Interview: Chasing Dreams And Making Magic - Adam Wong and THE WAY WE DANCE

I love Hong Kong films, and I applaud filmmakers who continue to make films with a distinct Hong Kong flavor - despite the industry's growing trend towards producing films that cater to the tastes of people in both Hong Kong and Mainland China (and often failing to achieve either as a result). A number of 'purely' Hong Kong films from recent years, such as Gallants, Love In A Puff and Vulgaria, have found great success. And the latest example to be added to this list is The Way We Dance, a low-budget film that has become a miracle at the local box office since its release in early August. 

The Way We Dance had its World Premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March and International Premiere at the Udine Far East Film Festival in April. It first drew my attention when James Marsh, our Asian Editor, gave it a positive review calling it "a smart, positive and enjoyable movie for and about young people". But that certainly wasn't the only positive review of the film - Clarence Tsui at The Hollywood Reporter called it "a cracking spectacle", while Mark Adams at Screen Daily described it as "engagingly entertaining". 

After months of screening at selected film festivals around the world, it opened in Hong Kong cinemas last month with modest (perhaps disappointing) results. Kevin Ma at Film Business Asia tweeted at the time, "If one HK film that needs a real good miracle right now, it's The Way We Dance. Months of promotion looking unsuccessful at the moment." That really shouldn't have come as a surprise considering the fact that it is a dance movie, which is not a very popular film genre in Hong Kong. (The only other Hong Kong dance film that immediately comes to mind is the Aaron Kwok-starrer Para Para Sakura, which was hardly a success when it was released in 2001.) Also, The Way We Dance has a relatively new director (Adam Wong Sau Ping), who previously had only made two independent feature films, When Beckham Met Owen and Magic Boy. Perhaps most importantly, at least to the paying audiences in HK, was that the cast has no established stars. Taking all of these factors into consideration, The Way We Dance really was a tough sell. 

What then happened could really only be described as a miracle. Those who saw the film started telling their friends about it, and within a short time, positive comments and reviews started to saturate both the print and online media. What was slightly unexpected was how much the entertainment industry also stood behind this film, with established directors and actors more than willing to show their support. Derek Yee (C'est la vie, Mon Chéri, One Nite In Mong Kok) described it as "the most touching HK film I've seen in recent years; there hasn't been a film with that much applause after the premiere screening in the last five years," while top actor Chow Yun Fat, who was spotted attending a public screening, called it "a truly inspirational film; newcomer Babyjohn Choi is going to take the reign from Stephen Chow." And as this positive word of mouth spread, the cast and crew continued to do something that has become common practice in the past few years amongst some of the Hong Kong filmmakers - attending screenings at cinemas to thank the audiences for supporting their film.

All of these have certainly helped propel the film's box office performance, so much so that it earned even more in its third weekend than its opening weekend. So far, it has grossed over HK$9 million, exceeding its production cost of HK$5.3 million and outperforming many local films with bigger budgets and stars. Clearly pleased with the film's reception, Winnie Tsang, managing director of distributor Golden Scene and executive producer of The Way We Dance, green-lit a sequel just a couple of weeks of the film's release. 

Twitch got the chance to catch up with the film's director, Adam Wong:

Twitch: What gave you the inspiration to make THE WAY WE DANCE?

Adam Wong: A few years ago, Saville Chan, the producer of The Way We Dance, and I started running a business together but we didn't have an office. Therefore we met, brain-stormed our ideas for films and planned video productions in the streets, on public benches and in the parks, etc. Later, we found a good place to do these, and it was the campus area of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where I was teaching as a visiting lecturer in the day time. 

We often went there at night, and just sat somewhere and talked. And sometimes we would encounter a group of dancers outside the 7-11 on campus. I found that there were not only university students but also street dancers from outside the university. I was curious and asked the students why. They told me that a few years ago, the university stopped allowing the dance society to borrow the official studio room to practise because of some mistakes they made. So they chose to dance outside 7-11, perhaps because it was convenient to buy drinks and also there were reflective walls for them to see themselves when they danced. And the more they danced, the more the place became popular in the dance circle, and it started to attract street dancers from outside. Even dancers from overseas would come here as a 'pilgrimage' when they visit Hong Kong.         
        
I was attracted by the passion and romance of these dancers, whom I found representative of the Hong Kong people who are used to growing up in adversity. So I decided to make a movie about dance, one that would share a common theme with my previous works - the devotion, focus and persistence in the pursuit of an art craft.

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Tell us about some of the challenges you faced making this film?

There were two hardest things I faced with The Way We Dance, and neither occurred during the production process.

The first one was to find an investor who would believe in this movie - a dance movie made and performed by Hong Kong people. It took us 4 years to find Winnie Tsang, the managing director of Golden Scene, to produce this movie. 

