Interview Teddy Chen

After collaborating with the UFO studio and directing some successful action movies (Purple Storm, Accidental Spy, Downtown Torpedoes), director Teddy Chen has created his own studio in order to produce Chinese movies not only for Hong Kong, but also for China and Taiwan. We met him to talk about his early career, Jin Chuan Pictures, and Dark October, his next movie.

François: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us what you did before working in the movie industry ?

Teddy: My name is Teddy Chen. I’m forty-something and I was born in Hong-Kong. I studied in Taiwan for a few years in high-school and I came back to Hong Kong. My first job was a dolphin trainer at Ocean Park, I think I was seventeen. And then one day, I was having fun with my friends at the bowling, and in the next line, there was a famous TV director. His name is Chi Chiu-Ming, now he is working in cable TV. He came over and asked me: “Hey kid, do you wanna act?”. I said “Act? I don’t know how to act”. He answered "I think he are suitable for my character, in the new TV series". Then I took two days off and went to make the TV series. Suddenly, after I finished these two days, the director talked to me and he said: “are you sure you don't want to carry on? I can add some more parts in these TV series, I think you’re good, you can become an actor”. At that time he was the greatest director in the TV series (smile). I said: “Are you sure?”. He answered "Yes". Then I resigned from Ocean Park and became an actor. This is how it started…

F: After that, you have worked as an assistant director and producer at UFO and then you had quite a lot of success thanks to some action movies. Purple Storm, Downtown Torpedoes, Accidental Spy: what do you think made them different of the lot of action movies which were made in Hong-Kong at this moment?

T: I think that’s mainly the story, the drama which is the most important. For example in A Better Tomorrow from John Woo: I don’t think you can't remember the gunfight scenes today but you still remember how Chow Yun-Fat fights back, the brotherhood and the touching scenes... Chow Yun-Fat had to go, and then he comes back for his friends. That's the most important issue for a movie: the drama. That's the first thing. I work very hard on the drama. So I'm slow.

Downtown Torpedoes

And the second thing when you work on an action film: how to communicate with the stunt choreographer. I learnt from Tsui Hark, from Ching Siu-Tung when I was an assistant director and then in my mind, I have four things that must be thought for a lot of times. The four words are when, where, what and how.

When the fight will occur? You fight during a rainy day, in a place with dark light, at dawn? The timing. Where is the location ? For example, if you just say to the choreographer "Ok, this scene, I just want him to get killed or get a little wound. Then they fight in a bar". There they can't do anything. In a bar, there are only chairs, tables and bottles. Then if I put the situation at the backstairs and it’s sixteen floors: nothing else but stairs. So first time, they listen to this, they will get mad. How can I fight? I said "OK now, where should I put those scenes? You tell me?".

Then “what and how". It's two different issues: you want to go away from somewhere. So what kind of method you are using? Or what kind of transportation are you using? If it is a revenge scene, both people fight together, what kind of weapons are they using?

How? How to go out and how to kill each other.

So these four are very committed to each other. We need to pick the four things every time. OK, we have a fight scene on beach, there is no light, only one light. Ok so then we can create some movements and stunts. And then where on a beach? So it’s low tide, high tide: it’s totally different. And how? That's how you can create the action scene, you understand?

F: Yes. And you talked about the importance of drama even in action movies and it’s really true in Purple Storm. The two characters played by Daniel Wu and Josie Ho are not only about action, they are a lot about inner feelings also. So can you tell us why you have decided to cast Daniel and Josie?

Daniel Wu in Purple Storm

T: I don’t know, somehow I really like to use new faces. I try to find the right face for the right character but of course if it’s a very good actor, he can play any characters. For Daniel, he’s a little bit shy in real life and he always hides somewhere when everything is crowded. He sits in a corner quietly, he thinks a lot, he speaks less.

I think he was suitable for that character at that time. We wanted to pick someone who’s a bit new and he’s just like the kid, he’s fresh, just getting in the business. I think it was only his second movie, so he was so fresh he didn’t know what kind of HK movie he was doing, what he was trying to do. He just tried to learn. And he can’t read Chinese, he can only read English so someone had to translate the Chinese part to him, to let him think. And his character in the movie comes from abroad, Cambodia, and Daniel was new in Hong-Kong, so I think he can have that kind of feeling.

F: And how about Josie?

