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Roger Lee interview: A not-so-Simple Life

We talk to Roger Lee, the writer and producer of the acclaimed A Simple Life which is now in UK cinemas, who based the story on his own experiences…

I’ve made my way to the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Mayfair to chat to the writer, producer and inspiration for the opening film of the HK15 Film Festival A Simple Life, Roger Lee.

Masterfully directed by Ann Hui (The Boat People, Summer Snow, Song Of The Exile), it recounts Lee’s experiences with his amah (a family maid), Tao Jie, after she suffers a stroke and announces she wants to retire.

With incredible performances by leads Deanie Ip as Tao and Andy Lau as Lee, it was easily one of the standout films from last years London Film Festival. And with a star-studied cast of cameos from the history of Hong Kong filmmaking, including Raymond Chow, Andrew Lau, Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung it seems an appropriate way to kick-off the HK15 film festival.

It’s not until later I realise his attire is exactly the same as Lau in the film, a grey shirt, fleece and chinos. By no means scruffy, it could be described as ‘comfortable’ smart casual, perhaps not exactly what you might expect from a high-powered film producer. A running gag throughout the film sees his character mistaken for an air conditioning engineer and even a taxi driver. Later at the Q&A (decked out immaculately in black tie) he admits that it often happens in real life, and that a recent addition is construction worker.

But that says a lot about Roger Lee: unassuming, relaxed and warm, but extremely intelligent and quick-witted with it. I offer him one of my new business cards, all backed with different icons from Asian film. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he chuckles, taking one with an image of Jet Li in Swordsman II.

Film was always a passion for Lee, but he was encouraged to put his talents elsewhere. ‘I never studied filmmaking. You see, in a Chinese family boys are encouraged to take majors that make money and become accountants, lawyers or doctors,’ he laughs. So eventually he became an account, studying business administration at the University of Oregon. ‘But all the time I still loved movies. I was making Super 8 films, and somehow they managed to win a prize,’ he adds modestly.

‘When I returned to Hong Kong a television company wanted to hire me as production assistant, so I decided to shift my career to the filmmaking business. And that’s how it all started.’

He directed television for a while, but in his own words: ‘found the stress to be too much to handle.’ He laughs, ‘I don’t know how to handle the actors!’ So he retreated to work a little more behind the scenes, editing music and even composing scores, before Terence Chang asked him to join Tsui Hark’s Film Workshop as an accountant, which neatly brought both passion and education together. ‘I became a general manager there, and Swordsman II was one of the first films I worked on. Then I was with [Ramond Chow’s company] Golden Harvest for over 10 years, and it was there that I first worked with Ann Hui on the film Summer Snow.’

Later, when Golden Harvest went out of business, he ended up working with Terence Chang again, on John Woo’s two-movie (and well over four-hour total running time) epic, Red Cliff. The first of several recent films based on the classic Chinese novel, the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms.

A Simple Life is the first time I’m telling my own story and really doing anything creative – and probably the last time!’ he laughs. It was the enormity of the Red Cliff project that in turn inspired him.

‘I was just exhausted after working on that film, it took four years of my life. So I decided I needed some kind of break, and I thought that writing would be kind of therapy for me. Tao Jie had just died during the shoot of the film, but I had been too busy handling the post-production and everything.

‘When I finally finished the film, I managed to sit down and wrote up a synopsis which was about some of my experiences with Tao Jie. At that point I didn’t really have any plans for it; I thought it might become a stage play, or maybe a TV episode. But I showed it to Ann Hui and she thought it was enough to be a movie, she said “let’s develop it”! I was shocked! I said it doesn’t have any story, it’s just continuous scenes between two people – but she had confidence in it.

‘So we worked on extending that synopsis, and I turned in a 16 page, scene-by-scene breakdown. And when we showed it to Andy and Deanie, both of them were interested in doing the film. Andy even said he’d find the finance for it. Everything just went beyond what we could possibly dream! None of this was planned, and to this day I still don’t know what’s happening, how good things happen like this, one after another.

