NY Asian 2014 Interview: Alan Mak And Felix Chong Talk OVERHEARD 3 And The Progression Of Hong Kong Film

Having achieved cinematic success both separately and as a team, Alan Mak and Felix Chong came to the New York Asian Film Festival to introduce their latest codirecting collaboration, the cyber-surveillance thriller, OVERHEARD 3. I sat down for a chat with the men responsible for Confession of Pain, The Silent War and my all-time favourite Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs.

The Lady Miz Diva: You're here to present OVERHEARD 3.  What was the inspiration behind the Overheard series?

Alan Mak:
Over six years ago, we started our own production company and then we wrote the story of Overheard 1, but at that time in Hong Kong, there was no one to invest in good movies, so we picked another comedy.  No one wanted to invest. And then one time we were sitting in a coffee shop, and everybody was drinking coffee, dressed up in ties and talking about how they earned a lot of money - that was before the financial tsunami - and I'm thinking, 'Why are they  all so cruel?'  Everybody was earning a lot of money at that time from the stock market and we thought about if we could set up a microphone in a Hong Kong tycoon's home or office, then we could find secret.

Felix Chong: Actually, Overheard 1 was a bugging story; who do you want to bug?  What you want to get from the bugging?  What we wanted to get from the bugging was some sort of justice that happens in the society, but no one cares about it.  There are so many injustices in modern society that no one cares about, because people think, 'It doesn't hurt me.'  If you are middle-class, some of this injustice, it will not hurt you; but we see if any injustice happen, it will grow like a cancer.  So that was the intention of the series.

So it's not just about trying to figure out how to get rich?

FC:
No, getting rich is very important.
{Both laugh}

All three Overheard films feature the same three main actors, Louis Koo, Daniel Wu and Lau Ching-Wan, yet each movie has a different storyline and they play different characters. 

Were you concerned about confusing the audience?

FC:
Because we tried to tell a story about injustice, we never paid attention to who will act which character.  The first thing is that we had to construct the story, and after the construction, we start to think about who will play which character.  And if your story different - 3 is different from 1, 1 is different from 2 - I don't think audience will feel confused.  And for OVERHEARD 3, the audience will absolutely not be confused because of the haircuts.{Laughs}

OVERHEARD 3 shows a part of Hong Kong rarely seen on film, this rural village with very humble homes.  Based on the majority of HK films that show mostly the center of the city, I don't know how many people in the West even know places like that exist there.

FC: {Laughs} Wild, wild West in Hong Kong!

Was showing that aspect that part of the intention of this film?


AM: When we started this project, there were about 5 to 6 criminal movies that we heard would start shooting, and all the stories were looking the same. Everybody in central {Hong Kong}, in suits and holding a gun...

FC: With some explosions, and two car chasing scenes.

AM: And also the characters, they're all pretending to be cool without any passion, like they know everything.  So we recognised our movie should not be like that; we had to find another way.  We had to move the stage to the village, to the other side of Hong Kong.  We wanted the characters to be very passionate, very violent.

FC: Very uneducated.

I watched the characters attack each other with hatchets and anything that's handy, and thought how no one had whipped out a gun.  I thought that was kind of ironic coming from you, because your films like INFERNAL AFFAIRS and CONFESSION OF PAIN, added to that mythos of the cool, sharp-dressed guy with a gun.

FC:
Actually, the characters that appear in our movies, I think are similar to American movies. I like the TV series called Damages; in season two and three there is a corporate villain, he is from the wild, wild West.  I have to say it like they say it, a right wing conservative. {Laughs} The situation is almost the same in Hong Kong, and in our movie, you can see Lau Ching-Wan is the one who represents this kind of power.  You can never resolve all the conflicts with these guys because they have absolute power.  So it's quite interesting that people say that Hong Kong is a highly civilized city, but we are telling you it's not true, okay? {Laughs}

In all three Overheard movies, as well as INFERNAL AFFAIRS and THE SILENT WAR, undercover surveillance plays a big part.  What is the fascination with that subject?  When you make a film like OVERHEARD 3 that depends so much on the current technology, do you worry that in a few years or a decade from now when there'll be all sorts of new technology that the film will look dated?

FC: That's not a worry.  I thought of a new story last week about a form of bugging that is totally different and imaginative, and I will not tell you about it. {Laughs}

AM: I think everybody understands that if you have a cell phone that you are carrying a bug and that anyone can track you.