T: At that time, Josie had a lot of anger inside her because she thinks she was given a chance to make a movie mostly because of her family and her father. Very deep inside, she wanted to prove herself that “I’m me, I’m Josie Ho, not because of my family”. I talked to her, sometimes we went to have a drink and I felt that anger. I thought she can use what is in her mind, in her heart at that time and put it into the character. So, it all picked up very fast.


F: Now, a question about your movie with Jackie Chan, Accidental Spy. It has just been released in France.

T: how is it working out?

F: Not very well. But they have cut it for 20 minutes and they have changed the poster to something very silly: what do you think about these kind of practices?

T: I think that everybody get used to it. In every country, Turkey, Germany... Since America did it this way. That's a part which is always so far away for me, the distribution concept idea. Did you see the real poster?

French poster
Hong Kong poster

F: Yes. They are changing Jackie Chan. They are removing the comedy parts, everything which is too Hong Kongese. Do you think it’s respectful? When Steven Spielberg is releasing a movie in HK, they don’t cut it, they never touch it.

T: If Jackie is the one who is the most important in his movies and he doesn’t care. Sometimes I think the same way: we did our part, we did the movie. Maybe if they (the distributors) think it's the best for Jackie in Paris, or in Turkey...

F: Now, let’s talk about Jin Chuan Pictures. You were already working for UFO and you are also involved in Applause Pictures. Why did you want to create your own studio?

T: I worked in UFO just as a director. I made a lot of friends there and at that time, I always wanted to do not only Hong Kong films, I really wanted to look forward to make some Asian films and I really want to line up China, Taiwan and Hong-Kong together. To make Mandarin speaking films. There are so many talents there but now, we are all separated: Taiwanese films, Chinese films, HK films. But if you asked to people in the States: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, who are the people who worked behind that stuff? Where are the actors coming from? I think they don’t care, it’s a good movie. So I think that what Ang Lee did was a good start. Like Hero, staff from Hong Kong, staff from Taiwan, Hong Kong...

Hidden Track

At that time, Peter Chan and me were good friends: he thinks we can work with the Korean people and Thai people. At that time they were on top. But I don’t know their language, it’s hard for me to communicate and I was quite tough at that time, I can only be a director, I don’t know how to handle this kind of project. We made friends with people like Lee Chang Dong in Korea, Nonzee (Nang Nak) in Thailand. I don’t think I know their language well, their language of making movies. But I’ve made some friends in Taiwan and China: we wanted to do something like I’m doing right now.

So I got a funding from Taiwan. I was once having diner with them, I said I really want to make some Taiwanese movie in Taiwan, but I don’t call it Taiwanese movie. I would bring Hong Kong people along. At that time it was impossible to breakthrough, Chinese actors cannot go in Taiwan. So I would start with a Hong Kong crew first. Then we had a deal and then the funding came along and we had a new company. But at that time, Peter wanted me to stop me doing this because it was no Taiwanese movie at that time. I told him“no Peter, I want to do Chinese movies no matter where they are done”. So that’s why we separated temporarily for a while and I have created Jin Chuan. But we still very good brotherlike companies.

F: Taiwan, HK and China , they’re all Chinese countries but their cultures are slightly different. Is it easy for you to find the real Chinese culture?

T:First of all, if I wanna make a Taiwanese movie about their culture, I don’t wanna change them. But the last movie that I saw from Taiwan, it was too tough, they had no money and the director did everything, like producing, editing, distributing. So if I go there to make a movie, I'm going to be only a producer. And the director will be only a director, nothing else. And I will bring a lot of technical people from HK to make this Taiwanese movie looks more "pleasant".

F: So you take the best part from every country: HK for action, actors from China maybe... You want to take the best from each country?
T: Yes. I think the culture, the family, the way they love, their living habits, it’s still Chinese.
F: How do you deal with the problems of censorship in China?
T: They are working out good, they are more opened now but not everything at the same time: slowly. Like for our new movie, Hidden Track. It’s the first film approved by the governement where there are gay people in China. Step by step, they are improving. Same with Dark October, I talk about Dr Sun Yat-Sen, the revolution father. First of all they said "you can’t make a movie like this because it’s fake, it really happened on that day but..." Then I told them why there are some good reasons and I did some changes and it’s OK, it’s approved. So don’t ask too much at the same time: slowly, slowly...


F: I saw that most of your productions at Jin Chuan are directed by young directors, so do you think Jin Chuan is a good place for them to develop themselves, to have the freedom to do what they want?

