Q&A with Simon Chung
Q: As a director based in Hong Kong, did you have free reins to film “Speechless” in China? Where did you shoot the scenes?
I didn’t have official permission to film in China, so I just shot it the “underground” way. I shot it in a small city called Shantau, and in the northern part of Guangdong province in the south of China.
Q: Did you face any censorship by Chinese authorities on the topic of homosexuality?
Since the film contains homosexual content, the authorities would not have granted permission to shoot, and once it’s made, it would not be able to be shown there officially. Hopefully when it comes out on DVD, the people in China could access the film on pirated copies and online.
Q: Did you have official government permission to shoot the film, or did you shoot on the fly?
As I said, we had no permission to shoot. However, for some of the locations, we sought the permission of the relevant authorities, like in the university and the church. For the church we did not tell them about the content of the film, and the love-making segment was added on in post-production.
Q: Has the film been shown in China, and if so, what was the reaction of audiences?
I showed it at Shantau University, and the students had some issues with homosexuality. They couldn’t understand how the character of Luke would just go up there and pick up a guy. I guess they don’t know how shallow gay men (or men in general) are!
Q: How has gay life evolved in China? Westerners who have never been to China believe that gay life is mostly underground and secretive, except perhaps in the major cities. How realistic is the movie in terms of showing gay life?
The two Chinese characters in my film are both from small towns, and for such people, homosexuality is mostly underground. Some may not even be aware of their own sexual desires. Of course nowadays with the Internet people can read about such things, but it’d be difficult for them to find someone to have sex with, much less a sustained relationship. (Mind you, Grindr and Facebook are both banned in China.) Perhaps some will have furtive encounters in public baths or toilets, and that’s it. Most gay men and women in China have heterosexual marriages, even in big cities. So for Han and Jiang in my film, they would probably not have acted out their sexuality until they had met Luke.
Q: Talk about the casting of Pierre-Matthieu Vital as the “speechless” Frenchman found naked along a riverbank in rural China, and where you found him? Although he has no dialogue in the first half of the film, later he speaks in flashback scenes. Is he fluent in Mandarin or was that dubbed? And what about the casting of the other main characters?
Pierre is a friend of a friend of mine. He works in Guangzhou, 2 hours by train from Hong Kong, and makes frequent trips to Hong Kong, where I first met him a few years ago. He’s been working in China for 5 or 6 years, but in real life he’s not fluent in Mandarin. I gave him his lines before hand, and he practiced them with his Mandarin tutor.
The guy who plays Jiang, the hospital aide, is from Beijing. His name is Gao Qilun. I know him from another film he did for a Hong Kong director a couple of years back, but since then he had not done much acting. I flew to Beijing to meet him, but he didn’t want to be in the film at first because was trying to develop another career. And then the job he was waiting for fell through, and he decided to become involved in Speechless.
The guy who plays Han, Jiang Jian, is from Guangzhou. Aside from acting he also models and is a magician! The actress who plays Ning is Yu Yung Yung. She was born in Indonesia, studied in Australia, and now lives in Hong Kong. I saw her in another independent film called 26 Happiness Road.
Q: The plot plays out as a fascinating mystery: Why did this handsome young Westerner become so traumatized that he is speechless? How did the story line come about?
I think Luke was traumatized because he held himself responsible for Han’s comatose state. He felt that if it wasn’t for him, Han would have just went on with his relationship with Ning, and eventually gotten married. He was also hit by the realization that an innocent college romance would have such dire consequences.
The inspiration for the film came from the “Piano Man”, a guy who washed up off the eastern coast of England a few years ago. There was no ID on him and he refused to speak, so they took him to a mental hospital. He was given a piano and started playing, and stories became circulating of him being a musical genius who went mad, like the guy in Shine. In reality he was a gay student from Germany who had a mental breakdown. I transplanted the story to China because I wanted to see what would happen to such a character there. The film goes both ways: it is about homosexuality in China from a Western perspective, and also about Chinese perception of Westerners.
Q: How does “Speechless,” your third major film, reflect your evolvement as a director?
As a screenwriting, I was trying out different things with narrative structure, such as how the film shifts gear when Luke leaves the hospital, and again when Ning appears. Also I was playing with different narrative perspectives, such as when Ning tells her version of the story, and later on you see things from Luke’s perspective.
Q: How difficult is it for an indie filmmaker to get funding, particularly for movies with LGBT themes?
Most of my films have received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, but it’s not enough for a feature film. I had to get additional sources of funding, such as DVD rights.