The second difficulty was during the promotional period of the film. Even though we had received very good comments after the film premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March, we still found it very difficult to make the public audience believe that it was worth spending money watching the film at the cinema. The situation was the same as on day one when we started looking for an investor. People would say to us things like, "What? A Hong Kong dance movie? How good could a Hong Kong-made dance movie be? Another copycat of Step Up?" The biggest challenge for us was to break down the public's prejudice. 

Our whole team worked on it positively because we believe The Way We Dance is a good film, or at least a meaningful film to Hong Kong in 2013. However, we didn't do anything to specifically tackle the prejudice - we just did what we thought fit the nature of the film, like promoting through roadshows, school tours and preview screenings. Among all these, one remarkable thing we did was that we made a large amount of banners printed with our slogan, "How far are you willing to go for ____?", and distributed them to our target audience and posted them on the streets for people to fill in the blank spaces. We made our promotion rather interactive.    

And gradually, we found more and more passionate feedback and self-motivated support from the public and the media. Through the whole process, we found hope, not only for the success of the film but also in Hong Kong people.   

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While there have not been many dance films coming out of Hong Kong, it is a popular genre in many parts of the world. How is THE WAY WE DANCE different from say the STEP UP films?

I am 100% certain we are not a copycat of Step Up, although it would be unavoidable that some audiences would superficially think the films are similar, even before they watch it, just because of the common topic of street dance. I love the dance parts of Step Up a lot and I did analyze them, but only the technical aspects like the shots' sizes, durations, lighting and stuff; and only on the dance scenes. In terms of the storytelling, including the depiction of the characters, their spirits and living conditions, The Way We Dance is nothing like Step Up. To be honest, I don't like the stories of Step Up. The Way We Dance is less about "dream vs reality". It's about the conflict between different people chasing their dreams, how they influence each other and also about looking at what a dream is.   

For the dance parts, I do realize our disadvantages when compared with Step Up. Our budget is much, much smaller, perhaps 20 times less... a number too big to be of concern to me. And we don't have a strong hip hop culture like America. However, what's good in Hong Kong movies, particularly in the old days? Action scenes!!! Hong Kong filmmakers like Jackie Chan, John Woo and Tsui Hark used to make very creative and entertaining action scenes under very limited conditions, and Hong Kong action movies used to have the flexibility, creativity, playfulness and craziness that Hollywood movies could hardly follow. And I really saw these same qualities in the dancing as I was doing research for the film. 

Very interestingly, as I did more research on the hip hop dance later, I learned that in the 80s, one of the things that had influenced the US break dancers was kung-fu movies. So I could say Hong Kong action movies had influenced break dance and now I am rediscovering and re-acknowledging the Hong Kong movies' qualities that are seen in dance.  

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Why do you think THE WAY WE DANCE has managed to resonate with so many people, including not just the general public of Hong Kong, but also members of the mass media and entertainment industry?

First of all, I did not expect that The Way We Dance would resonate as much as it has. And to resonate with people was not the reason, at least not a conscious one, for me to make this movie. 

I truly believe film has a life. I guess The Way We Dance has been so difficult to get financed partly because it is not easily identified as a commercial movie in Hong Kong. But at the same time, it has been so well received because audiences and filmmakers, who have been bored by the predictable, commercial types of films, have found something fresh in The Way We Dance

Another reason I heard from people around me is that Hong Kong's atmosphere has been getting darker and darker in recent years, and therefore the release of The Way We Dance feels like a flash of light in the darkness.

I am happy that The Way We Dance can resonate with people, which means to me that something positive is still alive in people's hearts despite the depressing events that keep happening every day.  

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THE WAY WE DANCE is at its core a film about youths living in Hong Kong. How do you think audiences outside of Hong Kong will respond to the film?

I have depicted the lives of the 4 characters according to my own experience, impression and observation of university life in Hong Kong. While the 'source materials' have come from reality, I must have romanticized the characters, both consciously and subconsciously, when I depicted them. And the result turned out to be pretty close to how I perceive university life, and I am happy that it has struck a chord with so many young audiences here in Hong Kong. 

To the foreign audiences, I guess they will see something different, as I have sensed in one or two foreign critiques already - something incredible, laughable perhaps. But Hong Kong is a strange and crazy place and I welcome foreign audiences to watch the film from an exotic point of view and feel the craziness, strangeness and energy of Hong Kong's young people today. 

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At the time of writing, The Way We Dance is continuing to attract large audiences into Hong Kong cinemas. So don't be surprised if it manages to break the magical 10 million dollar mark at the local box office. And overseas distributors may soon start to realize the film's unique potential and pick it up for release. After all, youth-oriented films have become increasingly popular in Asia in the past few years; and in a world so full of difficulties right now, who would say no to an inspirational film like The Way We Dance?
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