T: Not really, I don't think this way. First of all I make a movie this way: we have a script that all the crew knows and understands well, at least at 90%. They know what the movie will talk about. So then we can save time and everybody, every department understands what the director wants. Then at 99% I know from the director what he wants. Can this movie work out? I learned that from my past experience. Because they are new directors, or just directing their second movie, they cannot know that. So if that thing is OK, we can make a decision,as we all know the theme of the movie. Then I let them free hand to direct.

F: Do you feel more implied in those productions because now you are the director of the studio, and not only a director?
Teddy Chen on the set
of Accidental Spy

T: Sometimes, it’s very tough: my left brain fights with my right brain. From the investor side: "hey, the budget is in danger, it’s almost too much you know". But sometimes, from the director side "this scene will be much better but it needs money". So there is a conflict sometimes. But I’ve many good people to help me, as a "bridge". When I was a director before I worked with some company, where there was this "bridge", there was a producer there to help things to go smoothly. That’s why I hired some good producer, associate producer to create this "bridge".

F: How do you see the evolution of Jin Chuan in next years?
T: I do hope to also become another kind of "bridge" for Taiwan films, HK films to go into China, and to work together.
F: China could become a huge market...
T: I think there can be two kind of movies: what we call art films and what we call commercial films. I think now, there are more and more commercial films which are going to be made in Mainland China.
F: So now, we’re going to talk about two of your projects. First one: Hidden Track. You met Aubrey Lam at UFO I guess. Were you interested in her work on Twelve Nights, or is it her who came to you with the Hidden Track project?
T: I think the most important thing again is the script. She’s a very good writer and Twelve Nights is also pleasant. But I hope Hidden Track can be a little bit more commercial. It’s kind of between an art film and a commercial film. So I said: “Can you do something which makes the audience happy or enjoyful?". She used to like tragedy, so I asked her“Can you try this time?”. If you can try to think of something then we’ll go along if the script is good.
F: With the economic situation in HK, people want to laugh, they don’t want to see dramas.
T: I was thinking: I’m an entertainer. So many people thought that way because of the SARS and because many people were unhappy: but I don’t think so. If you want to make a tragedy, it must be a good tragedy then in that one and a half hour, you can cry till death with six packs of tissues. Then the audience will think:“Oh, somebody is poorer, his situation is worse than mine”, that’s a kind of relief.
F: You mean that you can give hope with a tragedy?
T: Yes. If it’s an horror film, during one and a half hour, you will be very scared and you will forget what's happening outside the theatre. That's also a kind of relief. If it’s an action film, and it’s good, it’s tense and the drama is moving, with a good rythm, etc etc... So: we make dreams and, you can dream for one hour and a half or two hours.
F: That’s why Running On Karma is working, that’s a drama but it’s a meaningful movie…

T: You see, it doesn’t matter, it has to be a very good script.

F: Hidden Track is directed by a woman and there are more and more successful women in HK cinema: what do you think about this evolution?

T: I never think this way. Maybe it’s a gay or lesbian director: I don’t mind. So if it’s a good script or story, if he or she can tell a good story, I don’t mind.

F: Now, Dark October... From what I saw on the website: this is a big project right? So is this important for Jin Chuan that this movie is successful?

T: Not only for Jin Chuan but also for me. Because I think outside Asia, in the States, many studios know I'm going to do this movie. So if it doesn't work, Jin Chuan and Teddy Chen are over. I’ve been trying to make this movie for three years after I directed Accidental spy.

F: What kind of movie is it going to be? I saw the drawings on the website, it seems to be an action film but I guess there will be not only action… So is it going to be some epic drama like Hero?

T: You know what: the way action movies are done, in Hollywood, in every country, it’s always calculated. Opening scene: a fight. Ten minutes later: small fight . Half of the movie: medium fight. Before the ending: little fight and bing, at the end, big fight. That’s how it's calculated. Because you come for action movie, you have to have a lot of action all along,

But this movie is going to be two hours, maybe two and a half hours. First half: no fight but drama, tension, thrilling, scarying. And then, at the end, the second half: fights till the end. I want to do something breaking the rules.

F: You want that the drama is enhancing for the fights later ? The fights will have a deep meaning?
Drawing for Dark October

T: Yes, they are waiting for the fight. It has a meaning. It's a long story you know? I have 4 days in October. The movie lasts from the eleventh to the fifteenth of October and it’s all about Dr Sun Yat-Sen and the commander 15. At that time, there was three parties, the British colony, the Ching Dynasty and then the revolutionists.

