Clement Cheng Interview

Congratulations on your recent win at The Hong Film Awards.

Thank-you. I’m not really excited because I can’t take the credit, everyone chipped in. I’m happy because it is ‘Best Picture’ and that’s everyone. In that sense I’m happy. There’s more responsibility now and people are really focusing on my next thing. To me partly it’s luck, it’s always that way with awards. I feel so fortunate that we won.

Gallants and Merry-Go-Round [Clement’s most recent film] are both in very different genres. Do you want to move into other genres as well?

Yes, I seriously want to do a different genre for every film. This is my plan and hopefully it works.

Where did the motivation come from to make Gallants?

Derek Kwok and I came up with the idea of making a music version of Gallants and then we had another idea of bringing in 60s and 70s action stars and 80s and 90s action stars, with good guys playing the bad guys and bad guys playing the good guys. That would be non-stop action and the movie would be about justice, what is right and what is wrong. Those two movies didn’t sell for many years and we stopped trying to sell them to people. Then after, I think ten years, around 2008, we met up with our producer Gordon Lam and he said that he was interested in producing some movies because his boss, Andy Lau, was commanding him to make some movies. We told him a few different stories which he didn’t like and then at the end of the night, right when we were leaving me and Derek thought, lets tell him about those two stories but this time combine them together. And on our way out we told him the story and he thought it was interesting. So we went back and wrote a treatment and he took it back to Mr. Lau and he loved it, for some reason. I had no idea why at the time.

You both write and direct. Is one more of a passion for you than the other?

I hate writing. We both hate writing, it’s such a drag. The process is so painful and it’s so lonely. You feel so helpless in front of a computer. You just sit and think… [exhales]… lets get a bagel [laughs]. It’s just so painful but if I wanted to be a director I didn’t think out of the blue someone was going to hand me an excellent script and want me to do it for them, even though I hadn’t done anything before. It’s excellent training for me though and I believe in the writer/director combination.

Why did you and Derek Kwok decide to co-direct together and how did you share the work?

We’ve been working together ever since 1997 and we trust each other and know what we’re doing. We both came up with the idea and thought this would be something fun to do. Also because it was such a short period of time I don’t think one person would have been able to handle it. We shot in eighteen days. We had two cameras on set and just one set of lenses. We shot simultaneously, doing two separate scenes so we were always fighting over the lenses, for actors, fighting for lights.

You fought with each other?

Oh yeah, of course. Fighting over lenses, stuff like that.

How did you settle on the way the action was shot and what was this most informed by?

When I was growing up most Kung Fu movies I watched you could mimic and when my dad would take me to movies I would just go home and break everything. He so regretted taking me [laughs]. There’s something fun though, you could relate to the action, you’d think it was possible, you could do it. For the past twenty years though you don’t see that anymore. There’s too much CGI and too much wire work. I’m not saying it’s not good but I’m just getting sick and tired of watching those movies because you’re so distant from the movie. This is not from our world, it is so surreal you can’t connect with the movie because the action is so farcical. The priority of this movie is that I want to make something that people can watch and see is real stuff and think I can do this too. It’s something I miss myself.

We wrote down every single punch and move down in the script. Actually on the page. Just references for ourselves because there are different styles and we’re actually telling the story with action. Because we don’t know martial arts though it was just a reference of what we want to show on screen, it’s not the actual action. Just the storyline of it with action and then our action director would modify it and put his own twist on it and it would become the movie.

Our action director [Tak Yuen] is so awesome. He had never done a movie that was this small in his forty year career. We only had five days to shoot all the action! I have the utmost respect for him. He didn’t look down on us because we’re so young or because we don’t know anything about martial arts. He’s just like, “Tell me what is you want”. Then we’d discuss it and it would play out.

The film seems nostalgic about the past and not giving up on old people but also optimistic about the future and young people.

There’s actually a term given to young people in Hong Kong right now, called the post-eighties. The older generation are always moaning and complaining about them being too radical, that they’re too lazy. And I thought, that’s crazy. It’s not what I want to see in the city. The future lies in these young people’s hands. I think criticizing and condemning people is just too easy and by saying someone is no good it makes you feel good. It’s one of the things I wanted to talk about in my movies because no matter how young or old you are you still have your own problems that you have to deal with. Probably your biggest demon is yourself. When you’re in your sixties you still have to deal with things within you, unless you make peace with yourself. And I thought there’s no real difference between the younger and older generation so I thought this is the perfect movie to illustrate this.

And was the title Gallants your choice, I believe it was different in Hong Kong?

It’s only three words [Da lui toi], it means to go into the ring and fight. The Gallants title was also my choice. Gallants is exactly the opposite of the surface of what you see in the movie. These are just old beat up people and they don’t win anything, they don’t get anything and nothing has changed after they fight. But these are the people we should look up to. Objectively they’re losers, nothing has changed at the end of the movie, but subjectively to themselves they did something that they were afraid of for a very long time and that takes courage. Not many people can do that and hence, the name Gallants.

