Interview Julian Lee

After a first movie which has attracted some attention, Julian Lee is back with his second movie, Night Corridor, another artistic and independent project adapted from one of his novels. Alain met him in Paris and had a long chat about career and ambitions... all in French!

Alain: Why did you decide to go to England for art studies?

Julian: I studied at the Royal College of Art during 3 years until 1991, when I got a master degree in photography. At this moment, I was a bit like the character of Daniel Wu at the beginning of Night Corridor, someone who is attracting people, but who likes to be alone, who is open-minded, but also with things stuck inside. That's why photography is something dark, a dark part of myself. That's this part of myself that you see at the beginning of the movie.

Alain: You have been working in very various domains (painting, photography, writer, director...). Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Julian: Currently I'm teaching at the City University of Hong Kong. That's good, because before I was working in movies and writing. Now my artistic life and my career are mixing together, that's why I work half time. During five years, I have been working as a photograph, artist, for expositions in London, Paris, Portugal, and at the same time I was a correspondent for the BBC at Hong Kong. At the same time, I was writing novels published in the HK magazine "City Magazine" and the newspaper Ming Pao, and then gathering them into a book. But for Night Corridor, it was the first time I received a financial help from the HK Art Developement Council. At one moment, they were giving 5000 US$ to realise a project, so I had this idea to make Night Corridor a novel of 4000 Chinese words in the Ming Pao newspaper. That's a very strange story, because it's a dream, at the beginning it was a dream about my brother, we didn't get on very well together. And this happened when I was with Wong Kar-Wai to do some photographs during the shooting of Happy Together. So during this period, I stayed two months there, to shoot some photos and be a translator. I didn't like it a lot, because I think it's hard to work with him, this guy is not very clear in his head, that's really another way of working, but at least, it was an experience for me, and he gave me two months of salary.

Alain: Which jobs do you prefer in all those you had?

Julian: Now, the most important for me is to be a director, but not in a commercial vein.

Alain: Is it important for you to transmit this knowledge to your student at University ?

Julian: Yes, for money! (Laughs). But in fact, my students help me a lot. For instance, for Night Corridor, I didn't have a big budget, so I shot some of the movie in the University. I didn't have a professional team either, but 5 or 6 voluntary assistant directors, just motivated by the experience. But maybe in the future, I will create a cultural project with them, if possible.

Alain: You are teaching photography, but is there also lectures about local cinema and directors ?

Julian: As I have a degree in photography, I'm in charge of photography lectures of course, but I will try to ask for directing lectures. In Hong-Kong, if you want to learn cinema, there isn't many possibilities, you learn on the job. Furthermore, the movie industry is really divided into two streams, one very commercial, and the other very independent. The gap between those two is always growing. And TV, it's only business, now even Stanley Kwan is working for them (editor's note: for Painting Spirit).

Alain: Talking about Stanley Kwan, how did he become the producer of The Accident ?

Almen Wong (The Accident - 1999)

Julian: By a mere chance in fact. I was a little bit well-known as a writer, and one day as I was visiting friends in Hong-Kong, he praised me for my writing. He found what I was writing interesting, so he tried to present some of my work to his boss. The project didn't lead anywhere, I was a bit disappointed, but I was already working for him, and he tried to help me. So I told him "Let me try, I will make just one movie, and you produce it." That's how our relation begun. At the beginning, I was really fond of his work. I have written at least 40 or 50 novels in Chinese language, and I wanted to bring them onto the big screen. When I was writing for Ming Pao, I already had some images in my mind, but I was not really a director. I already tried before to become a director in England, but I was not fluent in English, so I was trying to find a star and a scriptwriter for my movie. I was already quite convinced that one day, I would direct a movie, and finally, I succeeded with The Accident.

Alain: As you like Stankey Kwan's work so much, it recalls me the first time I saw The accident, I said to myself "Mmm, it looks like Hold you Tight".