The english people didn't want anything to happen, they wanted a quiet life in Hong-Kong, they didn’t want to make the Ching angry. But they also like the revolution father, so what can they do? They caught all the people on the revolution father's side and said “I think you’re some kind of gangster". They kept them imprisonned for sixty-four hours. After that, after many questions and if they are clean, they let them get out. This waym there’s nobody left to protect Mr Sun Yat-Sen.

But why should he be protected? Because the Ching dynasty wanted him to get killed on that day in Hong-Kong. So at that time, there are only two people who didn’t even know how to use a gun. They had to protect Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Three days before the fifteenth, they found a beggar, an actor, a person working on a yak. All of them had nothing to do with the revolution, some of them didn’t even know why there is a revolution and some didn’t know who is Dr Sun Yat-Sen. But because of friendship, father’s love, because they want to prove themselves, because of a lover, a son, they had a reason. The revolution doesn’t really matter.

F: I read some info about the cast so could you confirm me if those people are really in the movie: Chang Chen, Eason Chan, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Jiang Wu, Elva Hsiao, Ekin Cheng? And is there other stars?

T: All confirmed, excepting Jiang Wu who is yet to be confirmed. And Eric Tsang will be one of the guys who doesn’t know how to use a gun. There is supposed to be two more guys coming in. I think we will confirmed within this month.

F: That’s quite a good cast, there are many big names.

T: But I want to put the movie this way: I’m not going to sell it as a movie with plenty of stars. No. This is a movie about one day in October 1905. So the most important thing is to rebuild 1905 within three months: we are going to rebuilt the streets to Queen Harbour. Like in Gladiator, to show Rome at that time. So I think this is the main production value: I’m gonna reshow you how 1905 looks like. Then you can really think that it’s there in front of you.

Sets for Dark October
(click to enlarge)
F: How big is the budget?

T: 9,2 millions US dollars

F: That’s really big for a Hong Kong movie: who is paying for this budget? I guess it's not only Jin Chuan?

T: No, it's only Jin Chuan. I have the funds behind me to support me. That’s the same funds from Taiwan I told you before, and this time I have even some from Japan. But it’s a funding from a bank, it's not an investor.

F: Which means you are free hand with this movie?

T: Yes. Before I was very anxious to work with some studios in Hollywood. But to them, there are no big star so they were giving me hard time.

F: Eason Chan, Tony Leung KF, Ekin Cheng: they’re big names in Asia…

T: To them it’s just Jet Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat. I don’t want to make a “Oh, this Jackie Chan’s movie”. No. I like Jackie Chan, it's not an insult. It’s a movie about 1905. So I told them to look at the footage after I finished it. Eight studios were sitting together and having a look. Who likes it more? It's a movie about protecting Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Look at the story... Come because you like the story, not because you like Chow Yun-Fat and want to do a movie with him.

F: Are you sad that they consider a movie just because of the main star and not looking at your story?

T: They have a different position. They think of business. I want to make a decent movie that people will enjoy not because of Eric Tsang or Eason Chan. But of course, if they’re in it, it makes the movie much better.

F: But you need to refund the film and that’s expensive, you need a public success also.

T: This is what I told you before: if it doesn’t work, Teddy Chen is dead, Jin Chuan is dead, everything will flop.

F: You have been working several times with Stephen Tung, the action director in your movie. Is it important for you to have a good action director and to work withthe same one each time?
Drawing for Dark October

T: Actually, he’s talented. He himself runs a company and he knows how to be a boss, he knows about the money problem. So sometimes it’s very easy to communicate with him: let’s say we have seven kinds of fights in one action scene and all we have is four days. Can we finish the seven parts in just four days? If not, then he will tell me:

“Teddy, what do you think? Which four or five are most important?” and I’ll say: “one, three, four, six, seven”. Ok, then we’ll do 1-3-4-6-7 first and if there’s still time we’ll finish 2 and 5, if not: forget it. He thinks about money, that’s why he’s so talented and he’s also a director. It’s easy to communicate and not only about the fight scenes. The fight scenes will have feelings and drama inside, it so that’s why he works at total 100% belief in.

F: The cast is not composed by real martial artists like Jet Lee or Jackie Chan. Do you think it will be difficult for you to make them look like real martial artist?

T: I think that is not a problem. In every country action films. Do you think Chow Yun Fat can really fight well? I believe in my fight director. Look at my movies.

F: will the cast follow a special training?