What are your wider inspirations, beyond obviously The Shaw Brothers?

My favourite directors are definitely Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Clint Eastwood and Robert Zemekis. They are people that have a great influence on me. I can just watch their movies over and over again and I don’t get bored with them. When you watch them you discover new things and when you watch it again it reminds you of what life should be and what you want to be as a human being. And on top of everything they’re very entertaining.

They’re also films that on the surface may appear to be one thing but are tender underneath, is that something that particularly appeals to you?

Movies to me are first and foremost entertainment. The movie has to be entertaining in order for the audience to try and understand what you’re trying to tell them, the message hidden behind it. If it’s not entertaining then it’s not as effective. Movies are about sharing and the more people who can watch them, the more people that can enjoy them then the more you can feel good about it.

How do you feel about the current state of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema?

People have been saying that it is going downhill and that it is going to be over very soon. For about the past fourteen years that I have been working there [laughs]. I just don’t know, if there are still people working there who want to make movies that are not rip-offs then people will want to watch them.

There’s a director called Patrick Lung Kong and I met him when I was working as an assistant director eleven years ago and he was in the movie [Skyline Cruisers]. He is so enthusiastic and his head is so clear about so many things. He said to me that making movies was like writing a very long poem, each frame you shoot is like writing a Chinese character or word and after you finish shooting your film, your movie is going to be a long-ass poem. But you have to be very careful about how you use every single word because otherwise it’s going to suck from the beginning to the end. And that stuck with me.

Then last year we bumped into each other at the Udine film festival, during a retrospective of his work, and he recognised me and even though he usually goes to bed at nine and my movie started at ten he stayed and watched it. The movie finished at twelve and he stayed and talked to us for over an hour. There’s this current thing with Hong Kong/Chinese co-productions and he was saying that it’s not something new, the exact same thing happened in the fifties. Everyone was making Mandarin movies because there was a big market in Taiwan and no-one was making Cantonese movies because it was considered lower class at the time, with low budgets. But he kept making them. Because he said if there are still people who speak Cantonese or Mandarin it doesn’t really matter because people won’t not go and see your movie because it’s in Cantonese or Mandarin, it’s because it sucks. So, make a good film and you’ll be fine, don’t worry about anything else. That’s very good advice. I totally agree with him, there’s only two kinds of movies, good movies and sucky movies and that’s it. There’s no other way to look at it. That’s the situation in Hong Kong I think.

You’ve mentioned before your desire to remake Inframan. If someone gave you a load of money and asked you to make it, how would you envisage it?

I seriously don’t know because I don’t think it’s happening. If I did it though it’s going to be something different. Something not like Inframan, but it is. Something very close to Terry Gilliam. He’s an amazing director. If I can do something like Brazil, I will just quit. I won’t make anything else ever.

How did you come to make your latest film, Merry-Go-Round?

It was during the post production period [of Gallants] that I was approached by a charity group called Tung Wah Hospitals, they’re actually the oldest charity group in Hong Kong, and it was their one hundred and fortieth anniversary last year and they wanted to do something different to remember that year. For some reason they thought lets make a movie and they approached me. And I thought, it’s a charity group, it’s not going to be good.

So I turned it down over and over again and then after a few months when I had time, whilst things were rendering, I read through the research they gave me and I found something very interesting to me. There is actually something called the coffin home. It is a home for coffins, with dead people in them. I did not know that there were still operating. The only thing I knew about them was the Mr. Vampire movies in Hong Kong.

The coffin homes are just a mid-way point between one place to another and the coffins get stuck, they’re just waiting there. When they die Chinese people want to be buried back in their home village, the village that they were born in. It is tradition that they have had for a very long time. This coffin home is for people that wanted to be buried back in China but when I visited the coffin home the oldest coffin there was one hundred and ten years old. There are actually two of them, they’re still there, no-one is claiming them. There are actually twenty or thirty of them that are stuck there from the fifties. I guess when the Communist party took over they totally shut off things coming in or out so they were just stuck there. And I thought that this was an interesting background to tell a story about going home. Y’know, where’s home? And it got started that way and it’s kind of a drama love story that spans across sixty years of Hong Kong history.

What was it like working with Teddy Robin again [Robin is also in Merry-Go-Round]?

He’s my favourite actor now and he’s going to be in everything I do from now on. I just finished a short three minute film for the Udine film festival. He stars in that too. He’s in everything I do now. Everyone knows that Teddy Robin is a huge comedic actor from the eighties and he’s never been cast in a serious role as the lead male in a love story. This is the perfect role and because I know him so well I know he can deliver, he just wasn’t given the chance. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the same year he did a super cool action comedy he also did a serious drama and as the lead male in a love story. And the female lead is Nora Miao, who was always cast beside Bruce Lee. And that would never happen if anyone else was doing it so I thought it was an awesome combination and I thought it worked really well. He was so good in it.

So many people have different things to offer but there’s not a chance that it will be offered to them. It’s such a pity that people don’t discover that.

This interview was originally posted at HeyUGuys.