tale of Three Cities.

So when you finished the script, did you show it to Jackie, or had he had any input on it?
He didn’t have any input, because many of the things his father told me, he didn’t know. And like me, he didn’t have time for his family, so when I told him that I wanted to make a film about his father, he said, ‘Oh, go ahead, if you can find the money.’ He didn’t want to get too involved, otherwise he’d be making a film about his own family, and he didn’t want it to seem like he was initiating everything. So he didn’t have any input, he gave me complete freedom, including casting and everything.

TALE_OF_THREE_CITIES_1

TALE_OF_THREE_CITIES_2

So when your making a film on a true story, you have to dramatize things in a certain way. Did you change anything?
Actually about 90% of what we depict in the film were based on true events, like how they meet by the river at the customs checkpoint. So he actually was a customs officer (on the surface) and she was smuggling opium, and he arrested her, letting her go later, of course. That’s how it all started. And when he proposed to her mother, she refused because she thought he was a dubious kind of person. She didn’t know what he was doing, he seemed to be fighting all the time, had very mysterious missions from time to time. That was all true.

And then they got separated because of the subsequent events, being chased after by the Communists and by the Nationalists. They eventually meet again in Shanghai, but only to be separated again, because Daolong had to escape to Hong Kong immediately while Lily was left to look after the children.

So basically the story was based on true events. But of course the romantic parts, how they fell in love and everything, he didn’t tell me. Because old people don’t say, they just say things like, ‘Oh, I looked at her, she looked at me.’ So the scene of them singing together, in spite of the Japanese invasion, and how they say goodbye to each other, all those things we dramatized.

And was there anything you left out and regretted doing so?
Actually not much, because I didn’t want to cut the film and regret it later. So all the important things, what I felt mattered, are there.

How did you come to cast Sean Lau (Ching-wan) and Tang Wei as your leads. Where you aware that Tang had been cast as another (more famous) real person in a similar period for Ann Hui’s The Golden Era?
I cast her a long time ago. It took me 10 years to find financing for this film, and in the meantime I’d already asked Tang Wei and Sean Lau to star in it, because I have to give [possible financers] a package. So that was long before she starred in The Golden Era. Because I think they really look good together, and they really have that kind of chemistry. And or this sort of story you really need that, and then you don’t have to say too much. A look from them would explain everything.

It’s interesting you talk about it taking 10 years to finance this film, as I was going to ask you about your long absence as a director. Was this what you were concentrating on?
Well not exactly, because I directed a stage musical. I had always been interested in the stage and musicals, singing and dancing, so I had the chance to make a stage musical to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Chinese Cinema. In 2005, for three years I worked on it. Doing the music, which was original, dance, training the actors. It was great fun, because I had to cover 100 years on stage! [Laughs.] We had 32 sets that rolled out on two revolving stages. It was a great challenge for me and I really enjoyed that.

In the meantime, I worked as a producer for Alex’s film (Echoes Of The Rainbow). And yes, also trying to find financing for this movie!

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Mabel Cheung with Alex Law.

So I’d like to ask how you and Alex first began this collaboration, right from the start of your careers with The Illegal Immigrant?
We were classmates, at NYU (New York University). We were in the same class and there were only three Chinese, Alex and I from Hong Kong – and there’s one other crazy guy from Taiwan! [Laughs.] Because we had to work in team, so we always worked together. We were post-graduate students in film production, so we had to go out for school projects, that was how we started.

And it’s been a long and fruitful partnership. One thing I asked Alex briefly last night, and I wonder if you could give me your take on it, is how do you work together? When your writing scripts, for instance, how do you decide who directs?
Actually we decide who will be the director first. And that’s based on how much we want to get involved. For example, for Echoes Of A Rainbow was about Alex’s childhood, so of course he wanted to be director. And for An Autumn’s Tale, it’s more like my version of our life in New York, so I wanted to be the director. Once that is decided the rest is easy, because we used to working in a team in film school, and we know that only one person can make the final decision. You can make suggestions, you can do a lot of groundwork, but then if there’s a difference in opinion, the director has the last say. So once that’s decided, we know how professionally we should go about it.

So when you’re writing scripts together, how does that work? Does one of you take the lead and the other feedback?
If I’m the director, like with A Tale Of Three Cities, I write the first draft, with the scene division and synopsis, detailed dialogue and a scene-by-scene breakdown. And then Alex will do the second draft, and fill in all the details, revising the dialogue where necessary. And then there’s a third and fourth… We usually do a lot of drafts, so we discuss, and we ask opinions from other people. We put it down for a while and then look at it again; things like that.

But usually Alex writes the last draft, he’s very good with details. I’m better with structure, I think [laughs].

You’ve been part of filmmaking in Hong Kong for quite some time now, so I wonder if you could tell me the changes you seen, obviously with the opening up of the Mainland Chinese market? And what do you think the future holds for Hong Kong filmmakers?
Of course the Mainland market is getting bigger and bigger, it’s going to grow and it’s going to be maybe the biggest market in the whole world. So everybody’s rushing to China to make films, and the Hong Kong market is growing smaller and smaller. We used to make nearly 300 films per year in Hong Kong, just Cantonese speaking films. Now it’s only around 50 or sometimes less. All the major directors have gone to China for productions. But I think it is a good thing, especially for people in our generation. We entered the film business a lot of people went to the cinema and we had a large audience. That was the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, and we can make very diverse subjects. We even had large followers in Japan, Korea and South East Asia. It was before the Chinese market opened up.

But after so many years when the Hong Kong market is declining and we have very little chance to make films, then the Chinese market is opening up and our generation of directors have already got a reputation. So we got a lot of initiations to make films in China. That’s a very good opportunity if you can use it carefully, instead of doing things that will only suit this market or that market. If you still insist on making things that you really like, and that really touch you, and remember your original intention of becoming a director, then you can make films with a larger scope. You have a lot of very good actors, spectacular locations. So I think as a film director, we shouldn’t restrict ourselves in area. We should open up and make films wherever there’s a good story, there’s good locations and good actors. And wherever there’s money [laughs].

And leading on from that, you’re involved in the Fresh Wave programme. In fact earlier this year I spoke to one of your pupils earlier this year in Udine, Cai Jia-hao, who was very grateful for your input. Can you talk about you involvement? I’m guessing you really want to help support the future of filmmaking in Hong Kong?
Yes, I do. Apart from Fresh Wave I’m also involved in teaching in the film school. I like talking to young people and I learn a lot from them too; like what they think, what are the newest trends. And while I have the time, I want to also give them my experience. I do not think I’m really anything above them, I just have more experiences, and so we can share experiences and knowledge. It’s really fun to talk all these students!

Well that’s fabulous. Thank you so much, Mabel.
Thank you.

A Tale Of Three Cities screened as part of the 59th BFI London Film Festival 2015.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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