FC: And if you're using the applications like WhatsApp and the other things, you are starting to let other people invade your system.  Do you ever think they can listen to your mind? Soon we'll all carry a barcode! {Laughs}

I feel like your films capture some the best aspects of HK cinema, but for a while I worried about what the future of HK films would be.  How do you feel about the progression of Mainland films and whether you will be able to create something as sharp and cutting edge and raw as INFERNAL AFFAIRS again? How would you guys define what Hong Kong cinema is?

AM: You can't define what Hong Kong cinema is because everything is changing.  After the handover, everything changed; the society has changed.  So I think the movies have changed too.  Because of the cooperation with Mainland China, the subjects have to change.  Some of the subjects are not allowed in the movies.  China is a really, really big market; it's big enough to change people.  But for filmmaker, I think we have our own things we want to speak out, so that's what we are doing with Overheard.

FC: Actually, Hong Kong movies have become more international.  You guys are Hong Kong movie lovers.  You love Hong Kong movies because the best Hong Kong movies always have unreasonable points.  Whenever some foreign people talk about Hong Kong movies, they're always interested in the craziness of Hong Kong movies; the movies are never very delicate, but it's life, it's wild.  So, the cooperation with China {with regard to movies} has changed every year.  

I mean, the production method has changed: We must have a script these days, and when you look back to 80s or 90s Hong Kong movies, actually they don't have a script.  They make up the script every day before shooting, it's almost improvisation.  It changed the method of production, and nowadays Hong Kong movies have become more reasonable because we have a complete script and we can tell the story more properly.  And Hong Kong movies, we will not cut the string to Cantonese.  Actually, the film language is more international now, so I think in the future - actually I had a talk with {producer} Peter Chan, Sandra Ng's husband, he also had the same conclusion - that Hong Kong movies in the coming years, we will establish a standard of moviemaking; so maybe less crazy, less wild, but more reasonable.

You mentioned having trouble finding investors for your production company, but I am a little surprised.  I'd have thought there might have been some benefit to having Mr. Martin Scorsese remake your film as THE DEPARTED and mentioning you by name as the writers of Infernal Affairs in his interviews?

FC:
It was kind of two sides, because every investor who comes to us was looking for another Infernal Affairs. But actually Infernal Affairs is been produced in cinemas for 12 years, so how can we make another Infernal Affairs?

There's three films, already.

FC:
They want four! {Laughs} And a fifth one! Like Young and Dangerous.  I guess there's almost 10 of those.

That had to be a temptation considering you were looking for investors for your production company. Another Infernal Affairs would've been instant money. It must've been difficult to turn down?

FC:
It wasn't difficult because if you are a creator, you really want to create something different.  Actually, for me, I hate my movies every time I finish them, because I've worked for so long to produce the movie - maybe one and a half years - I have watched the movie 100 times and I can find out all the bugs.  Every time I find one out, I blame myself.  Every time I get close to the end of production, I start looking for the next story.

Can you talk about how your partnership works when you're codirecting a film?

AM:
Most of the time we write the story first, we write the script. He {Felix} does the writing, because if I do the writing, everybody will have to wait {Laughs}. And then I think the best part of codirecting is before you shoot the movie, you have a partner.  We can discuss anything.  When you are just directing a movie alone, you're the only person who has to solve all the problems; every day 100 questions you have to answer, you have to give them a solution.  But the best part of being codirectors is, you can talk about everything; through the rehearsal, or even if you want to move the position of the character.  So everything if you have a partner, you can discuss with them.  You can make decisions together. Sometimes I'm wrong, sometimes he's wrong, but we don't mind.

FC: We find a way to sort it out.  Because directing is an art of collaboration: You have to collaborate with all your crew members.  How can you bring the best out of the actors and actress, how can you bring the best out of your cinematographer, or your art director?  Our method is free communication; if you can't communicate with your partner, how can you communicate with so many of your crew members?

Going back to what you said about the old way of shooting Hong Kong films, having no script or making it up every day with a lot of improvisation, did that add anything to the films that now having a much more organized method with the full script does not?

AM: I think it depends on the kind of movie you want to make.  For our kind of movie, I think a good plan and discussion is really important.  You have to plan for everything because the budget is not very big and the time for shooting is not unlimited.

FC: Well, actually, Wong Kar-Wai's way is very tempting.  I'd like to try it once in my lifetime.  The way we're doing it now, it's like a project, but for them, like Wong Kar-Wai...  Actually, Johnny To persuaded me, "You've got to try it this way one time in your life." They are adventurous.

You are also the writers of the box office hit, Initial D.  Are you attached to the upcoming sequel?

AM:
No, no, no. It's very difficult because for Initial D, 98% of the car stunts were real, no CG; it was just really crazy.  So if you want to make another one, if you want to have something improved, you're establishing the CG.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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