Interview by Lara Melin Siggel, December 4, 1999
Other films by Stanley Kwan include Love Unto Waste (1986), Rouge (1987), Full Moon in New York (1989), Red Rose, White Rose (1994), Hold You Tight (1997) and The Island Tales (1999).
Bérénice Reynaud is now living in the USA where she works as a professor of cinematography at the Californian Institute of Arts. She is the author of the book Nouvelles Chines, Nouveaux cinémas (published by Editions Cahiers du cinéma) which gives deep insight on subjects and developments in recent Chinese-speaking cinema in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which she has been following closely for many years. During this time she also has been very active in organizing screenings, retrospectives and expositions of independent Chinese film.
participants: Stanley Kwan (Hong Kong), Bérénice Reynaud (France), Guy Livingston (USA), Lara Melin Siggel (Germany)
Use the BACK button on your browser to return to the interview text...
A Problem of MentalityLara M S: Why has Center Stage been released in France so many years after its completion?
Stanley K: Thats, I think, mainly a problem of the studio. Because they thought that they had a very good network for distribution. But they forgot that they know how to deal with commercial films (1). Actually Golden Harvest started with Bruce Lee.
I can tell you the very bad experience it was for me to go to Berlin in 1992. The film was in the competition. I just went there with the executive producer and someone from the Golden-Harvest-company in London. And I didnt know anything about the film festival, I just went there with the film and that two guys came with me. And as the film was shown in Berlin, compared to other films in the competition of the festival, there were no posters, no publicity, nothing.
So I think basically, the studio really didn't know how to deal with these films. Even when Maggie Cheung (2) got a best actress and aroused some interest from the distributors in Europe or other countries, then they would think: Oh, thats a film that we can ask a big amount for. And so it scares the distributor.
They really dont know how to deal with this kind of film. Maybe Bérénice can tell you more about that.
Bérénice R: I can tell you as someone who has worked a lot to show Asian movies in Europe or in America: When you contact the studio, the first thing they tell you is: Oh, its an old film. Oh, we dont have it, we dont know where it is. So first you are very discouraged. And then the second reaction is: Oh, a foreigner wants it so well ask a lot of money. - We want three thousand dollars for one screening. (laughs) It didnt happen only once, it happens all the time.
Stanley K: And even now - the company they deal with is called Media Asia. They hold the rights for the film because Golden Harvest just sold almost the whole library to that company. So now the distributor in France deals with Media Asia. And it was very difficult: They spent almost three years to get a good print from the company and they did not get any publicity material from the company!
They [Media Asia] didnt even tell me the film was shown in France. I met the guy in the afternoon the day I left and I just told him Im leaving for Paris. - Oh, what for? (everybody laughs)
The Media Asia people didnt know about it! (3)
Bérénice R: And Im the one who called Stanley to tell him his film was distributed in Paris, they hadnt bothered to tell him. And they hadnt called Studio Canal+ (4) to tell them how to get in touch with him to invite him.
Lara M S: So there is a problem of communication?
Stanley K: Id say its a problem of mentality.
Guy L: So who takes care of your trip to Europe?
Stanley K: The distributor.
Bérénice R: Not Media Asia.
Guy L: They dont really care?
Stanley K: They dont. But they know how to ask, you know!
Bérénice R: Oh yes!
Stanley K: For example for my next project they gave me a little amount of money for developing the script. And meanwhile, they ask me: Oh, since you travel along: can you draw some money, draw some finance from countries like France or...? (big explosion of laughter around the table) And then: Can you secure that some foreign buyer or a foreign distributor, they could... (The rest of his sentence in drowned by laughter) They know how to ask.
Lara M S: Are there big financial problems in the Hong Kong film industry? Wong Kar-wai (5) once said in an interview, that the constraints created his style, as they have little money and little time for turning in public places. Would you say that these are general problems for Hong Kong film makers?
Stanley K: I think Bérénice can say something about it.
The Decline of an IndustryBérénice R: Well, on a commercial level the 80's were the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema and the heyday of the studio system. For a film maker of at least moderate talent it was rather easy: You had a project and then you made an appointment with a studio boss and usually you could get a green light in fifteen minutes. You had limited budgets because its usually shot without sound or you shoot rather quickly because a lot of the actors are shooting many different films at the same time. Actors dont get as high salaries as they get in Hollywood for example, so they make a lot of movies. But you didnt have to worry about anything: You had the money, you did whatever within these limits. And then they had their own distribution network.
