Tsui Hark: 'You Have To Touch People With Film'
The Hong Kong film director on sex, violence and leading ladies
By STEPHEN SHORT
If anyone represents Hong Kong's golden age of film, it's director Tsui Hark, whose latest cinematic effort, Time and Tide, is set for release later this year. In this interview with TIME Asia reporter Stephen Short, the so-called "Spielberg of Asia" lets loose on sex and violence in the movies, his favorite leading ladies and how the territory's film industry needs to reinvent itself to compete with Hollywood.
Hark: Sometimes you have to take a long break. I had been working nonstop for so long, and I think you have to get away from what you do for a while and get a fresh perspective.
TIME: Would you agree with Hong Kong film director Peter Chan who says Hong Kong cinema must reinvent itself to survive?
Hark: The whole entertainment world in Hong Kong is very unstable right now. Hong Kong cinema certainly needs to extend its creativity a little more if it's going to survive. The trouble is, you never know what's going to happen next in this industry, and this is a very difficult time. Investors don't want to get burnt. It's strange: People talk of the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema but, as a director, I was never aware of it. It's something that develops later on, not at the time. One problem right now is that there are less professional people around, caused partly by some people migrating to Hollywood to start new careers. I also think there needs to be a mental change in the approach to film. Several years ago, people just shot anything and that was enough, and some of that is now called the Golden Age. Now it's more to do with having scripts and, increasingly, "script" is the buzzword in Hong Kong filmmaking.
TIME: How did Hong Kong manage to develop such a script-less industry?
Hark: There are a few reasons. One of the problems before was that if you gave a script to an actor, it would sometimes end up in somebody else's hands, and no director or producer wanted that to happen. Or you would have a script but couldn't get the actor you wanted for it. Hong Kong is such a fast place--if an actor/actress that you want to use for an idea you have is available, then the script can follow later.
TIME: You make some of the grandest, most complex films in Hong Kong. I imagine you'd have trouble with scriptwriters.
Hark: Yes. My common experience is to fight with them all the time. As a result some people think I'm very demanding.
TIME: Some directors call you dictatorial?
Hark: Yes that too. But the creative process needs that.
TIME: Do you still have the pulse of Hong Kong? Is your finger on the hip button?
Hark: 99.9999% on the button, I'd say. Hong Kong doesn't feel alien. Being here is like being inside your living room; you can kick off your shoes and relax and take it all in.
Hark: The idea came to me about 4 years ago. In fact, I didn't have a movie or a story. All I had was the name Time and Tide. You know, it's a line from a famous song and it is all about how ideas change from moment to moment. It's a song I listen to when I feel depressed or very moody. I decided I wanted to translate that feeling into something thematic. It's a film about capturing moments. At first, it was a very simple idea in my head that I thought could be shot in two weeks. Then I came back to Hong Kong and realized it needed to be a bigger project to be a contender in the market.
TIME: It's certainly going to hit the market as you've got Hong Kong's current Cantopop "It-Boy" Nicholas Tse in it.
Hark: This industry is odd that way. When I first told industry people I wanted Nicholas for the role, they all complained. Now everybody's suddenly crazy about him.
TIME: Your films are drawn on large canvasses, seemingly full of messages, and feel like the combined U.S. Top 10 movies in any given week. Are you trying to say that much or are you just trying to make it all look beautiful?
Hark: I try to depict emotions and feelings but I'm not trying to tell people how to think. Yes, my movies are complicated, but maybe that's my own illusion and delusion. Perhaps I'm making a fool out of myself without even realizing it.
TIME: So you're not an academic dissertation industry?
Hark: No. Cinema shouldn't be taken so seriously. I don't think Hong Kong people, or any people, go to a cinema to learn, unless in a practical sense, you go to watch a documentary. Cinema is first and foremost entertainment, and its purpose is to fill those gaps of human feeling when you're bored and frustrated with life and want to feel better about life.
TIME: What about all the sexuality in your films. There's large dollops of homoeroticism, transvestites, snakes that become women and vice versa; there's always a hefty dose of erotic ambiguity. Sometimes your films seem to imply the world would be a better place without any sex or gender distinctions?
Hark: Certainly everybody relates to sexuality. As a director, that's a challenge to present to an audience. But then, there's not meant to be a simple message in it. It's meant to be fun, like a game.
TIME: Your films aren't exactly routine are they? You go for the magical, fabulous, absurd, almost silly sometimes. You're almost Asian Monty Python.
Hark: Sort of. What some people regard as the fun of living, I often see as vanity and pretension. My films aim to blast those two things out of the water in nonconventional ways.
TIME: In the '80s you were quite outspoken about Hong Kong people and their predicament. You said they had no rights and no voice and couldn't influence their future in China's shadow? Would you still use exactly the same line now?
Hark: Hong Kong people live in a bubble. They always have, always will. They follow trends. They love to gamble; recently it's a trend for dotcom culture. Housewives are buying stock and spending all their savings. I think this comes as part of being an immigrant culture--people have an ability to make money fast. In terms of having no voice, that's not just a Hong Kong thing, it's a Chinese tradition. Silence is golden. The modern lifestyle in Hong Kong and increasingly China demands a more democratic voice, but I worry how that works in Hong Kong. Even political figures seem to have no specific program or thoughts about how to run the place. They aren't conditioned to handle things by themselves. Masters of societies must learn and I'm not sure they have.
TIME: You're an immigrant aren't you?
Hark: Yes, I'm Vietnamese. My family migrated to Hong Kong during the '60s.
