Hong Kong female directors speak out
It’s the year of Hong Kong female directors. Leading the pack is Ivy Ho, director of the year’s big ticket film “Crossing Hennessy,” starring Cantopop King Jacky Cheung and comeback kid Tang Wei.
Ho has scripted 12 movies that span multiple genres in the past 24 years, among them the box office hits “Comrades: Almost a Love Story” and “July Rhapsody.” Her 2009 indie flick “Claustrophobia” also turned out to be a big hit.
Another Hong Kong female director to watch is 24-year-old Heiward Mak who wowed audiences and critics with her breakout debut “High Noon,” a raw examination of Hong Kong’s disaffected youths. Her latest work is “Ex,” starring a post-sex scandal Gillian Chung.
Finally, Clara Law is an established Hong Kong female filmmaker with a large body of work that mainly explores Asian migration and the identity of Hong Kong people. She typically appears with her partner and screenwriter Eddie Fong and the two often speak together in public appearances. Law’s notable works include critics’ favorites “Farewell China” and “Autumn Moon,” while her eleventh and latest film “Like a Dream” was nominated for the best director and best screenplay awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards in 2009.
CNNGo hears from the directors about their insights on just what it’s like to work as a female in Hong Kong’s film industry, dominated by testosterone-fueled martial arts flicks.
On being female:
Ivy Ho: I think I can speak on behalf of all Hong Kong female directors: we know our place. In big movie productions, all we’re supposed to talk about is romance. They’re even wary of letting women directors do screwball comedies because they think women can’t handle the vulgarity. Sometimes you can venture into men’s territory, like action or suspense films, but you have to try twice as hard.
I hope Kathryn Bigelow would make a difference but I doubt it. People said yes, she did it, but look at her film — it’s a limited release.
Heiward Mak: I don’t think I would categorize myself as a ‘female director.’ I think the film circle is very fair. It’s not necessarily split by the sexes. If someone thinks my work is feminine then that’s just their point of view. It is not a definitive judgment.
Clara Law: I won’t call myself a ‘female director.’ I think everyone has a female side to them, and a male side.
I think [the imbalance] is because of practical reasons. Women are probably not very interested in doing action films. In my case, I’ve never been interested in action films. I’m only concerned with finding stories that interest me.
On Hong Kong cinema’s future:
Ho: We really need new on-screen talent. All our movie superstars now are old. In the past few years, all we’ve been talking about is how to revive Hong Kong cinema, and so we neglected other things, like cultivating new talent.
Chow Yun-fat didn’t become a star overnight. You have to groom them, give them acting opportunities and exposure. The same goes for fledging directors. All they get are minimal budgets for small indie films. But moving from indie filmmaking to a full length feature is very different, it’s not an automatic progression.
Mak: It’s hard for new directors to get started in Hong Kong. Our market doesn’t support many middle to small-scale movies. Most of the movies out there are big budget productions, and they are not for directors within my age range and experience.
As a junior filmmaker, it’s hard for me to attract big actors to work for my films. I have to struggle to find people to star in my films. With “Ex,” I was really lucky to have Gillian.
Eddie Fong: The audience that we are facing right now is very different from 15 years ago when we were working in Hong Kong. Now, we have to face the audience in China. For example, our latest film, “Like a Dream,” is mostly financed by people from mainland China, and the major market for the film is also for China. We don’t know much about the tastes there. In a way, we are testing the waters with “Like a Dream.”
On aspiring filmmakers:
Law: As long as you are unwaveringly passionate about what you do, and that you are not attracted to film because of the lifestyle, the red carpet and the fame, if it’s purely and simply because you want to make films, it will happen. All our lives, we have wrote scripts and tried to make it happen.
You also have to be realistic about protecting your creative space. If you want a lot of money for your film, you will be left with little creative space. If you want to keep your creative space, you will have to make a low budget film. It’s a trade-off, a give and take.
Fong: My advice to young filmmakers is, you have to be persistent. You have to find a way to work with the market. Whether you are established or not, you have to face the same challenge for every film. You still have to convince the investors that this project works. It’s never easy.
On their next projects:
Ho: I hope I can direct at least one suspense movie within my career span. Not necessarily a lot of flying cars and action, but something that relies strongly on narrative and plot. Hong Kong doesn’t have this kind of suspense movie.
Mak: I’m writing a collection of short stories, which I hope to release at this year’s book fair. City Magazine is printing sneak previews of the book. It’s mostly a series of vignettes set in Hong Kong on the theme of loneliness and isolation, structured like the film “Paris, je t’aime.”