NYAFF 2011: An Interview With Tsui Hark

[This interview with the Hong Kong maestro goes up under the NYAFF banner, as that is where Diva Velez sat down with Hark earlier this month. And for those wondering why there is no Detective Dee talk, the PR folks asked that we hold off on that until the film's American release in September. Fortunately Hark had PLENTY else to say. This is Cross-published at The Diva Review]

The Lady Miz Diva:  You're here at the New York Asian Film Festival receiving the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award.  How do you feel about receiving this honour from your American fans?
 
Tsui Hark:  I am very cautious with the words, "lifetime achievement."  My impression of "lifetime achievement" means you're done with everything.  But then you're receiving one in the middle of your career.  I'm not very sure how we're going to look at this thing?  I was wondering would there be another lifetime achievement from the same place?  So, this is something for me to really get used to.  I always feel kind of shocked to receive one.  Does it mean the end of my career?
 
LMD:  The audiences that have come to see your films at the festival are literally all ages and races.  Have you ever thought about what is the universality or common thread that brings these different types of people to your films?
 
TH:  This is a very big question, because quite a long, long time ago we {In the HK film industry} had some sort of moment of trying to study something like that.  We tried to study universal elements of film.  Every time we create something we try to figure out what is the universal element?  But then, it's not easy to think creatively when you have so many calculations in your mind.  The best thing actually to do is write according to what you feel.  If you feel your heart would take you to the point where you would want to express something to do with the story or the film.  Sometimes it's not the story; sometimes it's the way you tell the story.  Sometimes it's the attitude you have with the story.  The attitude is something you build and you accumulate for a long time for no reason and no logic, it's there.  When you write that way, you might want to make it that way. Sometimes you are not consciously there, but after a while if you are on the set or after editing, you will suddenly think, 'I want to do something like this,' and you might change the original idea or something like this.

So that's why I think when I watched {Akira} Kurosawa's movies, I never thought, 'This is a Japanese movie.'  I always thought it was a human story.  It's always about everybody.  So that it's something like a direction I learned from these mentors, because I think the reason they became such wonderful directors is because they make movies where there's no barrier in terms of culture or history.  It's very easy to get involved and understand the story, so I have never had any idea how you would define that.
It's the same thing when you think of making films that are either commercial or artistic.  For me, being commercial is very basic because you need the box office record in order to keep the investor surviving in this industry.  But then, you need to be different.  You need to be outstanding in terms of film; how you make films in a way that people think you're a great filmmaker. 

So we cannot separate these two things.  So that's why when we start doing something, we always think about how this movie will move me, as the first audience.  If this movie doesn't move me as an audience, then definitely there will be some problems in a theatre, asking the public to react to your movie.
 
LMD:  You have a very devoted following of western fans, which is unusual because not many of your films have actually played in cinemas here. Does the strong fan following surprise you?
 
TH:  Yeah, it is kind of surprising for me. {Laughs}  I think as a filmmaker, you tend to be shy from the public, because supposedly you are doing something to show them, but you don't want to show them your actual self.  I think as filmmakers, we all want to play that kind of game, that's why I kind of avoid thinking about it.  But if you see there's a very, very passionate response to the movie, of course you feel very pleased and very proud of the work, but then other than that, I think we're very shy.  Filmmakers are very shy people.  They're not thinking about whether they should do something about it or not, but it's a very proud feeling to know there are so many people who support your movie.
 
LMD:  Is there any genre that you're interested in that you haven't tried yet?
 
TH:  I've always wanted to do a documentary.  Actually, when I was in New York, I worked in a New York documentary production house called New York Films; I don't know whether they're still around or not.  I want to do a documentary, because I think it's quite different stuff.  You know when you watch a movie, you can always step back; you can always say this is only a movie, but documentary is not just a movie. Documentary is real.  Of course, documentaries can be manipulated; sometimes it doesn't have to be all real information, but then it's not performance.  It's something you recorded from people, you recorded from that time to remain as something that you wanted to tell the people.  So this is something that I always wanted to work on.
 
LMD:  Is there a subject you had in mind?
 
TH:  A few years ago, I was asked to do an Asian-American historical documentary.  I was very interested, and I think we need to talk about it more in detail, but I'm very interested in doing it.
 
LMD:  Of so many things I admire about you as a director, one of the foremost is the portrayal of women in your films.  Your female characters are smarter, they're all strong, they aren't plot devices that constantly need rescuing.  I wonder why as a filmmaker that was important to you to include in your films and where you got that influence and insight?
 