Julian: Yes, that struck me also, but in fact, it was not really so much because of my admiration for his work, but more because we are both gay Hong Kongese directors, with the same sensibility, even if I'm more violent, and he is more subtle, more feminist, more idealist. But that's true that both movies share the same melancholy, the same wandering mood, even if Stanley Kwan's characters are always deep thinkers, who don't talk, who look like "victimised". For my movie, the character of the radio DJ, when I wrote it, it was the figure of someone I knew when I was a teenager, that I loved in secret and who was refusing me. I don't think it's close to the kind of character that you see in Stanley Kwan's movies, because he always has someone who writes with him, when I'm a writer, I know my characters and their evolution.
Alain: There is something interesting with the cast of the Accident, it's the way you have used Almen Wong and Ben Ng. First about Almen Wong, it was the beginning of her career, how did she arrive in your movie?
Julian: I'm very happy when someone says that Almen Wong was acting quite well in my movie, when she is bad in all the others. In fact that's thanks to Stanley, because I didn't have a good technique to convince her. There were some nude scenes, and it was necessary to negotiate. I didn't want to do it this way, but she wanted to be sexy without showing anything. Well, Stanley did help me a lot, because at this moment, she was the boss's favourite, without her we couldn't have made the movie.
Alain: About Ben Ng, he appeared in a lot of Cat III or triads movies, and he was so far from his former roles I didn't even recognised him at the beginning of the movie. He really has to perform his part in fact. How did you work with him?
Ben Ng (The Accident - 1999)
Julian: He is really very demanding, Stanley didn't like him at the beginning, but he kept contacting us to say "Why not me? What's going on with the movie?". I think he really had the will of an actor who wants a breakthrough, he didn't want to play his usual character. He wanted to change, and he had the possibility to do it, because he is a real actor, like Eddy Ko or Kara Hui in Night Corridor. That's a real advantage, and I think that the motivation is the most important thing. With this kind of actor, I can't really give him anything, I had less experience than him!. "What could I do with actors like that to convince him?". He really wanted to breakthrough and to go always further, that's a selfish motivation in fact, because you have to follow him, let him go further. It didn't work with Almen Wong, because she was a centre of attraction, not like the movie "Irréversible" where Monica Bellucci was able to do what she wanted. That's one of the problems with The Accident, this very violent gay aspect. As for women... That's the Chinese hypocrisy, the local morality, if you do this kind of scenes, you are not a good woman and you will receive a lot of bad gossips afterwards, but I wanted to encourage Almen to go in this way.
Alain: I watched the movie again a few days ago, and one thing I didn't notice the first time, Joey Yung has a cameo role in the movie. What was she doing there?
Julian: Oh yes, in fact, the boss wanted her to appear in the movie, so I agreed. Afterwards, I thought that maybe I should have given her the character played by Gigi Lai, maybe it would have suited the movie, I don't know. But at this moment I didn't notice her talent, that's a pity. It was her first movie, and she did nothing at all in it.
Alain: You said you had some themes in common with Stanley Kwan, but what is for you the main theme of the Accident, and how would you consider your characters?
Julian: I write a lot of novels. The most current theme is wandering, melancholy, to be lost in a city or a modern world without communication. The other important theme, it's the taboos, fantasies. There are two aspects inside me: one side is more subtle, and the other one is about anger, rage. But in China, it's hard to do this kind of movie. Stanley Kwan can do it, because his movies are very artistic, very long, very beautiful. A movie critic said about Night Corridor that it revealed the real Julian Lee, that it was more occult, underground, dark, gothic, in the same vein as the giallos like those from Dario Argento. However, I have written a lot of books, and those are just two adaptations among 50 potential ones, so I can still have a lot of diversity. If one of those adaptations doesn't work, I can still pick another one, and also, I don't like to repeat myself. My first movie was about melancholy, my second one is fantastic, for my third one I don't know yet. The common thing being a repressed gay theme, and rich, dark colours. I don't like to do light things, I prefer decline.
Alain: Talking about what you said about Almen Wong, there is a contradiction in your script, because the relation between Gigi Lai and Patrick Tse is very platonic in the movie, when you say that you want to be very explicit.
Julian: In the book, it's more explicit, that's right. After that, I thought that maybe she could be raped by the pilot, that would change her life, there could be a lot of solutions. Well, Gigi Lai was very good to play this character, the problem was that she didn't feel very well with Patrick Tse. That's hard to play with a star who is in the business for more than 20 years and who never really changed his way of working. A long time after the release of the movie, this is the gay aspect.
Alain: For occidental viewers, this gay aspect is not really as surprising though. We remember more the feelings between the characters rather than their sexual behaviour.
Gigi Lai (The Accident - 1999)
Julian: A lot of people like to compare it with Happy Together, and say "hey, it looks more real, that's stronger". Happy Together is like a little game between kids. That's a good compliment, but my movie is not perfect, as it's not balanced. For my first movie, I had difficulties to keep a good balance between all the elements, and that was not easy as I didn't have a lot of power to decide. The boss is the one who decides, even if Stanley helped me by telling me "You should cut like this, etc...". That's always the problem when you do a first movie. But the most important for me was to be able to change from a writer to a director, and to be able to say "I did it". Now for my second movie, I have more power.
Alain: To finish with the Accident, there is a short sequence who has impressed some people, it's the one in the middle of the movie when an anonymous couple has a motorbike accident. Could you tell us more about that?
Julian: This scene was not really well shot, because the sense of this sequence got lost during its transfer on the screen, this is the real accident. If I could do it again, I guess it would be better, but for the real meaning of the scene, I wrote it too long ago to remember about it. The problem with The Accident, it's that there is a lot of interesting ideas in the movie, but they don't match together, as I cut some parts. With Night Corridor, I have also cut a lot of things. To me, The Accident is already 4 years old, which is quite long ago, so you think more about it than me. Last time I saw the movie, I saw three important things in it: first, I succeeded in changing my writer status into a director status. Then, as a director, I have something to say, and which is different from the other points of view and personalities. For instance in Night Corridor, this is not the usual Hong-Kong as you know it, I try to innovate and I think it makes me useful. The last thing is that with my two movies now, I have found the motivation to follow this way, I don't write a lot now, I concentrate on adaptation.

