CLEMENT CHENG: THE 'GALLANTS' INTERVIEW (PART 1)

"Gallants", which opens in Hong Kong today and China tomorrow, is probably the most enjoyable kung-fu comedy made in Hong Kong since "Shaolin Soccer". First movie produced by actor Gordon Lam Ka-tung ("Infernal Affairs", "Election", "Vengeance") for Focus Films Limited (a film production, investment, acquisition, and distribution company founded in 2002 by superstar Andy Lau), "Gallants" stars veteran actors from the 70's such as Chen Kuan-tai ("Boxer From Shangtung"), Michael Chai Wai-man  ("The Club"), Bruce Leung ("Kung-fu Hustle"), Teddy Robin Kwan ("Mad Mission"), Susan Shaw ("Big Bad Sis") and Lo Meng ("5 Deadly Venoms").
It also stars younger talents like  Wong Yau-Nam ("Just One Look", "Ip Man"), JJ Jia ("Isabella") and the rapper MC Jin. Third movie directed by Derek Kwok after "The Pye-Dog" and "The Moss", "Gallants" is also the first movie that he co-directed with his long-time friend Clement Cheng, who makes his director debut with "Gallants". Enjoy the first part of an in-depth interview with of one of the most promising talent of Hong Kong cinema.

CLEMENT CHENG: THE "GALLANTS" INTERVIEW (PART 1)

Frédéric Ambroisine:  So the Chinese title of "Gallants" means "Boxing Ring"?

Clement Cheng:  It means "To enter the Boxing Ring", "To Fight in the Boxing Ring".

FA:  You know there is already a movie with this name?

CC:  Exactly the same, yes, by Kirk Wong.

FA:  "Flash Future Kung-Fu" a.k.a. "Health Warning".

CC:  Yes. 

FA:  Why did you choose this title?

CC:  Actually the original Chinese title is exactly the English title.  It means "The Gallants"... It was "The Modern Gallants"  but we had to change it; we couldn't use the original title anymore due to political reasons. 

FA:  What does "gallants" mean exactly for your movie? 

CC:  Exactly what it means:  people that are superheroes, people who are righteous, people who have a good heart, people who help other people, people who are respected by others.  So this is an irony.

FA:  You've had this project a long time.  Originally the story's background was music but you decided to change it to fighting, kung fu...

CC:  Yes, exactly.  More than ten years ago we had a couple of projects and one of them was the original idea for "Gallants".  It was not about kung fu, it was about a bunch of people who were in a music band back in the 1960's and 1970's.  After twelve years one guy had a stroke, and he suddenly realized that he had never done anything in his life.  He thought that he might die at any time so his last wish is to go back to his youth, find all his friends and do a last show.  Just perform one song, one last time.  For the past ten years we've been selling it, and nobody wanted it.  So in probably 2008, the people from Focus approached me and Derek.  We gave them around twenty stories and they weren't interested.  So we said, let's resell the story we have and repackage it.  Because people don't like music; it's not very commercial, I guess.  A music-oriented movie is not really appealing to a Chinese audience.  So we switched it to kung fu.  And that's where all the projects we did ten years ago come in.  We had another idea back in 1998 or '99, just a brief idea to gather all the action actors from the 1960's and 1970's into one group, and all the action actors from the 1980's and 1990's into another, and then they would fight. The people from the Shaw Brothers and the Golden Harvest action stars would fight against people like Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and all those people.  The people who were supposed to be heroes and protagonists are all bad guys, and all the bad guys from the 1970's are good guys.  So we kind of co-opted that idea into the music story, and that's how it came about. 

FA:  Did you go to many companies before you found Focus Films?  How did that happen?  Have the people from Focus watched the first movies you worked on [as scriptwriter] with Derek, "The Pye-Dog" and "The Moss"? 

CC:  Yes they have, and that's why the people from Focus asked me and Derek to present our projects and ideas to them.  When we went up there we told them we had about twenty or twenty five story ideas and they weren't interested.  In the end we talked about it and, as I said, we decided to repackage it and sell it to them again.  And for some reason they said "Okay."  I have no idea why.  Derek and I liked it very much, but we weren't looking for any big name actors.  Most of the protagonists are in their sixties or over sixty.  They're really old.  We loved the idea but it's not very common for a film company to invest in such movies.

FA:  As you said, you are lucky.

CC:  Very lucky.  If it were not for Andy Lau, this film would not have been made. 

FA:  Andy Lau approved it?

CC:  Yes. 

FA:  So you met him?

CC:  Not in the beginning, not directly.  He saw our story and he approved it.  The people from the office said, "Hm, this might work," and then they gave our synopsis to Mr. Lau.  And he said he liked it and wanted to give it the green light.  And, we were cool! 