During this time you had people like Stanley, like Wong Kar-wai, Ann Hui, Clara Law, or Yim Ho who wanted to make a cinema that is a little bit different. So they were marginalized and they had to fight within the system to get a space to do what they needed to do. But they still managed to do it within the system.
And then you had the Asian economic crisis (6) which for a number of reasons has very severely constrained the Hong Kong film industry: First of all, the traditional market of Hong Kong film which is South-East Asia - Mainland, Taiwan, Malaysia, a little bit of Korea - has dried out. The overseas piracy afflicting everything thats left from profits made the studio system collapse. Shaw Brothers stopped making movies a long time ago, they switched to television. Now Golden Harvest is no longer producing. The only one thats really surviving is Media Asia.
But then you also have a number of small independent producers who may not be film people, they might be people who just feel like putting a little bit of money in a movie. Its not much...
So within the system people had to learn how to be more aggressive, to think in terms of production, pre-production, distribution, making a deal with - maybe - foreign buyers in advance.
So the paradoxical aspect of that situation is that the people who were the most affected by the crisis are the commercial film makers because they were the ones who were totally dependent on the South-East traditional market.
But the people who made art cinema throughout the years have been able to attract buyers, festival directors and international critics. So that gives credibility to a local financier whod say: Maybe if I put up fifty thousand some French guy will put up another fifty thousand and then they will get to do this movie.
Political negotiation - political conflicts - political correctnessLara M S: Has the cinema culture in Hong Kong changed as well, for example through political constraints since the hand-over?
Stanley K: I dont think so. Do you mean the subject matter?
Bérénice R: In terms of political censorship, there is no difference whatsoever between before 1997 and after 1997. The censorship committee that was set by the colonial administration is supposed to remain in place for the next fifty years. Because Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region.
In terms of dealing with Mainland China, they already had regulations about submitting to the film bureau the screenplay if you wanted to shoot in Mainland China or if you wanted to shoot in co-production with the Mainland studios or companies. And this is only applied to Hong Kong film makers who want to make movies in collaboration with Mainland China. But if you are French and you make a movie in Mainland China youre under the same regulations.
As long as Hong Kong is a separate political entity, Hong Kong films are considered as foreign movies which means that theyre not subject to the censorship of the film bureau, unless they are co-productions.
Stanley K: Right.
Lara M S: Do you think that Hong Kong film makers are privileged, compared to other Chinese film makers? For example in 1997 while Happy Together had a big success at the festival in Cannes there was another Chinese film, Keep Cool , that was invited as well...
Bérénice R: Oh, that has nothing to do with it. Do you know the story?
Lara M S: I know that the directors passport had been held back in the last minute by the Chinese government.
Bérénice R: Keep Cool is a film by Zhang Yimou. Another Chinese director, Zheng Yuan, who is an independent sixth generation-director, found a French producer to make a movie out of a theatre play he [Zheng Yuan] had performed in Paris and in Brussels, which is a story of a gay man who is arrested by a straight cop.
Actually the gay man forces the cop to arrest him and he tells the cop I wanted you to arrest me because I love you. And so the cop is totally lost, he doesnt know what to do. He tries to be very strict and then the guy starts telling him stories. And these stories are becoming more and more sadomasochistic. And every time the partner of the story is played by the cop. And the cop is more and more upset and at the end he forces the man to put on womens clothes and to perform for him and then he kicks him out and releases him.
The director, Zheng Yuan, first of all wanted to use the fact that this once happened. Because there was an organization to fight AIDS in China. And the only access to information they had was a questionnaire filled by policemen when they arrested a gay man. That was the only source of information about gay lifestyles! And they thought it was kind of bizarre. And then he also wanted to say something about the sadomasochistic relationship between the power and the citizens. Its a very abstract film, not realistic.
But the Chinese government was not only upset because of the subject matter, they were upset because its an independent film. And in China you dont have the right to make an independent production, but somehow it was a French movie, but it was shot by Zheng Yuan.
