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Nansun Shi interview: “I’m not the type to want to face machines all day long!”

The legendary producer talks at length about her life and career in Hong Kong cinema…

Meeting Nansun Shi, you wonder if spending most of her formative years in Britain didn’t rub off on her. She seems stately, almost regal somehow. At 63, she’s in great health, immaculately dressed and very well-spoken – even now, some 40 years after leaving England after completing her studies, she’s kept an English accent (and quite a posh one at that). Though our interview will be quite informal, I get the impression that she’s in control at all times, and quite formidable when she needs to be.

Perhaps these suppositions are appropriate. Since entering the Hong Kong television and film in the late 70s, Shi has made countless contributions that ultimately completely changed the industry, albeit mainly behind the scenes as a producer. Quite often, surprisingly, her input seemed about more common sense and efficiency than groundbreaking revolutions. But alongside that there was always the impression that Hong Kong films should aspire to be the same level of world cinema around them, not just in sales, but also in quality.

As with several of the English interviews taking place at the Udine Far East Film Festival, it’s conducted with Peter Jevnikar of Primorski Dnevnik and Gloria Cheung of the FEFF Campus programme. As I introduce myself, I pass her my business cards. ‘You’ve got all the icons!’ It’s true; they’re backed with famous images from Asian (mainly Hong Kong) films. (In fact, just minutes before Philip Yung actually took all the Hong Kong cards out and photographed them before we began our interview.) She takes one with Jet Li, saying, ‘This is from my film, Swordsman II.’ I tell her Roger Lee actually took the same card for the same reason. She laughs.

Quoting her time at the Polytechnic of North London, I try to get to how she got started as a producer. ‘My god, you really do your research!’ she laughs. But it seems it starts much earlier than that. ‘I’ve always loved films. There were two people that influenced me in watching films.’

The first was her mother. ‘She loved Hollywood films, but I come from a family of four children: two older brothers and a younger brother. She couldn’t take four kids to the cinema; just one who could sit on her lap! So she’d come across into the living room and make this sign, and I would very slowly get up and she would take me to the cinema. I watched all these Hollywood pictures, MGM musicals, Doris Day, Rock Hudson; all those kind of films, which I loved of course.’

The second was an Amah in the family, much like the character played by Deanie Ip in A Simple Life (a film Shi also acted as producer on). ‘We grew up with a helper at home. They never take holiday, always first up in the morning, last in bed, they were just so devoted.’ Adding, a little awkwardly ‘Well, This was another era, okay.’

‘I had a maid like that, and she loved Cantonese opera. So at night sometimes when we finish early, she would take me, because she could also put me on her lap, and we would go and watch these black and white opera films, these icons. So daytime, Hollywood films, night time Cantonese Opera films. So I always loved watching movies.’

When she came to England to attend school, that love didn’t necessarily fade. ‘I was always doing dramas in school plays, representing the school in competitions: elocution and poetry recitals. I kind of got the idea to study drama, not to perform but to do something in the field. But of course this is the 1960s, and many Asian parents want you to be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, right?’ she laughs. ‘I wasn’t very academically minded. I was very good at organising school activities, but not very good at studying. I always passed, but I was never top of the class. I thought if I applied to drama school my father would disown me for life, so then I thought what am I going to do? And the British system is that you take A Levels, so for various reasons I did pure maths, applied maths, English and French.’

She explains how she had a very good teacher where her family lived in England, in the small seaside town of Littlehampton in Sussex. ‘The southern parts get such warmer weather, so many famous professors from Cambridge and Oxford would retire to that area. They’re still very able but get very bored, so they’d come and three times a day in our school just for fun.’ Her maths teacher had been a Cambridge university professor, and when she explained that she wanted to follow her brothers to America, he’d asked her why. ‘I told him about my brothers and he said, “So what? Undergrad is very good in England. Post grad is very good in the States because they have more money for research. So why don’t you finish your studies here?”

‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, because in England at that time the academic curriculum was quite strict, very clear. It was engineering or economics, so where do I fit in? Whereas in the States it was very easy, very liberal – you could do all kinds of subject. He was the one that told me about computers. He said, “Now it’s computers, where mathematics and language have a strong correlation – so that’s what you should study.”’ This was 1970, when such studies where still in their early stages. This very practically minded educator added that because it was so new, it would be much easier to get into university because there was such demand. So that was how Shi found herself at the Polytechnic of North London studying computer science. ‘Of course, at that time they were housed in a huge room, almost one floor, and it’s air-conditioned. And you’d be inside that room with the machines,’ adding with an air of ridiculousness, ‘and everyone wears a tie. Just machines and you.’