TH:  This thinking has been with me for a long time because I've actually separated this in different stages in my attempt to create female characters.  In the very early period when I was still a student in school, or before that, I always felt that Asian filmmakers always had a problem handling female characters.  I don't know if maybe they came from the tradition of action movies should be male characters.  All male and not women. That's why whenever they have a woman character; they don't know how to handle this character.  And sometimes the story is very boring and predictable because the woman always stayed home waiting for the man to fight the big battle and come back.  Or either the woman will be stuck in something very dangerous, so the man will save the woman.  This kind of cliché is like a taboo for me not to follow this tradition anymore.  I think it became so boring that if you want to do a movie, you simply exclude the woman part then you shoot the man's story.  Then if you don't do the woman's part, you show all your weakness in handling characters of the opposite sex.  

So after my student years, I got to working in television, I got a script in my hand and I started doing production, I felt like that type of problem did not exist until I got into the film business.  Again, we went back to the situation that they didn't know how to handle the women's parts.  So eventually in the seventies, and even in the early eighties, we had a lot of movies that have guys doing a lot of things; they're flying in the air, they go through the mountain, they're moving the house, but then the women have nothing to do.  That was something weird.  And as a result of that phenomenon, a lot of actresses were not as well used as the actors.  So, I think 1984 was a very critical moment when I decided to write about women and simply ignore the men's characters for one project that was called Shanghai Blues.  I know so many friends that were actresses like Brigitte Lin and they felt very frustrated for having no scripts written about women.  That's why after all these experiences with these people; I decided to start making movies with these people being the priority character of the story.

So that started from there; that was a critical moment.  I was experimenting with a lot of ways to write about them, even though I know there's a lot of conversation about women directors who shoot about women's roles, or male directors shooting women's roles.  My reaction to that issue is I try to show my view of women in my story, and I appreciate women directors that show the sensitivity of women's roles.  But I think I'm trying to do something where the women are less predictable and a stronger character.  In my action movies, that makes the movie more interesting than just seeing the movie as what we have seen before in the past.
 
LMD:  You mentioned Brigitte Lin, who is one of my favourite actresses you've worked with.  She came to the New York Film Festival a couple of years ago and now we hear about her coming out of retirement.  Have you spoken to her about working together again?
 
TH:  Last year we almost decided on something to do together with Wong Kar-wai, because Wong Kar-wai and Brigitte and I were trying to find a project to work together, but that was last year.  But then Wong Kar-wai was very busy doing his movie now {The Grandmasters}.  I'm waiting for them as a matter of fact! {Laughs} 
 
LMD:  I always find your choice of camera shots interesting.  I can always see the action in your films, as opposed to a lot of today's filmmakers who use quick cuts, tight close-ups and constantly move the camera in ways that take away the impact.  Can you talk about how you frame your shots?
 
TH:  I think I try several styles, not just one.  For example, in The Blade, I tried to do something authentic or realistic in a way; less shots with supernatural movements like jumping off the ground to an exaggerated height.  The limits of the power of the character would also create a system that would generate a style in itself, so this is what I tried in The Blade.  Also another style in Seven Swords; I tried to do something that was not as surrealist as we have seen before.  Wong Fei Hung - Once Upon a Time in China also has one style.

In all these styles, they have several directions in terms of aesthetics, like my preference of depicting action is to have a lot of "soft cuts", which means that when I show action, I don't want to show extreme angles of doing something, so that you are very confused when watching it.  Unless you have a problem: If you have a problem depicting action, you try to make it so jarring that the audience will not be very clear about the thing on the screen.  If that was the intention, I'm not against it.  I think movies -- in terms of narrative and the effects on a shot -- you can always use all kinds of methods and tools you have in your hand to make the movie effective to show to the audience.  I always view my action attempts like doing a comic book:  Doing a comic book, sometimes you want to create some very wonderful, surreal or romantic, poetic things about your action.  

Because in the style of doing action movies, there are several directions you can choose.  I always say you can always do a very, very technically difficult piece of action to show the audience how great this actor can be.  Like Jackie Chan; you would show how good Jackie can be because he's very good in action.  So you would create a lot of designs that would show his action skills.  Another way of doing it is you try to be very romantic and poetic about the action part.  Action is not just by itself; action always comes with a story, it also comes with a style, it comes with extra information about what the director wants to show to the audience.  These sorts of things are always with me.  Whenever I have an idea, I always have to decide first what I want to do with this story, or this movie, or this kind of material.  I always think that if you adapt a story from a novel and the novel already has a unique world of its own, then you have to design that unique world with a kind of an individual, unique style for the story, so that the movie will stand out by itself.  You see, I always have a problem where if I have a story of a different style, using the same choreographer; they will come up with the same style of fighting.  It looks very boring in the long run.
 
LMD:  That leads into my question about working with action choreographers, because you've worked with the best; Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping and Ching Siu-tung amongst others.  What is the process of collaboration with these gentlemen that makes an effective or beautiful action scene?
 