So out of spite the Chinese government said: Because you are showing this movie that we dont like, its an insult to the Chinese sovereignty, were going to take our revenge and well stop you from showing a movie by Zhang Yimou because we know that you like Zhang Yimou so much.
Lara M S: So its true that the Chinese government has power over Chinese films whereas they cant do anything about films from Hong Kong?
Stanley K: No, no they cant.
And you know, it's like this experience I had with Full Moon in New York - I got eight awards in Taiwan in the Golden Horse Award (7), including best picture. And I thought that was a painful experience. Because that year we were in the same nomination with A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien. I thought that was a game because some of the Jury members supported Hou Hsiao-hsiens films, and the others just hated Hou Hsiao-hsiens films.
Bérénice R: It was a political thing! (8)
You know, I met Stanley at that time, at the Award. And I had a lot of respect. I thought that Full Moon in New York is a very fine film. Its not in in the same league as A City of Sadness. And Stanley was so sincerely devastated, it was not a lie, he was very sad that he had got the prize that he thought was for Hou Hsiao-hsien.
There was another thing that I really admired you for: At a presentation of Full Moon in New York at a semi-private screening, there was a bunch of young students from the Taiwan University. And in Full Moon in New York there is a minor character, a woman whos in love with the Maggie Cheung character. And Maggie Cheung likes that woman very much, but she just wants to be friends. So this woman is represented as living an unrequited love. And then these young and very politically correct Taiwanese people attacked Stanley: You are presenting the very clichéd character of the suffering lesbian. You are reinforcing the typical representation of gay people.
And at this time very few people, only his friends, knew that Stanley was homosexual. And in public, in this very hostile crowd, Stanley very courageously said You know, you have the right to attack me, but I have to say: this character, thats me. How many times have I had the experience of being told by men Lets be friends! And I thought Oh my god, he has so much courage! He said that in such a simple, straightforward way. You know, I loved you from that minute. (Stanley laughs) Really! And these little boys and girls were ready to attack homophobia and then the man in front of them says Shes me! (laughing:) They had nothing else to say. It was beautiful.
Political SubtextGuy L: What about personal politics? Do you see yourself to as a political film maker?
Stanley K: I do not think that many Hong Kong film makers have a political awareness. But somehow were trained to do something... Even if you want to make films personal and not make them deal with a political issue, there will be some underlayers. We want to show a personal perspective of Hong Kong, about the political situation, but somehow not in a direct but in a subtle way.
So I always say, that if you are interested in how Hong Kong film is involved in that political East or something - even not obvious or direct - even some very commercial films like Stephen Chows films or Cheung Kin-tings The Fatal ...
Bérénice R: Her Fatal Ways, yes, "Do Do" Cheng (9). Its about a Mainland female cop who arrives in Hong Kong to solve crimes and shes very funny, shes a very good comic actress, but at the same time it makes statements in the guise of a farce about the relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland.
I think [Stanley's film] Hold you tight is also a good example of saying something about Hong Kong. Hold you tight is about various emotional crises of people in Hong Kong.
There is a young married woman who is very much in love with her husband but shes bored and has an affair with a young Taiwanese drifter. And then she takes a flight to go to Taiwan and the plane crashes. And her husband is left alone grief-stricken and he meets a middle aged guy played by Eric Tsang who is homosexual. And this homosexual man makes friends with the widower. And hes very generous and maybe he likes him but he doesnt expect anything but they become very close.
Then the young drifter goes back to Taiwan and becomes friends with a divorced woman who befriends him and eventually asks questions about the husband of the woman he was sleeping with. (And he met him when one night he had been sleeping in her home when he got drunk and he had spread perfume on his naked body.) So the woman, guessing his latent homosexuality, says: I think you have to tell him.
And so he calls him in the middle of the night and leaves a message, he makes his confession. And the husband, who is a very nice guy but not terribly imaginative - hes very straight, you know, in more than one way -, is completely shocked. And the only person he can think of to call is his gay friend. And he tells him what happened to him; just having received this confession of love. And they talk all night and they talk about love, they talk about relationship, they talk about accepting the others desires, they talk about accepting yourself, they talk about loneliness.
