Interview Fruit Chan

Now well known for his multi-awards winner trilogy about the handover, Fruit Chan has begun a new trilogy about prostitution. Two of these three movies are already available, Durian Durian and Hollywood Hong-Kong. This interview will focus how this new trilogy, as well as his whole career.

Do you acknowledge any influences in terms of directors, movie currents?

(Smiles) I appreciate directors who make really good quality movies, whoever it is and which country they are from. The directors who have really influenced me, I think, are Japanese. Directors of the sixties, like Nagisa Oshima. Because they make realistic movies that talk about society problems. I like the era of the sixties in Japan, when young people, young directors were really hot to change the system. So when I made Made in Hong Kong in 1997, I suddenly thought about Oshima. It was a very uncomfortable era in Hong Kong, leadership was taking a new shape, from capitalism to, maybe, communism. Maybe! (Laughs) So we were really worried about that. Even the mainstream movie industry could not deal with such a subject matter, so I suddenly thought :"OK, let me do it!" That's why Made in Hong Kong came into being. (Smiles)

It is said in your biography that you worked with mainstream directors such as Jackie Chan and Kirk Wong in the 80's.

I have worked in Hong Kong during the early 80's. I followed many, many different directors, including the mainstream directors : Jackie Chan, Kirk Wong, Ronny Yu, Shu Kei, many mainstream directors. Honestly, they're different guys, with different styles. But one thing that is always quite the same in Hong Kong is action ! (Laughs) The eighties were a glamorous era in the Hong Kong film industry, I think. From every director, I learned their skills, how to make action films, how to make comedy films, love story films, different things. I cannot measure who the best director is.

When you were younger, you ran a movie club...

Wow, you're mentioning this! (Laughs) Let me remember... I was working in a small club called Hong Kong Film Culture Center. This club gathered many new directors from the early 80's : Yim Ho, Ann Hui, all educated in film and stage in the UK. I think the early eighties were an embarrassing moment for the Hong Kong film industry, but this new group made things very exciting again for us. So I was glad to work in this film center, to work with them. This center also allowed me to learn a little more about film techniques, production, script-writing, and make short films. Because I was so young, I didn't really know who the best directors were, which one was the good guy, you know. But after one year, I went into the film industry and had the opportunity to work for them. I think that time was quite exciting to me. The film culture center was my first step for me to go into the film industry.

How did you cast the two juvenile stars of Little Cheung ?

For Little Cheung, I picked up two kids from the street, from different places. I picked up Little Cheung himself in a poor village in the Kowloon area. It's one island quite far from Hong Kong. When I first found that couple of children, honestly, I didn't know how I would direct them, because they didn't have any experience as actors. I started by getting acquainted with them. I gave them time so that we could in a way begin to feel like a family. When we started filming, they hadn't seen the script. Because kids don't always understand what you want to say through a movie. So, you know, in Little Cheung, there are some stunts and action scenes like the bicycle chase. So Yiu Yuet-Ming had to learn how to ride the bicycle, which was an adult's bicycle. So I had to worry whether the kids could follow me through everything I wanted to do in the movie. Could Little Cheung ride that bicycle and chase the ambulance in the final scene ? That was very difficult.

But I was lucky. When we were going to start filming, I carefully taught them how to act their roles naturally. But after ten days, the children became more mature, they knew how to act, they liked to work with us. They certainly became more mature, but I don't like children to be mature, I just want them to act naturally. So sometimes, I didn't like their performance. Sometimes, they asked me : " Could you show me how to do this ? ", as if they were models. But I never did that. Children learn so quickly that if you do that, they'll want to copy exactly what you did. I'm not a stupid guy ! (Laughs) But we had great fun on location. Finally, I was very lucky and we did a very good job on Little Cheung. That's why I'm proud of that film.

Let's talk about Sam Lee, who's again in your latest film, Public Toilet

After Made in Hong Kong, Sam Lee became very active professionally. For the ending of Little Cheung, I invited him for one shot. I felt he had already grown up, become a very mature, professional actor. For my latest movie, Public Toilet, I invited him again for one small role in the New York part. But, you know, in fact, I don't like his acting, he's become too professional. He's very busy now. It's not like the old days, when we were working together like a family. I could call him any time, to be together and discuss movies. Not any more. This time, it was different.

