Monday, March 30, 2009

Coffee with Simon Chung Tak-sing

March 20, 2009
Coffee with Simon Chung Tak-sing
By Nigel Collett
Simon Chung's latest offering End of Love - both screenings at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival are sold out - tells the story of a gay rent boy who meets a recovering heroin addict at a Christian drug rehab centre.
It could be said, with only some exaggeration, that Simon Chung Tak-sing is a good half of the Hong Kong gay film industry (Kit Hung being the other major part), though exaggeration, as I found when I took coffee with him at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club, is not something to which he is greatly prone. He is as disarmingly modest about what he has done for gay cinema in Hong Kong in the last ten years as he is about the position he is currently achieving in the industry. His most recent film, End of Love, was shown as the preview at this year's Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and he is now in the middle of directing a half hour Cantonese TV drama entitled Guilt and Repentance (a straight story, this time, his first) for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). Local recognition is clearly following the critical acclaim his works have won worldwide.

Born in Hong Kong some few decades back – "No, I don't think I should tell you my age", he replied to my inevitable question – Chung went to school in Toronto, Canada at the age of fifteen then stayed there to major in film at the city's York University. He returned to Hong Kong to make videos for commercials and karaoke discs. In the technical department at Baptist University, he started to make his first independent short films, then took a Masters in Cultural Studies at the Chinese University. Now, when not behind the camera, he is a Research Associate in the field of interior design at a third Hong Kong university, Polytech U.

Since his four shorts, he has made two feature films, the earlier being Innocent, which was released in 2004. All his films to date have had gay subjects, and I asked him whether this was a good thing.

"Gay films are a niche," he replied, "but also a cage, as they limit how people see you as a director."

"The expectations of gay audiences can be a bit limiting too," he added. "Most young audiences are disappointed if there is no coming out story or a slushy romance; my films don't fit this paradigm. I don't just want to celebrate gay life with pretty love stories. I want to show the darker sides of gay life, and gay audiences don't always appreciate seeing that."

Though a gay man himself, and one with no hang ups about being out in any of the worlds he inhabits, Chung now feels he'd like to do some less overtly gay work. His current filming for RTHK is the start of this.

Chung started making short films as far back as 1992, when he made his first short, Chiwawa Express. Since then three of Chung's short films have been released on disc, two in the collection Stanley Belovedand First Love and Other Painsin 1998 and 1999 respectively. Stanley Beloved was also included in the collection Banana Queers. Here he was in good company, the other directors being Quentin Lee, who made the Canadian film Ethan Mao, Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) of Australia and Ray Yeung, maker of the British film Cut Sleeve Boys. Stanley Beloved has been shown worldwide and has won prizes in Spain, Germany and the US. His other short, Life is Elsewhere, made in 1996, won a prize in Japan as well as the distinguished award at the Hong Kong Independent and Short Film and Video Awards, which subsequently issued it as part of a collection on DVD.

Innocent, his first full length feature film, was in part autobiographical. It tells a story a bit like his own. A Chinese family emigrates to Toronto, where their gay teenage son (played by Hong Kong AIDS Concern's Tim Lee) undergoes many of the unsettling settling-in experiences Chung had gone through himself. The film was shown at Hong Kong film festivals in 2004-5, as well as gay film festivals in North America, Thessalonika and Toronto, where it won an award at the Reel Asian Film Festival in 2005.

Top of page: Simon Chung (left); above: screenshots from Chung's second feature End of Love.
Chung's latest film, End of Love, has yet to find a buyer and thus is not yet out on disc, so for those of you who missed it at the festival this year, I should explain that it is a study of some of the more controversial aspects of gay life, Chung once again refusing to serve up sentiment to his audience. This time Chung focuses in on issues like how to negotiate the boundaries of love and sex, the rent boy scene, and drugs and rehabilitation. The inspiration for much of the plot was the true tales told him by one of his friends, who is a rent boy but who nevertheless manages to hold onto a long term partner. There are no hard and fast judgments in this film, no heroes and no real villains (just a lot of weak willed souls like the rest of us) and life's messiness is reflected in the ambivalent way Chung treats his themes. He shows the good and bad sides of drugs – "drugs can be immensely spiritual, restorative" he comments, a view which has been unfashionable since flower-power days and one which he does not hide behind in the film, which also portrays the disaster to which addiction can lead. He is similarly ambivalent about the Christians who man the voluntary rehabilitation centres. These really do exist in some number in Hong Kong's New Territories. The Hong Kong authorities give those convicted of drugs offences the choice of incarceration in the hard government centre on the island of Heiling Chau or an easier life in centres run by Christian social workers. The downside of these is the expectation of conformity with the tenets of faith and submission to processes based on religious belief and prayer. Those who run these centres, though they see the world in the black and white terms which Chung abhors, nevertheless do achieve some good, their relapse rate, it is said, being less than that achieved by the government.

