'I Needed a Sophisticated and Charming Woman'
Director Gordon Chan on his latest film, leading ladies and why he hates Jim Carrey
By STEPHEN SHORT
Gordon Chan worked as a scriptwriter for John Woo and Tsui Hark before becoming one of Hong Kong's biggest commercial directors. For his latest project, Okinawa Rendez-vous, he persuaded pop star Faye Wong to make her first film since Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express in 1994, and to star alongside Leslie Cheung. He tells TIME Asia how the project started, what it was like to work with two superstars, and how he sees the future of Hong Kong cinema. Edited excerpts:
TIME: The movie premiere in Hong Kong on July 26 went well, you must be pleased?
Chan: Okinawa Rendez-vous is a risky movie, but the feedback I got at the premiere was very positive.
TIME: Parts of the film are very funny. Tony Leung delivers his lines like the late Walter Matthau. How long was this project in the planning?
Chan: Two months.
Chan: No, the whole thing from start to finish took two months.
Chan: This was a rushed project--one of those typical Hong Kong productions. I'd taken a rest after the film AD2000, and I was approached to make another film. I didn't even have a script in mind but the decision that drove me to make the film was that I wanted Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong to star alongside each other. I said from the outset that I wanted a very strong and very special lady.
TIME: And this was before you even had a script?
Chan: Pretty much, yes. I had some big ideas, but nothing on paper. And I wanted one particular woman. I talked to Faye and I told her I didn't have a script, and she said, "O.K., let's try it." It took me a month to scout for locations and write part of the script, then we started shooting. I was writing whilst we were filming. That's very unhealthy and I don't want to do that again. It was also risky, but then I knew the stars well, they were friends, and they trusted me.
TIME: Do you think that is why Faye accepted the role?
Chan: I think so. I think she liked the fact that it was improvisational. By the end, everyone was good friends, and making the film was extremely rewarding. Whether the movie is a hit at the box office, it doesn't matter.
TIME: Faye Wong is your muse, right? I remember the director Wong Kar-wai once telling me that Maggie Cheung was his muse. Any excuse to film her and he would?
Chan: Faye is a legend. She's not what you perceive she might be, some cool idol. She's playful, purposeful and I wish I'd had more time, not just for shooting, but to get to know her more. Then perhaps I could have got even more from her.
TIME: Leslie Cheung's a legend as well, isn't he? Everyone loves him.
Chan: He's been a close friend of mine for 20 years, so I can't look at him and think of him as a legend. He's so professional, so laid back and, like Faye, he doesn't overdo it. During filming there were moments when I panicked a little or was frustrated... Leslie was always beside me saying, "don't worry about it," and that was so comforting. He often pointed out things I overlooked, as well. He's very creative.
TIME: What if Faye had said "no?" Was there anyone else you would have considered?
Chan: Maggie Cheung. No one else. I'm crazy for Maggie's movies. Maggie and Leslie work so well together, too. I have never worked with Maggie. Twenty years and I've never had the chance. I'm still waiting.
TIME: And you're sure that there's no one else?
Chan: Yes. I needed a sophisticated woman who was also charming. There are a few sophisticated actors, but they're not always charming.
TIME: Was Tony Leung your first choice? It seems it wasn't an obvious cast?
Chan: Not at first. In fact, I originally thought he'd play Leslie's part and vice versa. The minute Faye said yes to the part and I called Leslie and told him, we both knew what made sense. And as they are all old friends, we discussed the roles very openly over a few drinks.
TIME: I like the slickness and compactness of your movies--First Option, Beast Cops. They make you different from the languorous Kar-wai and mythical, surreal Tsui Hark.
Chan: Tsui Hark's style is completely opposite to mine. We are very different people. And Kar-wai's the sort of director you watch and think, what on earth was he thinking. With Tsui Hark you tend to look and think, wow, stunning. I'm in between the two.
TIME: I was struck by the mix of styles in Okinawa Rendez-vous. It's emotional, it's comical and it's slightly Yakuza-esque.
Chan: Hong Kong movies seldom are luxurious. I wanted to slow things down, to focus on characters et cetera. That was hard to do as I've been doing mostly action movies.
TIME: Was it hard trying to find Japanese talent?