‘So when I graduated and went home, I thought to myself – as you can probably tell from five minutes with me – I’m not the type to want to face machines all day long! So I’ve got my degree, my father’s happy; I’m not a lawyer but at least it’s close to science. It’s better than, say, domestic science or something!’ she smiles. ‘So I decided to try and find a job that having not lived in Hong Kong for eight years would help my understand that world faster. I ended up joining a communications agency, basically public relations agency, that actually did all the top companies in Hong Kong – Jockey Club, Hong Kong bank, telephone company, gas and power companies. Within a very short amount of time I understood what was going on in Hong Kong in terms of its society.’

‘After a while – this is getting to be a very long story! Oh god, finally I’m getting there!’ she apologies. ‘They had this worldwide beauty pageant called Miss Universe, and it came to Hong Kong. Someone called the office and said we need somebody to host the TV programme; somebody who’s come back from overseas and can speak English, French, some languages – and the receptionist suggested me! So I went to the TV station for the interview, got the job, ended up being for three months. I started doing TV things while keeping my job at the agency. At the time Satellite was the new thing, and I discovered through this work that I could translate simultaneously. So there’d be the Eurovision Song Contest broadcast live, they’d need someone to be sitting there, listening in English and talking in Chinese. The Queen might come to Hong Kong, and it might be on the English channel, but I’d have to translate from Chinese into English. The pay was very good, because I’m a contracted expert from outside. So I kept doing it, until one day I decided to work full time at a TV station.’

It was the late 70s and early 80s, and the so-called Hong Kong New Wave had come into effect. ‘Most of the people around me were aspiring directors – like Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Allen Fong, Yim Ho, Patrick Tam – and many, many, many people were making their first film. Actually I had no aspiration to be a director, ever. I really thought about it. I asked myself, “Actually everyone’s going to be a director, shall I?” I love films. But I see the directors, I work with them, and they are very single minded. They’re not very good at other things in life, their not very good at calculating time or money. And I think that I’m quite good at that, so because I love films so much, it’s better I do something I’m good at so that they don’t have to worry about these things, so that’s how I got started.’

‘From TV I was really on the administration side, but because I liked to know my product, I was always hanging out with the directors and going to the studios and seeing how we’re shooting programmes. So one day my boss said to me, “You seem to know a lot about production, so why don’t you go to the programme department?” I said, Okay’, she laughs. ‘So I did that for a while. It was all by accident really. After working three years in TV, a lot of my contemporaries left to make films, and they would call me and say “why don’t you come and be a line producer.”’ When she replied she didn’t know anything about films, they just told her it was okay, she’d be fine at it! ‘At the time in Hong Kong, cinema was going from the studio system – Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers, all very traditional – to independent filmmaking. So everybody told us, “Nobody knows how to do it anyway, so it doesn’t matter, as long as we get the film in the can we’re okay!”’

‘So that was how it started for me, and from an administrative position I started thinking more about distribution, how to find more audiences. I went to Cannes; I saw how they sell their films. I realised that was a good move, if we have more markets we can have more money, and then we’d have more resources to give the director to make a better film.’

Aces-Go-Places-2-(1983)At the time at Cinema City where I started working, there were seven of us, and there was no line between roles. Six of them were producer, director, actor, writer – I was the only normal one!’ she laughs. ‘I still needed to go into the office. Because everything was so fresh and new, someone might say, “Let’s make a film with cars and car stunts!” Nowadays it would be Fast & Furious. So we’d discuss who does the best car stunts in the world, and at that time it was ‘Mad’ Max [Aspin] from the Mad Max films. So they said to me, “Oh you speak good English. Go and find Mad Max.” So I don’t know how to find him, I just think he’s Australian. So I find the production company, I look it up, call Australia: “Hello, this Hong Kong calling. Are you Mad Max from the film Mad Max?” “Yeah,” he replied. “Do you do the car stunts?” “Yes.” “Would you like to come to Hong Kong and work with me?”