All this may make End of Love sound a very serious film; it is far from being a bore, of course, at times managing to be both amusing and arousing as well as provoking. The professional cast (only one of whom, I confessed to being surprised to learn, is gay) succeed in portraying credible, some even attractive, characters and in indulging in some very raunchy and at times violent sex scenes. The film's principal lead, Lee Chi Kin, who takes the part of Ah Ming, the teenager who is ejected from his home and ends up as a prostitute, came to the film from the making of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, in which he'd taken the part of Tony Leung's stand in during practice for the film's nude scenes.

Such professional actors and film crew weigh heavily on an independent film maker's budget. Until End of Love, Chung financed all his work by grants from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, clearly one part of the Hong Kong Government which is not afraid to 'sponsor' gay culture. Nowadays, though, the demand for grants exceeds supply and for his last film he was forced to finance part of the film himself. With sale and distribution of gay films being so difficult, making them is very much a labour of love, a fact of which the community, I feel, tends to remain ignorant or indifferent, but for which it is clearly in Chung's debt.

So partly for commercial and partly for cultural reasons, Chung's next film is likely to have a theme at least slightly outside the gay niche he has so far dominated in Hong Kong. He is not letting slip yet what his ideas for this will be, but the twinkle in his eye while he refused to answer this, my last question, indicated that whatever it is, his next film is going to be something as challenging and interesting as those with which he has entertained and stimulated us so far.

'End of Love' (in Cantonese ) will be screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mar 24 at 9.30 pm and Apr 10 at 9pm at the Hong Kong Science Museum Lecture Hall. Tickets are sold out. ae

Monday, March 23, 2009


多栽培娛樂片新導演 文章日期:2009年3月23日


















Tuesday, March 10, 2009



Monday, March 9, 2009



Wednesday, March 4, 2009


香港唯一參展作品,則是鍾德勝執導的《愛到盡》,電影延續導演對少年同志的關注,但是,當中不少對香港同志的描 述,實在沉淪得令人愕然。作為本土唯一的同志影展,選映有關作品,是認同香港同志圈的狀況確實如此可悲嗎?電影後段一場口口聲聲說愛你,然後作出的不安全 性行為,更是備受指責。正當影展近年透過舉行錄像比賽,並在世界愛滋病日作主題放映,藉以強調關懷愛滋,是次選映有關電影,着實是一大諷刺!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Survival of Hong Kong cinema rests with independent film makers

Survival of Hong Kong cinema rests with independent film makers
By Elizabeth Kerr

The concept of independent cinema is a difficult one to characterize. Most well-developed film industries comprise several tiers but few are as inherently mercenary - or independent - as Hong Kong's independent cinema can range from the one extreme to another. American filmmaker Robert Rodriguez became famous for financing his first feature, El Mariachi, with his Visa card and from the money he earned by volunteering as a guinea pig for pharmaceutical tests. George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - was self-financed to the tune of $115 million. By rights, it also qualifies as an indie film.

Hong Kong's industry is partially subsidized, similar to its counterparts in Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. It's common practice in most countries that don't have Hollywood's ready private capital and where filmmakers must rely heavily on publicly funded arts councils. Almost all films produced in Hong Kong are cobbled together with financing from an assortment of sources - be it governments , councils, or private business. In the wake of the first Hong Kong Asian Independent Film Festival (HKAIFF) this past November, the question arises, as to whether the independent cinema industry in Hong Kong is healthy enough to sustain, especially considering there's some doubt such industry actually exists.