TH:  I think every action choreographer has a different way of working. {Laughs} Ching Siu-tung, I've known him since the TV productions 'cos we worked together.  I tell this story about Ching Siu-tung: The first time I made a wuxia TV show, I didn't know I'd actually have an action choreographer.  I remember the first day of shooting, I was on location in Korea and I took a whole bunch of people, actors and camera people over to Seoul, and the first day of production they asked me, "Who's the action choreographer?" I say, "I don't have one."  They said, "Who's going to do the designing and show us how to do the action?"  I said, "Me!" {Laughs}  They asked me, "Do you know how to fight?"  I said, "No!" {Laughs}  But the action turned out to be quite interesting and that's why suddenly everybody was talking about "Tsui Hark style." 

But then when I came back from Korea, I was cutting my sequences in the editing room very late because in the daytime they were very fully booked editing different shows.  So I was editing my show at 2 or 3 in the morning and I found one person always behind me watching me edit my sequences.  After a couple of nights, I turned back and asked, "Is there anything I can help you with?" and the guy said, "Can I watch you editing your stuff?" and I said "Cool."  The guy said, "I'm Ching Siu-tung" That's how I met him!  Then he said "Can you look at my stuff?"  His stuff was in the next room and he asked me how I felt about it and I said what I felt and we started to communicate that way.  I saw that he was working on a different show and I was working on a different show, then after a while I said, "The two of us were put together by some arrangement.  We should work together."  Since I knew him quite well, every time we worked together we would always sort of play around with stuff.  'This time we're doing something like this,' 'This time we're doing something like that.'  Of course, like A Chinese Ghost Story is something not as usual as we've done before:  It is like a ghost story; that means you can do anything weird with the action.  But then because during that period of time, the audience was pretty conservative; they're not very broad-minded as to accept anything the screen showed them, so we were very cautious about what we would put on the screen.  So at certain moments I would suggest something like a flying sword, or the flaming palm. {Laughs} Ching Siu-tung always said, "Does that really work?"  I said, "Yes. Let's try it. If something bad happens, we can just cut it out."  This is how I work with Ching Siu-tung; sometimes it's more creative, doing the writing or the design.

For Yuen Woo-ping, it's different.  I've been watching his stuff before I got into the film business.  So when he's doing these very interesting things with Jackie Chan, I always feel very excited.  So when I worked with him, I'm excited for something that he's already done, but I want him to do something mixed with what I'm trying to do to establish something new.  He and me together doing something new.  Yuen Woo-ping was being very open-minded; he always said, "Cool, we can do this. Cool."  I wasn't very sure if "Cool" meant he liked it or not.  Sometimes as a director who has been around for some time, they do something being polite, but actually they don't agree with each other at all! {Laughs} But for Yuen Woo-ping, it was different; the reason I brought Yuen Woo-ping back to the project was firstly I used other action choreographers and that didn't work.  So I talked to Yuen Woo-ping and said, "Can you please help me out to finish this film?"  This was Once Upon a Time in China, Part 1.  He said, "Yes, but I cannot put my name on this movie."  I said, "I'm fine with it. You just do it and let's work it out and see what happens."  So, he was doing all this crazy stuff and flying up in the air... Before when he was doing the ladder scene, everybody was laughing about it.  All the action people were laughing at it.  They were on the ladder doing this see-saw action.  The previous action group laughed about it, it became very ridiculous on the set.  So I asked Yuen Woo-ping to come on the set to do this for me and it became a wonderful sequence.  So that was the deal with Yuen Woo-ping.

With Sammo Hung, every time he gets into a project with me, he always wants to do something quite different from what he's done before.  In Detective Dee, he wanted to do something like he'd never done before, which is so difficult.  Something he's never done before means we have to find a new ground for understanding.  So in the process of designing the fight in the Buddha -- It's very funny, in the beginning we started talking without doing any illustration of the Buddha.  After a couple of meetings, we find we are talking randomly; cos maybe we are talking about different things at the same time.  We think are we are talking about the same things, but we're actually talking about two different things.  We were talking in a restaurant with a big illustration and start talking about, "We're starting here, not starting here."  He says, "Okay."  He walks to the window and looks at the buildings and says, "Is the Buddha as big as that?"  I said, "Taller than that, maybe two times this height." We're talking about "How long would it take for this person to go from the first floor to the top of the building?"  He says, "That's the elevator."  I say "Can we have an elevator, then?"  He says, "How are you going to have an elevator inside this thing?"  This is the kind of thing I have with Sammo.  So maybe with Sammo, he's more into details, but he's more like fighting in a very realistic style.  I don't think I could talk to Yuen Woo-ping about this.  His mind... He would say, "This is not my style!"{Laughs}
 
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 11th, 2011
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