‘In all my experience of the movie business, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not a commercial film. It’s about sickness, death, old age: nothing that a young audience would want. And nothing that mainland China would want, because they don’t understand old people in Hong Kong. So it’s against all odds that the film got made to start with, but now it’s got good box office and winning awards everywhere. You tell me what’s happening, because I don’t know!’ he laughs.

For Deanie Ip it’s been a triumphant return to acting that saw her receive the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup award for best actress, as well as various other awards including the Hong Kong Film Awards, Golden Horse Film Festival, Asian Film Awards and Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. It’s also a fantastic (if perhaps more subdued than we are used to) performance by Andy Lau. Must have been flattering to be played by Asia’s biggest male star, eh?

‘That was Andy’s choice, actually!’ Lee laughs. ‘He said we shared common grounds, but I never knew what they were. On screen, though, people say there is a resemblance.’ (And it’s true. Watching the film again that evening, I realise Lau does an exemplary job of channelling Lee.)

‘But Deanie was my choice, I always thought she was a good actress. She hadn’t made any movies for a while, but her and Andy had the right chemistry too.’ (Ip is Lau’s godmother in real life, and they played mother and son several times throughout the 80s.) ‘I think the film would have been very different if they had not been playing the leads.’

Did he ever have any other actors in mind for the roles?

‘No. That was our first choice, we didn’t approach any other actors. It’s like the project never met any obstacles. It’s not what I’m used to. Usually you get rejections from investors, from actors. Nobody wants to make the film, but somehow it gets made.

‘But not us! I think Tao Jie must be blessing us from above to make this project happen, like a force guiding the film to be made.’

The film deals sensitively but quite frankly with life in an old peoples home, had he meant to say anything with the film?

‘When I was with Tao Jie in the home, it was for about three and a half years, so it was like doing research on a subject for all that time. I got to see all these amusing things that were happening at her nursing home, things that you wouldn’t imagine, and I thought that I should put it on screen so that everyone should know. Maybe it’s a regional thing, something that’s only happening in Hong Kong, but I thought they were funny.

‘Thing is it came to a point were Tao Jie and I were stuck in a very helpless state, because we both realised that she was going to die in there eventually, so we were trying to make the best out it. Both of us were treating it as a life experience. And we began to find humour in what was going on around us. We began to make fun of the people there – not in a bad way of course – but seeing the funny side of a tragic situation; because all the people there are, really, just waiting to die.

‘You know the average time that these people stay at a nursing home is three years, seven months. Either they die or, sometimes, go back home. So with Tao Jie, it’s like the two of us were trying to make the best out of the last page of her life.’

Lee’s input didn’t end with the story. ‘I tried not to be on the set all the time because it would be stressful for the actors, looking to me for guidance and approval. I wanted to give Ann Hui complete freedom on what she does, but we have a mutual respect for each other, so we’d watch the daily rushes together and discuss how they were going. It was a very happy experience for both of us.’

Is there any scene he’s proudest of in the film?

‘I’m proud of the whole film, it’s hard for me to pinpoint just one! But I wrote a book about making the film, and in it I mentioned this one thing: remember there was a scene with a cat drinking milk from a bowl? As I wasn’t on site during the shoot, it was only when I saw the rushes that I realised they were feeding the cat with a cereal bowl that I used every day!’ he bursts into raucous laughter. ‘So after scrubbing real hard it’s become a dear part of my life now, as I know it appeared in the film and the cat was having such a good time with it.’

I wondered just how he managed to get so many big names from Hong Kong’s past and present filmmakers, many happy to make fun of themselves. ‘Some of them were friends of ours, some of them of Andy Lau. It wasn’t even deliberate, but Tsui Hark used to be my boss, as did Raymond Chow. So their presence means something to me.

‘They were only too happy to appear. They all trust Ann Hui and Andy Lau, and they thought it was a very precious Hong Kong movie to be involved in. So few Hong Kong movies are actually being made within the territory now – I guess everybody was trying to give it a boost!’