The film is not shot in a chronological order; theres a lot of back and forth in time. In one scene the woman in Hong Kong and the woman in Taiwan, who are played by the same actress, meet in the old Hong Kong airport, Kai Tak. And actually the divorced woman leaves Hong Kong to go back to Taiwan, but she misses the plane; and the other one catches the plane and she dies.
And then, at the end of the movie, when the two men are talking all night, they drive to the bridge that has been built between Lantau Island and Chek Lap Kok, the new airport. And this new airport was the center of a lot of acrimony between the British and the Chinese because the Chinese said the British had decided to make the new airport inconvenient to the Chinese people because its far from the Mainland. And they also were accusing the British of building this airport which is very expensive so that when theyd hand-over Hong Kong the coffers of the territory would be empty.
And its very subtle because the film doesnt say: Look, thats the airport! (Stanley laughs) But you have this sense of the passing of time, that these people are in transition because Hong Kong is in transition. And it doesnt say its good or its bad, it doesnt have that kind of a message but its there if you want to read it.
Like Stanley once said: It just happened subconsciously. They didnt plan to make a movie about Hong Kong but it ended up being a movie about Hong Kong.
Stanley K: About the identity: the young guy actually, he doesnt know if he likes men or women. He is the life guard of the club in that building where the couple lives. So when some guys who obviously are gay approach him he says: Okay, Im not that kind of person, so dont bother me. But somehow he got confused.
He isnt sure that he likes men or women. At the end when he met another woman in Taiwan who perfectly looked like the woman he had an affair with, the wife who died, and finally actually that woman in Taiwan wants to have sex with him. And she heard a little bit of that couples story and she brought him to a gay bar and tried to push him to the corner saying: Oh, theres some nice looking guy!
Bérénice R: She wants to know which way hes swinging. And he doesnt know at first.
Stanley K: And then hes drunk. Outside the bar finally he kind of confesses he was gay and asks the lady Dont leave me alone!, but actually he is not scared of being alone, he is just confused. And then finally the woman in Taiwan encourages him to give a call to the guy.
So many people said that Hold You Tight is a gay film: Yes, maybe. But the more important thing for me is that its about the confusion of identity. Finally, after the first final version of the script, me and my writer noticed that we put something in it which made that the film is actually talking about Hong Kong, not particularly only about these four characters.
Women in Chinese SocietyLara M S: Id like to talk a bit more about the womens characters in your films. You often show women who are in a sort of tragic situation, who find themselves in rather hostile circumstances which they dont control (10). Do you see women in a way as victims of oppression or as tragic figures?
Stanley K: (after a moment of reflection) Somehow yes. Something like in the tradition - you know, even nowadays in the circumstances that surround us - in our oriental or Chinese mentality somehow a womans figure is always in a - not tragic, its not particularly tragic but - in a...
Bérénice R: ...subservient position. Shes oppressed.
Stanley K: Yes.
Lara M S: Has that something to do with the fact that they are obliged to hide their feelings? Like there was a scene in Center Stage where Ruan Lingyu goes to see her ex-boy-friend and hes got this explosion of anger while shes just standing there and doesnt show anything: She has to hold back her feelings whereas he is permitted to explode. Is that sort of typical for a man - woman relationship in China?
Stanley K: (pause of reflection) I think in Center Stage particularly because of Ruan Lingyus character. But if you see Rouge or some others of my films, even women figures in the films - their situation is made of passionate struggles, but somehow they finally have their identity or...
Bérénice R: They have inner strength, a lot of strength!
Stanley K: Yeah, I always think that the womens characters have more potential of exposure. Theyre suppressed, but somehow at the crucial moment theyre strong, more powerful than the mens characters. In Hong Kong the critics always say that the male characters in my films are always weak and dull.
Bérénice R: You know, youre not the only one. Edward Yang (11) once told me he likes better to make movies about women because Chinese women are much more interesting than Chinese men, much more complex. And they are better subjects of fiction.
Guy L: And yourself?
Stanley K: (smiling:) Who can say that? (everybody laughs)
In fact, for Chinese families or even for Japanese families the woman always suffers during the marriage. Nowadays the young people, they easily get divorced. But for our generation or our parents generation the womans figure always suffers. But when theyre old the womans figure is always the dominant one in the family.
Film Making in the NinetiesGuy L: You asked your actresses in the movie [Center Stage] twice: Would you like to be remembered in fifty years? or How would you like to be remembered in fifty years? What about yourself?