In 2005, Hong Kong produced approximately 55 feature films, according to the Film Services Office - down from close to 100 a decade earlier. The way director Pang Ho-cheung (Isabella, A/V) sees it, "Since the close of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong movie industry is mainly an independent film industry." Some of that is by choice, some of necessity. "I'm an indie filmmaker. It's not a choice. It's a vocation," says filmmaker Simon Chung (Innocent). "My films so far, have dealt with subjects that may not interest the mainstream industry, like homosexuality and drugs." That's an odd position for a director to find himself in when almost everything produced in Hong Kong is "independent." The few remaining big players, or "studios" - Media Asia and Emperor spring to mind - are tightening their production budgets. As Lawrence Wong, chairman of independent distributor Ying E Chi pointed out in this paper in November, "investors are very conservative, and they count on formulaic box office hits." That translates to lots of starlets and boy bands, when not already committed to co-producing big budget Mainland-targeted epics like Red Cliff or The Warlords.

But as is the case in any industry, experiences and opinions are often disparate. "Hong Kong has an indie film scene, but not really an industry," theorizes Chung. "The Arts Development Council regularly gives out small grants to filmmakers, which are often insufficient for feature length projects, and filmmakers have to seek out other funding sources, such as industry investment or, more often, their own money, to make their films."

Producer Rosa Li concurs with both Pang and Chung ... sort of. "(I'm) not sure if you can call it an 'industry' but yes there are independent films in Hong Kong. By 'independent' I mean independent development, financing and production," she explains with particular reference to Kenbiroli Films, the production house she co-founded with director Kenneth Bi (The Drummer, Rice Rhapsody). "Several directors we know work this way. They develop their own material and seek investors on a film-by-film basis."

The state of the industry - or scene - is another issue altogether. Chung sees a silver lining in the current cloud hovering over filmmaking in Hong Kong. "In a year when the mainstream industry is experiencing (yet another) downturn, there (were) about a dozen indie features made in 2008." There is support for budding Johnnie To's out there, chiefly in the form of council funding. Along with the Arts Development Council, there are public resources to keep the industry alive: The Film Development Fund, while not new, received a HK$300 million cash infusion in 2007 and the newly established Hong Kong Film Development Council was founded to shepherd the entire industry with a more focused eye, toward long-term stability.

But many artists still rely on their own legwork. With council money usually falling short, as Chung points out, filmmakers need to be willing and able to tap a lot more sources. Li sees a future in regional co-productions, and Kenbiroli always puts together all its own funding. Pang, at his company, Making Film, is more of a fly-by- the-seat-of-the-pants type of director. "Borrowing Chairman Mao's words, we are 'touching the stone to pass the river'," meaning he prefers crossing each production bridge when he comes to it. "I think a golden rule for independent movie makers is that they should not be limited by (others') requests to create. Instead, they should be proactive in developing projects ... so that they can control the entire production till the end."

When it comes down to it, though, making any film is pointless if there's no one willing to watch it and those who are willing are unable to. Whose job is it to ensure audiences get an opportunity to see indie films? Ironically the independent industry such as it is, relies on the same fundamentals as Hollywood, Bollywood, and beyond. "Cinemas have to make money to stay open - it won't help if we have a lot of art house cinemas but nobody goes to them. Ultimately the films have to be appealing to the audience," says Li. "Nowadays ... (when cinemas) put on an independent film and the tickets are not selling well in the first two days, they will cut the movie.

Cinema owners would rather put on the same popular movie in all seven mini theatres," Pang agrees, before warning, "Of course, they can make more money but in the long run, this is not healthy." Pang's biggest issue with that line of thinking is the negative impact it has on the local industry. There's supporting evidence to be found in the 55 features made in 2005. Most of them were vehicles for moderately-talented starlets. With a shrinking industry, Pang believes content becomes a growing problem. For viewers, a clear Hong Kong cinematic voice is lost.
Chung, however, sees a larger problem, which he calls the cultural factor. "I feel that there are fewer and fewer people who seek out unusual or out of the way movies in Hong Kong," he states. Judging from the record-breaking box office numbers over Christmas, he could be right. "The cinema culture is very much about seeing the latest blockbuster hit. In other countries blockbusters also dominate, but not so much that they crowd out everything else."