‘At the time he thought I was crazy, but sometimes we’d get the right guy and he’d say, “Sure I’d like to come and work. What do you pay?” And I’d say, “What’s your pay?” “Just tell me what you can offer me?” he’d reply, and I’d reply, “Well I can’t offer you much, but I can offer you friendship, nice food,” and so on. I got a lot of people to come.’ The film Aspin worked on would be Aces Go Places II.

‘We did a film that needed special makeup, so they were like “Get a Hollywood makeup guy!” There was no Internet, so I had to call up everybody to find out. I looked everywhere and found a list of the top 10 makeup artists in the world, and number one was Rick Baker. And I found the phone directory for LA, and there were five so I called each one, and finally I reached him and he said, “I’m not going to Hong Kong!” “OK. Thank you, bye bye!” And so I made my way through the list until I called the fifth or sixth person on the list, and he’s Tom Savini.”

till-death-do-we-scare-1982-sEasily as famous as Baker – this was the high point of monster makeup in the early 80s – Savani’s name is perhaps most synonymous with zombies, having worked with George A. Romero since Martin and both creating makeup for and appearing in Dawn Of The Dead. ‘And he came to Hong Kong. So there are enough crazy people in the world, if you don’t try nothing gets done. But this was the 80s, so for them it was an adventure! Those who with an adventurous mind would come; those without one would not – which is fine. But Tom Savini really had a great time!’ The film would be Lau Kar-Wing’s comedy horror Till Death Do We Scare (Xiao sheng pa pa, 1982) – hilariously released as Zombi 70: Seriously the real Final Chapter 3-D in Turkmenistan, at least according to IMDB.

Having heard about how even the big studios were from directors like Ann Hui, who once described Golden Harvest as looking like a company that could up sticks and run at a moments notice, I ask if things had been chaotic before, did she start to make them more organised?

‘At the time, Tsai Hark and myself were not very experienced; we’d only made one or two films,’ she admits, ‘whereas the group at Cinema City were very practiced at independent filmmaking.’ But that didn’t mean Shi didn’t have some sensible suggestions to make to the system. ‘Every day of shooting they would take HK$1,000 and give it to the line producer for the shooting that day. And off he’d go. I came from television where the same thing happened. When I first started, every first AD would get HK$2,000 cash, and go and pay off the expenses. And I said, “What if somebody drops it?” Because the AD was getting paid just HK$1,200 a month, and they give him HK$2,000? Not that he’s dishonest, but what if he just dropped it? And they told me they’d always done it this way. I said, “We’re a TV station, we don’t need all these cash transactions. They could just sign a bill and then collect from the station.”’ Everyone was very against anything changing, until the programmer controller’s own brother really did lose the money! ‘So then everybody was very keen to start the system so they didn’t get into the shit, right?’ she smiles.

When she moved into film, she found it was exactly the same, except the figures were HK$100,000 every day. ‘Sometimes more if it’s a big shoot, and everything is cash.’ There were daily suppliers, like trucks. Sometimes these might be signed on for a month, but everyday there might be four trucks, and on big days there might be an extra four trucks. ‘So you’d have to pay for that in cash; if you had extra, pay in cash. And I asked, “Why do you need so much cash? We’re a company, we can sign for it.” So I devised a system of signing for it, and they’d come and collect after we’d checked the bills, three days later the cheque would go through.’

Her input didn’t stop there. ‘So these are the early days of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, and everyone’s new to filmmaking, quite happy to try new things. I designed some forms and said let’s photocopy them and try them out, see where the problems are. If it works then we’ll print the proper forms. It’s so funny, after I’d been away for a few years and came back, I looked at the forms and – my god, they’re the same forms! And I remember them to this day: CQ is track requests; DE, daily expenses, in the corner. I can’t believe that 30 years later we’re still using the same forms – really, no improvements?’ she laughs. Maybe, but if it’s not broken? ‘Everybody covers the logo and puts their own company logo on it, but I remember these forms, I spent so much time designing them it drove me nuts!’

aces-go-places‘I guess that part of the structure of what we were creating, and the other part of it was, I think, because one of our earliest films was Aces Go Places, commercially very successful. So we sat their very proud of ourselves and then we said, “Oh, what do we do now? We have such a big film. We have to take it to…” And by reading the news, we knew there was a Cannes film festival, so off we went. We didn’t really know what it meant, but I agreed to go because I spoke a little French. And of course you go there and then you see the world of film, of world cinema, and to that we were nothing. But still our film sold to some places, and I realised that there was another part for Hong Kong cinema that was very important, and that was the international market. It got to the stage where in the late 80s and early 90s where 40% of my revenue would come international sales – there was no China then of course, and our traditional market had been Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. We got into action films as they worked better internationally. From to Scandinavia and South America – my geography improved greatly! – to India, Middle East, Greece, everywhere! It was another part that was important for Hong Kong filmmakers to realise there was this world market.’