Why did you settle for a techno soundtrack in Made in Hong Kong ?

The music in Made in Hong Kong is a special case. I didn't know what kind of music I would use. But my cinematographer could play the music, but not as a professional musician. He had composed music tracks in his computer and he gave me a tape. When I listened to it, I thought it was very exciting. So I used the music for two scenes, Sam Lee holding a gun in the room and his mission in the mountains as a killer. For those scenes, I already had the music in my mind. It influenced me to create more visuals. But at that time, I had no idea what kind of music I liked. But I was sure that this music could perfectly fit my scenes in Made in Hong Kong. Otherwise, I like several kinds of music, not just one.

Let's talk about the representation of gangsters in your films.

In my movies, indeed, I always have a gangster section. But my gangsters are usually different from the mainstream gangster description. Because I don't like gangsters! (Laughs) But in Hong Kong, you live with gangsters all around (Smiles). But sometimes, they are not very bad, they can be good, quite human, sometimes good, sometimes less good. Because in my movies, I try to pick up realistic life styles in Hong Kong, this is why I want to show them as human beings. So in my movies, even a gangster is quite a human being. I guess it's different from mainstream movies.

What do you think of Hong Kong's film production between 1995 and 1999, in the midst of the economic recession ?

From 1995 to 1999, it definitely wasn't the best period in the Hong Kong film industry. But many filmmakers became mature and their productions were successful, like UFO's productions and even Wong Kar-wai's productions were quite successful in those years. From 1997 onwards, the economic crisis came, the production of mainstream movies declined. Even UFO's productions were going down. But other films like Made in Hong Kong certainly made a strong appearance at that time and proved that new films could be born in Hong Kong. So I was very lucky even though the market was down. That was my moment ! (Laughs)

All in all, UFO's movies went down, Wong Kar Wai got along better. From 1995 to 1997, things were basically OK. But 1998 to 1999 was the worst time in Hong Kong. My situation was a bit different, because I am independent. After 2000 until now, the HK film industry certainly became better, because the internet industry got involved financially. They made the market more energetic, many new companies started making movies for their portals. I don't know why, actually ! (Laughs) But later on, many Internet companies started to disappear. However, the movie industry kept going better and better ! (Laughs) At the film markets, the ratings for Hong Kong films have already upped by 20%. It's better than 1995 to 1997. You can't believe that ! (Smiles)

Does the genesis of Durian Durian stem from your encounters with prostitutes when shooting Little Cheung?

Yes. When I was making Little Cheung in Kowloon, there were many gangsters and prostitutes around. Common people also, indeed! (Laughs) As my location was very close to my office, every time I could walk my way to the shooting. And every time, I could see many girls walking around the streets. So I certainly got interested in their behavior, what they were doing. So I went after some girls and inquired about them. Finally, I found the subject matter of Durian Durian, prostitutes from mainland China in Hong Kong. So I thought, if I make my movie on this subject matter, maybe it will give me a new vision, a new inspiration. You know, Little Cheung was the last part of my 1997 trilogy. So I had no idea what I would do afterwards. But I found myself interested in making movies about the prostitution topic. So immediately after finishing Little Cheung, I did more research on that topic. I interviewed over 100 girls, went to their places, asked them where they came from, what was their ultimate destination. So finally, I made my decision : this subject matter could make my second trilogy ! (Laughs) So Durian Durian is the first part, Hollywood Hong Kong is the second part, but I don't know exactly when I will make the third film.

I think the topic of prostitution also has to do with the fast evolution of mainland China. The communist system is changing, and the economic structure is changing also, forcing women to come to Hong Kong and earn money as prostitutes. But they feel quite lost and don't always know why they are doing what they are doing. They could not always give me the answer to this question. But I think it's also a question of changing morals. Anyway, life is also about earning money, as you know! (Laughs)

To shoot some scenes of Durian Durian, you used hidden cameras...

