Interview: Director Peter Chan Talks DRAGON (WU XIA), Hong Kong Identity, and the Shaw Brothers

dragon-wu-xia-poster-us-radius.jpgPeter Chan's martial arts epic Dragon, starring Donnie Yen, will open in the U.S. in select theaters on Friday, November 30.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Bangkok, Peter Chan Ho-sun studied cinema in the United States at the UCLA film school before coming back to his native country in the early 80s. He started work in the film industry as an assistant to John Woo (Heroes Shed No Tears) and Jackie Chan (Project A II, Armour of God) before moving to the production field in 1989 (Samson Chiu's News Attacks). Two years later he made his directorial debut with the drama Alan & Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye.

He later co-founded U.F.O. (United Filmmakers Organisation) and produced around 20 movies within five years, including his own successful He's a Woman, She's a Man (1994) starring Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. In 1997, his movie Comrades, a Love Story was named one of Time Magazine's 10 Best Movies of the Year, and it also won nine Hong Kong Film Awards.

After the 1997 handover, Peter Chan moved to Hollywood to make The Love Letter, produced by Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. He moved back to Hong Kong in 2000 and set up Applause Pictures. To re-boost the local industry, he started making co-productions with Thailand (Jan Dara), South Korea (One Fine Spring Day) and China (The Marriage Certificate).

He also produced the horror pan-Asian omnibus movies Three and Three...Extremes and big-budget movies in China, such as the musical Perhaps Love (2005), martial arts epic The Warlords (2007) and more recently Wu Xia (2011).

Twelve films directed and/or produced by Chan were screened March 22-April 3, 2012 at the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) section "Filmmaker in Focus." The following short, improvised interview was conducted during the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) party, just after the screening of the HKIFF opening film (Pang Ho-cheung's Love in the Buff) and a few days before the launch of the Peter Chan exhibition at the Hong Kong Cultural Center.

Twitch: When did you hear about the tribute retrospective about your work at HKIFF?

peterchanhaf2012-thumb-300xauto-30193.jpgPeter Chan: It's been a while I think, probably six, seven months ago. I didn't know quite what to make of it or what it means to me. I accept it. In the past six months, through working on the book and giving interviews and doing stuff on my part, I started to pick up more of an understanding of what it could mean to me. And it turned out to be a very rewarding experience because it takes me back down my own memory lane and goes back to my roots; how I worked, and how I got to be where I am today. And also it's a sort of re-evaluation of the first half of my life and career, and also to re-evaluate myself to decide what I should be doing next.

Your recent movie WU XIA is a martial arts epic. You've done one before, THE WARLORDS. Do you plan to keep on with this new direction, or was it just an opportunity to work on that type of movie?

I wish that it were so simple that we do something and it works, and then we could continue to do it. First of all, the market situation would not permit that. The market is changing very rapidly and changing all the time. And it's almost like, if something works, you have to change immediately. It's not like you can actually ride on the past successes or formulas that you have. So every movie we need to reinvent ourselves, which is difficult.

And at the same time, as a filmmaker if you don't try to reinvent yourself, you can't challenge yourself and if you don't challenge yourself, you don't have the passion. And if you don't have the passion you don't have the spark and you can't make better movies. So in a way, I do not consider any of my past work to be monumental enough to be able to continue to do it. What happened is that it's a very difficult and tough business.

To move ahead in the ever difficult environment of making Chinese language movies, especially mainland Chinese-Hong Kong co-productions, we just have to keep thinking of new ideas, ideas that are not too repetitious, but also ideas that are not too new so that the audience can follow. That's pretty tough.

Do you think you can keep your Hong Kong identity in the Chinese market?

The Hong Kong identity is in my blood. It doesn't matter what I make or where I make movies, the core value system, the attitude, and the aesthetics will always be Hong Kong. That peculiar Hong Kong attitude and aesthetics will never change, even if I make an English language movie or a French language movie. So it doesn't matter what we do, and it doesn't matter what the censorship restrictions are, and it doesn't matter who the market is for. You don't have to do a movie in Cantonese to be "Hong Kong" because the Hong Kong-ness is in my system. It will not disappear.

Jimmy Wang Yu, who was in your last movie, was a big star in the 60's as the One-Armed Swordsman character in Chang Cheh's movies. Were you a big Shaw Brothers movie fan?

I was a big Shaw Brothers movie fan. Even though I didn't quite identify myself as a kung-fu film fan, which I wasn't. But no kids born in the 50's or 60's could ignore Chang Cheh or the Shaw Brothers martial arts films. It doesn't matter if you grow up to make love stories, dramas, romances or even art films, we've all grown up watching action movies from Chang Cheh, and the kind of heroism he's so good with, and all his big screen idols from Jimmy Wang Yu to David Chiang to Ti Lung: it was just a part of our growing up.

Interview conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine on March 21, 2012. Edited by Sylvia Rorem. Cross-published on AliveNotDead.

See also: Todd Brown's review of the film from Cannes 2011.

The film will open at the following theaters in the U.S.:
New York (Village East Cinemas)
LA (Sundance Sunset Cinemas and Dos Lagos 15)
Dallas (Cinemark 10 Plano)
Houston (Clearlake 8)
Phoenix (Shea 14 Theatre)
Tampa (Britton 8)
Cleveland (Atlas Great Lakes Stadium)
Orlando (Colonial Promenade 6)
Indianapolis (Movie Buff 14)
San Diego (Gaslamp Stadium 15)
Hartford (Front Street 4)
Charleston, KY (Park Place Stadium 11)
Honolulu (Kapolei Theatres)

Around the Internet:
  • Martin Wagner

    Hasn't this movie been hacked up by the US distributor?

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