Stanley K: Oh, I dont care. I asked this question because I thought of the fact that for our generation Ruan Lingyu is really a legend. No matter that some people just remember her by her dramatic death but for me - somehow we remember different things.
No, I dont care. Maybe ten years ago I cared. But after all these years, especially 95/ 96 when I did Yin and Yang, and then I made Hold You Tight and The Island Tales, I have changed. Im more relaxed.
But relaxed means for me I have to keep on making films. I want to make films! Because now, Im forty-two. I felt really different when I was an assistant director. I worked continuously like thirty and something hours and I felt - good, but not this good. So instead of making one film in two years, maybe in the near future I will make two films a year. But I relax. I want to make more but with a totally different attitude. And actually Im glad to have changed like this.
Bérénice R: But for a while Stanley didnt make feature films. He made shorts and documentaries. And maybe a question would be: what did you learn as a film maker when you had to start working on the short form or making documentaries, did that change your idea of cinema?
Stanley K: So, in 95 and 96, actually I didnt make any feature. During these two years I just thought Id love to do that or that project but somehow I couldnt say : Just do it without money. For the sake of living I made a new documentary about the hand-over - A Personal Memoir of Hong Kong: Still Love You After All These Years - for Taiwan Television and I made some commercials and some short films for a radio station called RTHK and a documentary about the Mainland actress Siqin Gaowa for STAR TV in Hong Kong.
Then I knew some independent film makers and they asked me for help like being their executive producer and try to raise some more money because they got little amounts of money from the government. For example, in 1998 I was the executive producer for Love will tear us apart (12) and the director Nelson Yu (13) just got like 400 000 Hong Kong [Dollars] from the Hong Kong government. But he wanted to make a 35 [mm] feature film and that little amount of money was not enough.
So somehow hed like to work with Tony Leung Kar-fai (14). And as an executive producer I just put them together. And we could work because Tony Leung didnt take any money before the film and then he just got shares. So it works out like this.
And by the work with those independent film makers I realized that they have some knowledge about how to deal with the finances, how to deal with the distributors in advance, before they make the film. And I didnt know anything about it because I was used to the [studio-] system.
And also in these two years with those documentaries I had to deal with the British Film Institute to get the money. I had to organize the production, manage how to set up the contract with the BFI. I hadnt done this before. With Golden Harvest for Center Stage or for Rouge, I just got the money, got the approval and made the film.
Bérénice R: You once told me that when you were working on Too Happy for Words, which is a short film of ten minutes, that the financiers gave you a little bit of money but if youd lose that money theyre not upset because its so little money. So you were very free to experiment. And its a movie which, in terms of narration, I wouldnt be able to tell you what it is about. It is very very broken, its very experimental, and you just had fun experimenting with sound and image and words. And this is something you could never have done with a feature.
Stanley K: Yeah. So I learnt from the documentary, from the short film that Bérénice mentioned and from the cooperation with the independent film makers in Hong Kong.
Bérénice R: And I think Full Moon in New York was an important film in your career because you shot in a foreign country, you had extreme limits, these people who cheat you and told you theyd do something to get more money.
Stanley K: It was a very good lesson for me to understand my ability.
You know, lets say that for me maybe in the future I would not like to do anything far from me. Even Full Moon in New York is a story about Chinese living in New York but still - you know - far from me.
Guy L: So whats the new film about?
Stanley K: The Island Tales is actually the second film of me and my writer (15). So when we found out Hold You Tight is something about Hong Kong, we thought why dont we do a trilogy: three films of Hong Kong continuously? The Island Tales is set on a small island. Thats to say we shot it on Lamma Island.
Bérénice R: Lamma Island is the second biggest of the outlying Hong Kong islands. But they shot it in such a way that you cant recognize it. And they shot other parts in other islands. So its impossible, even if you know Hong Kong, to know: this is for sure Lamma Island. They wanted to have an abstract island.
Stanley K: Thats right. And we didnt mention anything about Hong Kong, we just said the government of this place. So the film is about a quarantine of this small island. Some virus is spreading out from that island. And the whole story is just about like 18 or 19 hours during the quarantine.