T: Yes, but they didn't begin yet. I have to build the set during three months. The set is going to be build about middle of November in GuangZhou. One or two months ahead, they will have to learn because all the five characters have a specific style of kung-fu. So they have to learn, at least how to do some martial arts. You can't learn all kung-fu in a month or two, so they will just learn their own style.

F: When do you plan to release the movie?

T: The title is Dark October…

F: OK. And you plan to release it in HK, Taiwan and China at the same time? And also, did you pre-sell the movie to foreign countries?

T: Yes, it will be released in all Chinese countries. And I didn't pre-sell the movie yet… I think it's going to be fair deal to every studio. But maybe I have a little problem because we have five hundreds and forty shots of special effects in the movie, so they need four months to create themt. If I’m on schedule I will start shooting on March and I will finish it in June, then maybe the movie can be released on time. If not, the movie will be released at Christmas.

F: 450 shots of SFX? Who’s going to do the special effects?

T: It’s a company called Menfond (editor’s note: Menfond was in charge of all the SFX for Andrew Lau’s movies)

F: You are now in the HK cinema industry for 20 years already so you lived different periods of HK cinema: What do you think of the present situation of HK cinema?

Teddy: I think back to the mid 90's, it was too rich in Hong-Kong, there was three hundreds and thirty movies made. The investors were coming to you and saying: “Ah? You need so much money to make a movie? I just met a guy who can make it for one third of your budget. That’s OK, I go to that guy, don’t bother”. So then we had plenty of lousy movies coming out. If you want to make a big action film: you must have money for the production values, how it looks. But at that time, some of them didn't even know. Oh you need a million to do that, you don't need 10 millions to do it.

Another very important point is, I forgot to talk about it before in the reasons to do movies with Taiwan: Before in Hong-Kong, the market was not big enough to refund the movies, especially for big modern action film, they cost more than twenty millions. But there was a market called Taiwan. Most of money at the end of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's, came from Taiwan. There is a big market there. Then the pirate VCDs came out. It started in Taiwan. Not really with pirate VCDs, but with the pirate TV Channel. They steal the movie, and you only have to pay for 600 Taiwan currency and then you can see the movie, the same day, at the same time, on TV. They get a wire to your house, plug it and that's it.. Then the police comes to cut it, and in the next two hours, they come back again to replug you. And then the market went down. And the governement didn't know it was so dangerous. When they wanted to stop, it was too late. Then the pirates educated the people: we can do pirate VCDs, wireless.

And then it grew. Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Hong Kong. The disease was spreading. The market was gone. In Hong Kong, few people were investing. How can they invest in 330 movies a year ? So, who was working hard ? Who was using his heart to make movies ? Those can survive. That's the rule of the game. But now, there is another hope. It's the Chinese market. So the investors are back. But those kind of directors are back again. You need that much ? I can do it for one third of it. You see, it's a circle. But I remember, one time somebody came up and said "let's help the industry". Then eight people sat around a table. I said, "we did our own best, we believe in our industry. We cannot help. So many bad people running it. Suppose there's a a cook who works as an extra and who wants to become a director, who wants to make movies... That's just part of the game.

F: As you said, it's a circle. So do you think it will be better, than another crisis, etc...?

T: Every kind of business has bad guys and I don't really blame them. They kind of survive. But I think it's good. If all the bad guys are gone, who is the best ? There must be bad guys to have good guys. I wanted to stay there. But I do my own job. Just like some decent directors like Derek Yee, Peter Chan, Benny Chan. They also worked very hard to make movies. So I think partly we can still go on. And later, there should be less pirates VCDs, because the market will be big again. They can become "good guys". No more pirate anymore, they will maybe have to lower the price a little bit.

F: As of today, do you feel chinese ? Hong Kongese?

T: Many foreigners asked this question you know ? What is the change after 1997 ? To me, I don't know anything about economy, politics, etc..; I'm just a dreammaker. So to me, life is a bit tough. I have less friends. Because everybody are too focused to make a good living, to survive. Less partying. Because of the message of the mobile phone, emails, people talk less. To me it's a sad thing. If the people like my movies, it's because they can feel the drama, the human drama. I keep on making friends from outside hong Kong. Now I have more friends in Taiwan, in China, and less friends in Hong Kong. That's a tragedy to me.

F: Thanks a lot and good luck for Dark October

T: You are welcome.


All our thanks to Dana and Kathy for their kind help, and to Teddy Chen for his availability.

  • octobre 2003