Yes, and that was very difficult. There were many gangsters standing in the streets, like watchmen, you know. Because they were keeping watch for policemen coming. So I thought, if I need the girls walking around the places, how could I do that? We thought of many ideas, like hiding the camera in a car, on a bicycle. Sometimes, we needed one long shot, not fast edited shots. So this was our big problem. One day, suddenly, there was a big typhoon in Hong Kong. It's like a holiday day in Hong Kong. When there is a big typhoon, you don't have to go to work. But the prostitution industry doesn't stop, no, no, no ! (Laughs) So immediately I called my colleagues to film the prostitutes. I said to them to go anywhere, and I followed them. But finally, we watched the footage and thought that it was too calm, like a country after war, with nothing, as if everybody had died ! (Laughs) So I didn't like it. In Hong Kong, there are always many people in the streets. So I said OK, I decided to throw away this part and shoot everything again. Finally, we thought about making a wooden box with just small hole to fit the camera lens. The only thing was, the girls had to keep a certain distance while walking to ensure that the focus was correct. In the end, nobody knew we were filming ! (Laughs) This idea was very good. I could finally fulfil my job.

Then comes Hollywood Hong Kong, in which you employ a young professional Chinese actress. Quite surprising. The setting of the film is also quite surprising...

Making the second installment of the "Prostitution trilogy" was more difficult again. You know, in the film industry - though I don't know the Western system - in Hong Kong at least, everybody is worried when it comes to employing animals and children ! (Laughs) But for Hollywood Hong Kong, I had to cast my animal first (a big sow). And the area in the movie is a very poor village in Hong Kong, just in front of tall middle class buildings. So the scenery was fantastic for me. For the role of the young prostitute in this movie, I needed a girl who was exactly from mainland China. So while making Durian Durian, actually, I was already casting my new actors for the next movie. To find the mainland girl, I went to China, Beijing, Shanghai, but failed to find the right girl, because many Chinese girls could not speak Cantonese. I was mainly looking for a non-professional actress, because I usually don't like professional actresses' performances. But shortly before the movie went into production, I changed my mind and decided to search for a professional actress from mainland China. So Zhou Xun, who is in the movie, is quite famous in China.

About playing in the movie, I told her that she would have to be very patient, because her partners would be non-professionals. (Laughs) I said to her : "Don't complain, I won't have time for your complaints!" (Laughs) But she's good. She overcame the problems, the mistakes of the non-professional actors. But we had to shoot a lot, repeat takes many times. Very difficult! (Laughs) The other thing is, I made this in the summertime, which is the hottest season - July, August - living in the wooden and corrugated iron shacks below, in this poor village was terrible, because the sun is very strong. And since the top of the houses is made of steel, it reflected the sun and was burning hot. So everybody started to take their shirts off ! (Laughs) That gave them an interesting look any way. It made things funny. Anyway, even though we had all kinds of problems shooting this movie, when you see it, you laugh and you don't know how hard it was to make it. By the way, the village was torn down right after the shoot. That's too bad, because maybe I could have shot Hollywood Hong Kong 2 in the same place ! (Laughs)

How did the strange subject of Public Toilet come about ?

When I was making Durian Durian in mainland China, we went to many public toilets in mainland China. These were terrible places, completely different from toilets of other countries. So I thought, maybe this could be a good subject for my next movie. Because when I was making Little Cheung, you know, I found the subject for Durian Durian. So this is basically the same process. When I'm making a movie, I can usually find the subject matter for my following project.

This time, you had to use digital video. Did you enjoy the experience ?

The investor, Digital Nega, emphasized that I had to make the movie with digital video. Personally, I don't like digital video ! (Laughs) When I first saw the image on the monitor in the studio, I hated it. The texture is not the same. I like film. But as I used it more and more, I found out that it was very convenient for shooting in complicated places. Like for instance, in New York, I could shoot anywhere and nobody could stop me, because it was like shooting a family movie! (Laughs) Nobody knew what I was doing! (Laughs)
  • May 2002