It hadn’t been the first time Hong Kong filmmakers had travelled to Cannes. Shaw Brothers, for instance, had screened there, as had Bruce Lee films, but the difference here was to turn it into a consecutive part of a films marketing, rather than attempt ad hoc sales. ‘We were one of the first to make a worldwide deal with EMI; I remember we sold the worldwide video rights to them. They were sizable, substantial deals that made us realise the world market can be much bigger than you think. Before we just sold to Asia, and occasionally some arthouse titles would make it to Germany, like ZDF or government TV channels.’

But the exposure to films from across the world also had another positive effect. ‘The other filmmakers and I would go and watch movies all the time, especially obscure movies. Like Norway – they make very good movies by the way – and Iran, and so on. I realised that the film quality was so much better. Our movies were full of action and excitement, but the film quality was not good at the time. Post-production – that’s why they always laugh about it in America when they put kung fu movies on an early Sunday morning. Lip sync is always a problem. So when I went to Cannes and walked into a cinema to watch a small, small French film, I see the colours are perfect, the sound is perfect, the music is decent. And then I look at our movie. The visual is great, but other than that it’s off sync, the sound is all bad! So when I came back I said, “I’m damned if I’m not going to make the post-production better!” So we worked a lot on post. It was the importance of look and feel that we improved after going to look at other peoples films, we realised the importance of it. Before it had just been about capturing it on film. The storytelling didn’t matter; we’d just fill in the gaps. Even if you don’t have lip sync we’d just wing it!’ she laughs.

Of course, there have been massive changes in the Hong Kong film industry over the last 15 years. ‘Because of the opening of the Chinese market?’ she completes my sentence. I wonder if that has changed what she does and how she approaches it?

‘The China film industry was very closed before the year 2000; all the films where either arthouse or purpose made by the government agencies or for educational purposes. They didn’t really have commercial filmmaking before then. The whole system was very state run. You know that the measure of your success was not by box office, it by how many copies you sell. So when you make a film, you have maybe two major screenings where you might sell one copy to Slovina, then one to Udine, and so on. Then if you sold 100 copies, you’re doing very well. But of course it changed, the polices, the government was very late – because although economic reform started in the late 70s, it was only in 2001/2 that they instigated a lot of policies to make the film industry a more market orientated industry. So these policy reforms were made across the board. Before, you could only make co-productions with a few state-owned studios, and there’s a quote for the number of films you can make in a year. Then they relaxed the rules. Almost anybody can a film. Of course you have to have some sort of qualification, but really it’s no problem. Cinema ownership can be foreign or jointly venture. Distribution, they dismantled the whole government machine and started again, and you have to have your cinemas organised into film circuits.’

When it comes to this growing market, Shi really knows her numbers. ‘The real effect started in 2003, every year since the box office has grown in double digits. Not 11%, but 42% or 36%. And the number of screens has increased from 2003 being just under 2000, to 25,000 screens. The number of films made a year has gone from 100 to now between 600 and 800. So you can see that has huge implications.’

‘Of course everything happened too quickly. There’s not enough talent, both onscreen or offscreen. Because they need training, you need to learn by experience. A 1st AD does not become 1st AD overnight. You have to be a 3rd AD for ten films, and then become a 2nd. But at the moment in China someone can walk in a room and say, “I’m the best AD you have” just because he’s made 10 films,’ she laughs. ‘And because there was no commercial filmmaking, a lot of the copyright issues, legal issues, financial reporting issues, the Chinese companies are not familiar with. So when Hong Kong filmmakers started working in China, we would talk to companies and say this is what we need to do. We would say, “We need to have these copyrights before we can put this film into pre-production. We need to sign off on these aspects; we need to do the accounting this way; we need to do budgeting formatting this way so everyone read and understand it; we need to do daily reports – all of things. So it’s taken a little time, but now it’s coming along.’