TIME: How old were you when that happened?
Hark: About 13.
TIME: You grew up in the Chinese area of Saigon, the change must have been staggering?
Hark: Hong Kong was a totally different world. It compared to nothing I'd seen in my life to that point. That's odd too, because when I went to Texas to study, everything was Saigon, Saigon, Saigon and Vietnam was the word on every American's lips. I felt instantly more at home there than I ever did in Hong Kong.
TIME: You really are thoroughly unconventional. Texas? I once heard that you wanted the John Woo/Chow Yun-fat classic A Better Tomorrow to be recast with a woman in the leading role. Is that true?
Hark: Yes it is.
TIME: Who did you want playing the part?
Hark: I remember clearly wanting Michelle Yeoh playing the Chow Yun-fat role. Rather than examine the relationship between a group of men, I wanted the relationship to be between women. From very early on, I wanted to do movies without any guys.
TIME: Hong Kong macho men must have thought you were a bit of a ponce?
Hark: I don't think so. People always said that I was a macho director and couldn't shoot female roles well in movies.
TIME: And what made you think you could?
Hark: A big factor was Sylvia Chang. It was during the shooting of Shanghai Blues in 1984. In that movie you've got women playing male roles, and Sylvia encouraged me to explore what females psyches could bring to a male persona. She kept telling me that females were richer subjects, more complex than guys and at first I questioned that. By stretching the dimensions of the gender of the characters in that movie, I realized she was right. Her thinking enhanced the whole movie and much of my thinking.
TIME: Do you set out to move people?
Hark: Drama is not what you put on a screen; it comes with the expectation of the audience. You have to touch people and the trick is to find a device that kicks people in some way when they're watching.
TIME: I'm always intrigued by your film The Blade. It's full of appetite and savagery, mutilation and homoeroticism ... again, it's got to be one of the most incessantly violent films I've seen in Hong Kong. Brilliant to watch, but red raw nasty?
Hark: It didn't start out that way, it just grew. I just thought to myself that war is brutal and violent and there's no point pretending otherwise. If you're a person who grows up in a world full of fighting, then that world would be full of tormented people with tormented thinking--a life with no guarantee of safety, a life that's perpetually fragile. Even a hero isn't a victor in such a world. There's no hope, no redemption, nothing.
TIME: That vision is black as hell. A lot of your films celebrate the lush in visual life, the aesthetic, but dismiss human life as pointless. You're a bit of a nihilist, yes?
Hark: No. Though I think as I grew into movies, that developed. It seems to blend into any film I make. I'm not always sure where it comes from, but it's often there.
TIME: Does anyone call you romantic?
Hark: My wife certainly doesn't.
TIME: What, you're not the sort of guy who goes out to pick flowers and then mount a white steed, haul your wife up with you and ride off into the sunset?
Hark: She'd like that yes, but it's not going to happen. But it's love and romance that keep you going. Memories are very important. Memories are the things you treasure most and in that way, they're more romantic and to me more realistic than real life.
TIME: Everyone in the West calls you the "Spielberg of Asia." I think that does you a disservice because it assumes your work has a kind of continuity which for me it doesn't have. And that's a positive. You're more complex than him. Who would you acknowledge if not Spielberg?
Hark: When I was around 15-years-old, I saw Yojinbo (The Bodyguard), an Akira Kurosawa film. He is my hero. I never expected to see a Japanese film like that. He presented so many images, almost like one long montage of a movie. The more I watched his work the more I saw it was challenging, experimental and groundbreaking. As a director, you obviously don't want to be like anyone else. Almost nothing you do is new; it's all been done before and that's a personal and emotional challenge to overcome as a director.
TIME: Do you look back on any movies and think, that stinks?
Hark: Almost always. And it's the movies I've just finished that I think are terrible. They get released, get a positive critical reaction, but I look at them and feel like shit. You wish you could start again and do it better. You can never tell with this industry. Sometimes when I think I haven't done so well, critics seem to love my film.
TIME: O.K., so what's the sweetest movie you've made? What gives you the most pleasure as a viewer?
Hark: Shanghai Blues. I have more affection for that film, than any other. It's my first film with my company Work Shop. I get very emotional when I watch it.
TIME: What's your next effort?
Hark: A sequel to my 1983 film, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain. I'm curious because the movie is full of fantasy and imagination; it's been a while since I tried that stuff. We will shoot it in Beijing.
TIME: What did you think of Jet Li, your protege when you were shooting all that stuff, in Lethal Weapon 4?
Hark: Pretty silly. I didn't think even look like a movie character. Seemed more like he was auditioning.
TIME: Is that the fault of Western directors who don't know martial arts from flower arranging?
Hark: Sometimes, yes. His character didn't have enough impact and that was due to the cutting of the movie. The editing was not always right in the fight scenes, the camera work too fast. Asian directors have a greater sense of a shooting pattern when they do martial arts and how to make it look more effective. You know, Jackie Chan is great at doing action that way. But even he needs thematic language to create. Have you seen Romeo Must Die?
TIME: Yes. You don't get to see the martial arts clearly and when you're watching a guy like Jet, who's the Fred Astaire of fight and action movies, it's disappointing. How do you think he feels about it? Have you discussed it with him over a few beers?
Hark: Not really. We don't have much contact. I think he's very happy though in Los Angeles, and with his career. He was telling a friend of mine the other day that at first he was terrified by America and that now he feels he can relax and he's not worried. He's a lucky guy. He can do anything he wants.
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