Some of the most tongue-in-cheek scenes in A Simple Life actually came from their participants. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows Tsui Hark appearing as a film director, Sammo Hung as action choreographer and Andy Lau appearing as Lee’s producer, tricking an investor into putting more money into the production as Tsui pretends to tailspin.

‘Actually the scene I wrote up was between John Woo as the boss and me, but Tsui had a better idea on how to present that scene.’ The line later on, when Andy Lau’s character complains about having to make yet another Three Kingdoms film, was improvised by Lau himself. ‘I think he was fed up of acting in all these epic dramas!’

With the festival celebrating 15 years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on how filmmaking there has changed in that time.

‘[Back in the 80s and 90s] there was more of a local flavour in Hong Kong movies. It’s regrettable that certain genres have almost disappeared, like gambling films, occult, ghost stories films, triad movies. So what we’re getting now is more of is the epic dramas that happened pre-1949. You don’t get too many contemporary movies anymore – especially being shot within Hong Kong, showing locations. And I find that rather sad.’

I mention to him that it seems like only a few directors seem really interested in celebrating Hong Kong on screen; directors like Johnnie To, Ann Hui…

‘And Derek Yee,’ he adds. ‘I think these three film directors try to make films in Hong Kong, which I would like to see more and more, if possible. But it’s a good sign that this year when I left, there were 24 new productions going on in Hong Kong.’

‘It’s been a while since there were so many productions going on at once in Hong Kong. And the reason is the censor permit in China is very difficult to get these days. If you make the film in Hong Kong you don’t have to worry so much about the censor problem.’

‘Some money is coming from China, so it has to be a co-production nowadays. Actually A Simple Life was a co-production; the money was from China. But if the film is actually being made in China, there are more censorship rules to adhere to.’

I ask him a question I wouldn’t like to answer myself: does he have a favourite Hong Kong film?

‘Well, the film I produced with Tsui Hark, Once Upon a Time in China (Part 1), is my favourite from when I was working at Film Workshop. At that time Tsui made a lot great films, many of them big box office hits, but part 1 is my favourite.

‘When I watched it for the first time I was just stunned. The end scene in particular with the ladders was just so much fun to watch – considering that Jet Li broke his leg before that scene was shot, and had to use a stand in for so much of it. But the Hong Kong choreography [by Yuen Woo-ping, Yuen Cheung-yan and Liu Chia-yung] is so intricate, it’s just really well done.

‘And then there’s opening scene with all those people on the beach. I remembered during filming that they all had to shave their heads, and get up in the morning at 2 am to get to the beach and catch the sunrise. It was shot in China because we couldn’t find a beach big enough in Hong Kong! But the music and images were so strong, and I love the art direction.

‘Most people like the second part, I like the first. How about you?’

Oh, he’s put me on the spot now. I answer ‘all,’ but admit I have a fondness for the third part, just because it’s so silly! (Sorry readers!)

‘That was right before I left. I remember the third part was the first Hong Kong film to be entirely on location in China.’

Lee may be resolute that A Simple Life will be his last creative work, but he’s not leaving behind the story of the amahs. He’s working on a television documentary for the RTHK, the government TV station.

‘It’s about people like Tao Jie, people who worked for families their entire lives. Most of them are now in their 80s or 90s. It’s a past tradition now, nobody does that any more – it was just people in the 1940s who came to Hong Kong to work in households, usually for life. And I thought they made a huge contribution to  Hong Kong society without being acknowledged. So I’m interviewing some of these people.

‘And some of these stories are really amazing. There was one who served the Japanese during the war, and learned speak and cook Japanese, and then she switched to a family that was Chinese and a traitor to the country. So there are very interesting stories about these Amahs who worked in Hong Kong during or after the war.’

‘I begin shooting in September, so I’m still researching it now. That’s my new job, before going back to accounting,’ he laughs.

A Simple Life is released on UK Blu-Ray and DVD on 19 November by Arrow Films.

Interview originally published 26 July 2012.

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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