‘So then I’m often asked, then what about the Hong Kong film industry? I think at a certain stage everyone got a bit depressed, the perception was that everyone had gone to China. There were some that didn’t, but I started early on, because I could see – how could China not grow? Even I didn’t expect it to grow so quickly, but how could it not grow? It had the same box office as Hong Kong every year, HK$800,000,000. How can that be, there are a 100 times more people? I knew it was coming, but not when.’

‘This happened so quickly, some people did not start going to China, did not speak Mandarin properly, did not know how to deal with Chinese parties – because there are different culture and perspectives. We may all be Chinese, but we’re different.’ I notice that she refers to China and Hong Kong as though they were different countries, there’s no thought of using “Mainland”. ‘So there were a lot of Hong Kong filmmakers who did not start these relationships, they don’t like to make co-productions because they want to make edgy films about zombies or vampires, or really violent action films – then they are lost.’ (Shi talks so quickly I don’t get the chance to admit that those are all my favourite sort of movies!)

‘But actually I think things ebb and flow. After a few years of groping in the dark, now it’s settled down and there are many young filmmakers, some who want to work in China – so then you have to abide by the rules and the ways of doing things there – but some say no, I’m going to make my Hong Kong movies, and as long as you have a clear budget and make a return, and don’t lose money, you can keep working.’ Shi is definitely someone who sees the positive in these new market opportunities.

There a movie out in Hong Kong now called Little Big Master, a real story about a rural school in Hong Kong that faced closure because it only had five students, all South Asian minorities; all run by one woman who acted as schoolmaster, caretaker, everything. It was made for very little money, the stars didn’t take any money as they were very moved by the story, it’s a very Hong Kong film, and it’s done HK$45m at the box office. That’s the kind of film that gives you hope, because you tell a good story, and it can do very well. And of course, because it has done so well, China will probably import the film, even though it’s not a co-production. And everybody that goes to see the film cries!’ She admits that’s it a little corny. ‘But now the school is not going to close, people who’ve seen the film are donating money to do up the school.’

The latest blockbuster she’s produced, Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, is based on a novel that became an opera and one of the ‘eight model plays’ allowed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was ultimately filmed in 1970. The lack of very little else at that time meant the film became renown as one of the most watched of all time, with government figures claiming a total audience of 7.3 billion through the end of 1974. Gloria wonders if that made it problematic to film. ‘No,’ Shi replies rather dismissively. ‘It’s just a film.’ As a co-production, it was privy to the usual procedures of censorship, at script and competition stages, but passed with no problems.

She concedes that many people didn’t expect to do very well. ‘There was a lot of speculation, because it was a very old story, and then because it was a Hong Kong director making a Chinese story which has very ideological sensitivities. But we just made a film, and when it did well we were very happy. Every year or year and a half I release a film, and I’ve been very fortunate because the box office is great. I’m so blessed! In my life, Aces Go Places was the first movie I was involved in in Hong Kong, and that broke the box office record, it was HK$30m. And now this last film was CN¥ 880m. Never in my lifetime can I imagine that I would make a film like that, but I’m already very grateful. So I now might be last years number three or four, but by the end of the year I’ll be number 10, because the box office is growing so quickly.’ Speaking earlier that day, she’d mentioned her 2007 film Seven Swords. ‘It was the fourth highest grossing film that year. Within six months, I was number 28,’ she chuckles, ‘because it’s just moving so quickly.’

Even the success of ^ has been quickly overshadowed. ‘Now Fast & Furious [Furious 7] has done two billion plus! Can you imagine that? Just in one place? And even now there are yet to be cinemas all over the country. We’re building 40,000 cinemas! It’s all happening too quickly. But I’m very glad to be a part of it!’

At that moment we’re asked to wrap up. ‘We only started in the 80s, we’re not up to the present yet!’ she jokes. Next time perhaps…!

Nansun Shi attended the 2015 Udine Far East Film Festival where she received an award for her celebrated career following a screening of The Taking Of Tiger Mountain. The film screens at the New York Asian Film Festival 2015 on Friday, July 10 10:00pm at Silas Theatre.

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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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