So different characters, foreign characters stuck on the island go nuts. There is a Japanese woman who just happened to be on an occasional visit on the island, got stuck and she died - not because of the virus, because of a heart attack. But somehow the death makes these several characters get together and the whole film is talking about their interaction.
Its a description of different characters: their response to the death case, their response to the quarantine, their response to sharing the night, the time and all that. Another character, she had met an English guy, the night before, who runs a little bar on the island. And after they had slept together the guy left to the town to buy something. So the girl was left behind on the island. And during the film shes actually always asking Did David call me? so the audience knows this is a British guy. So we chose something like this.
The Island Tales is actually fully financed by Japanese money and under the same umbrella, lets say, they put an amount of money to finance three individual features from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. The Taiwanese director is Edward Yang, who made A Brighter Summer Day and Taipei Story, and Iwai Shunji from Japan, who made Love Letter and Swallowtail, made the Japanese part. So these three films, thats not the same film. They are three totally individual features.
Guy L: Are they connected in content?
Stanley K: Yeah, some subjects like about Asian values. We have to deal with the difference to a place like Japan, Taiwan, Mainland, Korea... Were so close. Its not like Hong Kong - Paris: theyre far. So somehow we have many things in common as Orientals but we also have many things in difference. And the three features turn around a subject like this.
Lara M S: Talking about Asian values, dont you think that problems or subjects, which the - lets say - new generations of movie-goers are interested in or concerned with, are becoming more and more the same in urban cultures all over the world?
Stanley K: To a certain extent: yes, I think.
Lara M S: Im thinking of Made in Hong Kong by Fruit Chan, a film which deals very much with problems like unemployment, and this feeling of being lost of the younger generations that you can also find in big cities in Europe or in America, for example. It seems that it has become very close, actually.
Stanley K: Well, I always have reservation about, you know, when people talk about unemployment and being lost: why are the persons always in the lower class?
Why always focus on them?
Bérénice R: Why is it that the middle class is not represented? The problem is that, you know, your problem only affects people who are from the same social class.
Stanley K: Thats just what I wanted to say.
Guy L: I know were running out of time, but theres one question I always like to ask at the end of an interview. Its the desert-island-question. If you had to go to a desert island and you could take up to ten video tapes with you: what films would you take?
Stanley K: Thats Tokyo Story by Ozu. In my life Ozus Tokyo Story is always the number one.
© Lara Melin Siggel for Paris Transatlantic Magazine, 2000
Stanley Kwan refers to the difference between commercial film and independent or art film. The big studios like Golden Harvest, Shaw Brothers and Media Asia used to produce an enormous number of action films and comedies which they successfully exported to other South-East Asian countries.
Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, who plays the main part in Center Stage, is one of Asias biggest film stars. Since the beginning of the eighties she has played in about 80 films!
A couple of days later Bérénice Reynaud tells me on the phone that Media Asia is actually the best functioning company: the others are worse!
the French distributor
Hong Kong director of independent films like Ashes of Time, As Tears Go By, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together
The problems start in 1992, as Hong Kong films are more and more driven back by American films, followed by the crash in 1997.
the Taiwanese equivalent to the Oscars
It seems that the subject of A City of Sadness not being politically convenient, the jury chose to give the prize to Stanley Kwan in order to avoid conflicts with China - even though everybody (Stanley Kwan included) thought that A City of Sadness was a real chef-doeuvre and the best film of the year.
Carol Do Do Cheng Yu-ling is the name of the actress playing the policewoman Cheng Shih-nan.
I was particularly thinking of Center Stage, Love Unto Waste and Red Rose, White Rose...
Edward Yang Dechang is one of the most important Taiwanese directors, see also p.10.
The film got the Palme dOr at the Cannes festival in 1999.
Stanley Kwan worked with Tony Leung Kar-fai in Center Stage.
Jimmy Ngai Shiu-yan wrote the screenplay for Hold You Tight.
|Interview copyright 2000 by Lara Melin Siggel, Film Editor. Paris Transatlantic Magazine, Winter 2000. Other links here at Paris Transatlantic Magazine: Interviews with Peter Greenaway, Eugene Chadbourne and Fred Frith; funny and trenchant quotations from Morton Feldman himself; reviews of Feldman's concerts in Paris in 1996; CDs from Mode Records, and of course lots more on our home page.|