Chan: I couldn't find any at first but then we advertised in the local newspaper and more than 500 hundred turned up. They were all amateurs and, of course, they all became Leslie's friends very quickly. Japanese people are so different. They are so disciplined. If you tell them what you want, they do it. If you tell them what you want, then you change your mind, which I did often, it's very problematic for them. Hong Kong and Japanese minds are so different that way. So it was quite educational for me. In the end we got a little more organized as they got used to a little more chaos.
TIME: Who is the hottest "product" in the Hong Kong movie industry, right now?
Chan: Cecilia Cheung is great. So is Stephen Fung. I've been watching him grow and he's improving at such a fast pace. He's just stunning. Nicholas Tse is also very good, as is Daniel Wu. These are the few who are the next generation.
TIME: So are you depressed or quietly optimistic about the Hong Kong movie industry?
Chan: There are a lot of areas that are neglected, and while the industry is not yet truly bad, it's getting that way. I think the industry is experimenting right now, but creatively, we're still not on our feet. Just look at scripts: It's rare to see original writing because there's only a handful of writers and they can't service the whole industry. Co-funding would buy some time for the local industry and bring some confidence back. We should spend a little more time and money to improve the situation. I'm not that optimistic, but we have learned good lessons in the past 10 years, and we need to capitalize on that. Hong Kong is like a test bed for Hollywood movies. Its life cycle is five times quicker than the movie industry in the U.S. It's like a small Hollywood.
TIME: Would you go happily move to the U.S.?
Chan: Not sure. You'd lose a lot of your control and creativity over there. There's a trade-off, that way. I'm comfortable in Hong Kong, but I wish I had more money to shoot my movies. At least I'm doing my own stuff. In the U.S., a film is a product and it doesn't belong to you. You're just a label. I would love to try it, of course, but I think one would need a lot of luck. Someone once asked me if Hong Kong directors could survive in the U.S., and I said, "You're kidding? Hong Kong directors work in hell, going to Hollywood is paradise in comparison."
TIME: What do you think of Chow Yun-fat being in the U.S?
Chan: You know, I think he's been unlucky. In some ways, I've always felt that nobody's seen the best of Chow Yun-fat. I think there's a lot more to him but directors have not been able to get it out of him. Directors have always thought "part" first, Yun-fat second. I've never thought of him as just an action hero, but that has been his whole career. That makes it impossible for him in the U.S. because he gets these bit parts in movies like The Corrupter and Replacement Killers, and for me that's not his future. He has a lot of sensitivity in him as a person, so he should be used for that.
TIME: What's the most exciting thing happening in the film industry in Asia now?
Chan: It's happening in Korea. Korea is where Hong Kong was in the '70s and early '80s. They have the same pace, the same courage, the same blind faith. It's a youthful film industry there, and they enjoy freedom of speech which is rare in Asia. That's what helped Hong Kong movies in the first place. If we hadn't had freedom of speech, we'd never have had an industry. One of the reasons Asian film is growing now is because attitudes are changing and governments are becoming more democratic.
TIME: It's all well and good talking about cross-cultural movies but it would be pretty tough for a Hong Kong director to use a Korean "It-boy/girl." Am I right?
Chan: Yes, and you have to know the people you work with to get them to perform their best. It's more than just acting. To be honest, I hate acting. The best actors are the ones who never have to act too hard. Look at Henry Fonda. He never acted but people were so touched by him. It was the same with James Dean. You could feel the energy, the frustration. I hate Jim Carrey. He has so many facial expressions; that sort of thing should only happen in 3-D animations. That's not acting, it's just weird.
TIME: What is your next project?
Chan: I want to remake John Woo's The Killer. I'm trying to write it now and I'm trying to get Leon Lai to star in it.
TIME: Really, that seems odd!
Chan: It is a strange choice, as he' never done any action before, but he might be interesting for that very reason. Anthony Wong is also a possibility, maybe as his sidekick.
TIME: When will the movie be finished?
Chan: Maybe in six months. I want to take my time with this film. The thing that always distinguished John Woo's films was the quality of the production. In fact, that's why he went to Hollywood. Hong Kong couldn't afford him. He was too good for Hong Kong. Directors would be amazed at how long he would take to film individual gun-fighting scenes. Where most directors took one day, he took two weeks. I want to bring back the John Woo attitude to production, his influence to Hong Kong film, and all the people working within it. It's like a mission for me.
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