Alain: Now about Night Corridor: did Daniel Wu come to you, or did you contact him?
Julian: I wanted to have Daniel to play this character who is a bit auto-biographic. I didn't want anybody else, because he is handsome, but he can also be more violent. A little bit like an introverted person who can explode at any moment, I wanted this kind of suddenness like in the book. At the beginning, the money for the movie was coming from the government subventions, I was talking with Stanley who wanted to produce the movie, and also bring Daniel into the project. Daniel was motivated by the project, but the problem was money, I needed to wait 5 months to have it. That's complicated to finance a movie, because in HK, there are a lot of hypocritical people.
Promotionnal photo for Night Corridor
Alain: After that, Daniel become producer of the movie. Were you afraid that he could have an influence on the film decisions, as he wants to become a director later?
Julian: He is not yet ready to become a director. In fact, I let him become producer of the movie because he was feeling more implied this way. He helped us a lot because as he wants to be a director, he wanted to go deeper in how the business work. He found the music for the movie, and drew a necessary attention to the movie. Also, he was gaining more confidence because at this moment, he wasn't able to find an interesting job or salary. So that was an advantage both for him and for me, he was enjoying what he was doing, and above all, he helped me more than any other star. That was a win-win situation.
Alain: I'm a big fan of Kara Hui Ying-Hung since her Shaw Brothers movies, but I know you have chosen her after watching Visible Secret where she has a small role. You didn't know her previous work?
Script review in the street
Julian: No, not at all. In fact, she wasn't my first choice, but she plays so well, she radiates some kind of a violence. We are not really close, but with an actress like her, it's much easier to work. The script for her dialogues was not really well written because I'm not very good for that. But each time, the assistant director was saying "Julian would like you to express this and that, and blablabla". After that, she thinks about it to decide how to express it in front of the camera. Those three actors, with Eddy Ko and Kuk Fung, they come from the old generation, from the Shaw Brothers, and they are so easy to play a role, that's really much easier than for The Accident. At the beginning, you have to give them some indications, but after that, they will assimilate everything and act, whether you like it or not. Anyway, I think it's better to explain how to play the character, but what is as interesting is when an actor gets into the character, and once he is inside, the character is here: that's perfect and there is noting more to explain.
Alain: While watching Night Corridor, we could say it's not Hong Kongese at all. Then we could wonder about your geo-cultural identity, and its influence on the movie. Is it right ?
Julian: In fact, this is a political movie in a way. I'm English in fact, because I had an English passport, and after some English language lessons, I changed my identity to an English one, an European one, and since I always had this anxiety with China. In the movie, the devil keeps the English passport of Daniel Wu, and this devil is China: that's quite subtle, and that's only an interpretation. The subtitle of the book says it's post colonial, after the handover. At the beginning, the library of the movie, it was for the balls of the colonial British, but now, it's deserted, it's lost in Hong-Kong. I grew up with the catholic religion, and there are a lot of catholic churches in Hong-Kong. What I tried to do, is to go back to the colonial Hong-Kong, to look for the lost time. It has changed a lot since the handover.
Alain: with all those European influences, what was your main inspiration for the visual aspect of the movie?
Julian Lee and Daniel Wu
reviewing a shot