FA:  This is a tribute to Old School kung fu movies, and we find some Bruce Lee elements, like his music and the shout.  You decided to choose Shaw Brothers kung-fu stars Chen Kuan-tai from "The Boxer From Shangtung". Is it a tribute to some movies in particular or to old school kung-fu movies in general?

CC:  One would say that the movie is a tribute to all of the kung fu movies from the 1960's and 1970's, but Derek and I weren't so much making a tribute to those films as it is simply in our blood.  We grew up with those films.  So we thought it was interesting and it would be good to share with other people who may not have a chance to watch them.  To us, it's a very interesting idea to have a storyline that asks, "What if the heroes back in the 1960's and 1970's were old?"  One of the elements that really intrigued us is this:  when Clint Eastwood was young, he was really awesome and everybody liked him.  You know, "Dirty Harry", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".  He was really a hero.  But when he got old I said, "Hey, I like him better than when he was young."  You can almost feel this energy in his heart.  It moves me to watch him.  Somehow that intrigues me.  We thought the story was pretty original.  Nobody has done anything very similar, maybe something like it but not very similar.  So, what if we incorporate something we like from the past into what we like in the present?  The theme, or idea, that we had at the very beginning is that we wanted a bunch of seniors to make a movie about youth.  That was our goal.  Not only teenagers have youth.  I think that if people who are in their 50's, 60's and 70's still have youth in their heart, they can still manifest it through something.  If only they have a chance, they can really do something about it. 

FA:  How did you meet Derek Kwok?

CC:  In 1997 I came back to Hong Kong from Canada.  We didn't know each other back then, and we both enrolled in a course set up by the Hong Kong Director's Guild.  They wanted to educate young people who want to be directors or writers.  They have a really intensive eight month course, and we met in the class.  We started to collaborate.  And that's how we met.  After that we quit our jobs and have been working together ever since.  We were art directors, writers, assistant directors.  We filmed and did everything together.  If we didn't have enough money, sometimes I would work to pay the rent and he would work in the movies.  Because movies don't really pay well.  And sometimes if I was doing something and we didn't have enough money to pay the rent or have dinner or breakfast, he would work.  So we alternated.  I still remember one time when we decided to start writing scripts, we had to quit doing anything for three months so that we had no interference.  One day when we had almost finished our third script, there was no money in our bank accounts.  Nothing.  Zero.  For both of us.  And we hadn't eaten for two days.  So we went around the house trying to find change.  You know, under the sofa.  Finally we found about thirty Hong Kong dollars.  The dilemma was:  should we buy some food to eat or buy cigarettes?  (laughs)  In the end we bought cigarettes.  (laughs)  And we didn't eat for two more days.  (laughs)  We had a rule, because cigarettes are pretty expensive in Hong Kong, that we could only have one cigarette after we finished one scene.  So we had to work really, really hard to earn a cigarette.  That's how we got started back in the day. 

FA:  What exactly did you do for "The Pye Dog"? 

CC:  I wrote.  I didn't have time to go to the shooting location.  I just co-wrote it at the very beginning stages. 

FA:  But you got credit for it?

CC:  Yes. 

FA:  And "The Moss"? 

CC:  I wrote "The Moss" and was the second unit director.  It was pretty hectic, and the time frame was pretty tight.  We had to have two camera crews, so I took over one of them. 

FA:  When was it decided that you would co-direct "Gallants"?

CC:  At the very beginning, when we thought up the idea.  "The Pye Dog" was started by Derek himself, and I helped him develop it.  The same with "The Moss".  He had a very concrete idea already and I helped him develop it.  But we did "Gallants" together.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shoot something like that because you don't see something like that every day in the cinemas.  It was a privilege, a gift for us to have a chance to shoot that. 

FA:  How did you share the work writing and directing "Gallants"?

CC:  The writing work is always the same:  we talk it over, we write scene by scene.  He writes one scene and I write one scene.  Afterwards we switch and correct each other's work.  And then we bring it all together.  In directing, we've been friends and have been working together for so long that we know each other's style and what we want.  So when he goes left, I'll go right.  When he goes right, I'll go left.  So we cover for each other.  While he's shooting one scene, I will prepare for the next scene and shoot it.  We alternate.  We both talk to the actors but we filmed it in such a short time:  eighteen days...

FA:  "The Gallants"?  Eighteen days?  It seemed like a bigger budget.

CC:  There was no budget. 

FA:  Wow, eighteen days!  Like one more day than "The Pye Dog"? 

CC:  "The Pye Dog" was 17 days, I think.  That's one more day than "The Pye Dog".

FA:  A kung fu movie in eighteen days?  Impossible! 

CC:  Nobody thought it was possible.  That's why it comes in handy having two directors.  We can do two people's jobs at the same time.  It takes half the amount of time to shoot things when you really trust each other.  And we really know what we want.   