Julian: The main inspiration comes from painting, that's a very rich art in Europe, with painters, like Velasquez, Dutch painters, or also Fuseli whose paint "Nightmare" is in the movie. That's a big influence on the movie, because I was an artist before. Now for cinema, I wouldn't quote Dario Argento because I didn't see a lot of his movies, but I was a bit inspired by the catholic kitsch and also by David Lynch and Roman Polanski, with as a common aspect the dark side, the representation of a "victimised", trapped man. When I shoot a movie, I often have a lot of influences, like for the Accident, I was thinking about Antonioni's Eclipse, which made me cry a lot after watching it. When I wrote the book The Accident, the story was taking place in Milan, because Italy is my favourite country.

Night Corridor has something to do with Roman Polanski's Tenant, and also Lost Highway and Blue Velvet from David Lynch, even if I don't like his work so much. But I like the world he is creating, a mystic work located between truth and falsehood, the rules of the game are totally different. You like or you don't like, like with Mulholland Drive (which has not even been released in HK), but that's what I tried to achieve with Night Corridor. When you get into Night Corridor, you enter into my world, my dream. One thing I don't like with David Lynch, it's that without even watching the movie, you are already prepared to enter into his universe, when with me, chinese viewers are not used to surrealist movies because there is not tradition about it. As a consequence, it's necessary to convince the people to get into my work. However Night Corridor is quite gripping, the first 20 minutes are like a labyrinth where you follow Daniel, and that's quite easy.

If I had more money, I would have made it slower, because then I could have the emotion stronger. I shot Night Corridor in 13 days, and that's not enough because I was playing between fantastic and emotion, I need more time to develop the characters. Originally, there was a flashback between two gay men, and also one with the kids and their dad. But it was difficult to shoot that, so we cut it off. We had already cast the kids, but with this scene, the movie was too "biographic", with too many stories, so it was better to give it up. Also at the beginning, there should have been a monkey eating a corpse, but we cut it off also. Now if you ask me what is the main influence, I would say that it's a mix of everything.

Alain: The Accident (83min) and Night Corridor (74min) are very short (around 70 minutes). Will you try to make your movies longer in the future?
Julian: Night Corridor is much shorter than what I thought, originally it was 15 to 20 minutes longer, but we didn't have the time to do it. The 13 days of shooting were taken from my Christmas vacations. But of course, the duration is not very important, and my movies are adapted from novels which are quite short by definition. And with the budget and editing constraints, we did the best we could.
Alain: Will you keep on adapting your own stories?
Julian: The first thing to take into account is money. But after my first two movies, I would like to do a third one produced by a big company which wouldn't bother me too much, even if we have to make some compromises. I have already this third movie on my mind, that's another of my novels, a dark story in the vein of Hitchcock movies, where I want to explore the lustful side of the character. That's not really the more commercial genre in Hong-Kong, but I like thrillers a lot. If Night Corridor is not successful, maybe this thriller could be, even if it's not artistic. With my first movie, you could say "Oh god, Julian Lee is boring". For the second movie, you like or you don't like, but that's not boring. For the third movie, I don't know yet, I can have two approaches: maybe a bit melancholy, maybe more about mystery, a thriller. That's another part of my world which will be discovered I think.
original poster for Night Corridor
Alain: To finish, could you give us three words to define your cinema?
Julian: Dark. Scented. Human.

Thanks a lot to Julian Lee for his availability.

  • August 2003