FA:  Wow, I'm impressed.

CC:  Yeah, we had an extremely limited budget.

FA:  This is the first kung fu action movie you made, so how did you work with the action director?  How did you work the action scenes?

CC:  We had endless meetings.  From the time that we had the first draft of the script, we talked to Yuen Tak.  He was really the key man; without him we could not have shot it.  We were pretty green back then, especially me since it was my first time.  He really poured his heart into it and didn't discriminate against us.  He really tried to understand what we were trying to do.  So the choreography is really spot on.  When he first heard that we were going to do it in such a short amount of time, he thought it was impossible and didn't want to do it but we kind of convinced him.  He said, "Okay, I'll try to help you."  Eventually he did.  Without him we could not have finished the movie. 

FA:  In regards to casting, all of the actors are amazing.  Let's talk first about those from the old generation like Chen Kuan-tai, Lo Meng...

CC:  ...Bruce Leung and [Michael] Chan Wai-man.

FA: Who chose the actors? 

CC:  Derek and I.  There were two kung fu actors that we really, really wanted; we knew that we had to have them:  Chan Kwan Tai and Bruce Leung.  If they didn't want to do it, then we weren't going to film it.  In the very beginning we were writing it for them; they inspired us.  Before we finished the first draft, Derek and I went to visit Bruce Leung.  We talked four or five times about his kung fu philosophy and martial arts.  We flew all the way to Beijing to meet with Chan Kwan Tai.  He educated us about his history and his philosophy of kung fu.  We kind of incorporated that into our script.  Then, in the middle of writing our script we had writer's block.  We couldn't go on because we didn't know who was going to be the master.  We were stuck for two or three days.  We couldn't write anything.  We couldn't picture the master.  But it was funny because Teddy was always with us.  We knew him a long, long time.  He taught us how to play the guitar; he taught us a lot of things.  One day I said, "Hey wait a minute, maybe Teddy can be the master."  And so I called him and told him I was writing a character for him.  He hadn't done any movies for the past nine or ten years, so I wasn't sure if he was willing to do it.  But he has known us for a very long time, so he should trust us not to make fun of him.  If there is a good character, we would give it to him.  Fortunately he really trusted us.  When we knew that he was willing to do it, we knew how to write it.  Then the script became alive. 

FA:  Comedy is perhaps the toughest genre.  To write; to make it work.

CC:  To make it really funny, yeah! 

FA:  It's very hard because every comedy has a different sense of humor, a different level. It's a very precise job...

CC:  It's very delicate. 

FA:  There is some nonsense in your movies.

CC:  (laughs) Yeah. 

FA:  It's also touching comedy.  It's funny, and then it's emotional.  So how did you manage to make it work? 

CC:  I don't know; does it work?

FA:  It works!

CC:  It does?  Really? 

FA:  I'm a foreigner and I think I had the same reaction at the same time as the local audience. 

CC: Really? 

FA:  The chicken/duck scene- it works for me.

CC:  (laughs) 

FA:  "Gallants" is very funny and very touching at the end.  The writing has to be very precise, right?

CC:  When we were writing it we had one thing in mind.  I don't know if it's precise or not.  The first and foremost important thing is that we never, ever made fun of the people in the movie.  We're not making fun of them.  We're making fun of the situation, and we're seeing things through their eyes.  Once we knew Teddy was going to be the master, we knew how it was going to be because we knew him so well.  We know his timing is pretty spot on.  When we were writing it, we knew how he would say it and how he would act out the comedy.  So to us, it was not so much calculated; it just came really naturally.  I guess the thing is, the only comedy that works is based on tragedy.  If we base it on a tragedy and we laugh at the tragedy, then it will work better than just a pure comedy.  On the other hand, if we want things to be a bit more touching and emotional, we have to base it on something that is comedic.  Then it will be easier for the audience to feel and receive the effect of the emotion.  That's what we believe when we write.   

FA:  So what about the choice of [Michael] Chan Wai-man?  He doesn't act much nowadays.  How did you convince him to act in this movie?

CC:  It's a long story but I'll make it short.  There are a lot of legends and stories about who among actors is the best real-life fighter.  People say Bruce Lee or Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Chan Wai-man, Bruce Leung or Chen Kuan-tai.  Who can really fight?  But we wanted seniors, so we got Bruce Leung and Chen Kuan-tai.  So, what actor is the same caliber as these people?  Of the legends we have been hearing about for such a long time, it must be Chan Wai Man.  He is a really bad motherfucker.  I've seen his boxing matches.  There are a lot of rumors about him kicking people's asses or killing people.  So of course we had to have him.    

End of part 1. Interview conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine in Hong Kong (March 2010) and edited by Sylvia Rorem (May 2010). Cross-published on Alive Not Dead.


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