Okinawa 2017 Interview: Fruit Chan on Balancing Independent and Commercial Filmmaking
Last month, Hong Kong filmmaker Fruit Chan served as the head of the Creators Factory jury at the 9th Okinawa International Movie Festival on the picturesque Japanese island. Chan had recently unveiled a new restoration of his groundbreaking 1997 indie Made in Hong Kong in his home town, and is now deep in post-production on the red-blooded action flick Invincible Dragon, staring Max Zhang (Ip Man 3, SPL 2) and former UFC champion Anderson Silva. ScreenAnarchy was in attendance at Okinawa, where South Korean correspondent Pierce Conran and I sat down with Chan for a wide-ranging conversation about his career, his thoughts on the festival and the struggles of working in both the commercial and independent space.
Fruit Chan: Everybody in the industry tells me I only make arthouse movies. It makes me very confused, this kind of label - if you are an arthouse director you can’t make a commercial movie. In Hong Kong, for arthouse directors it is very difficult to survive, so that’s why we use both hands. The right hand is making my own movies, which I like, the other hand is more mainstream, to help me survive more easily. I’m just very realistic. Hong Kong is too small. Invincible Dragon is a mainstream movie, and so more important than me. I think the investors are happy right now, but it’s too early. Ultimately, I have to prove it at the box office.
ScreenAnarchy: How have you seen the local industry change in the past 20 years?
Even if you make a local commercial movie, without the China market, it is difficult to be successful. That’s the point, because the budgets are too small. So that’s why in recent years so many traditional movies, like ghost movies, have disappeared in Hong Kong.
To what degree are the requirements of mainland censorship to blame?
They cannot have ghost stories, because they believe there are no ghosts. We are just making entertainment, we don’t care about anything, but they care. Their position on spirituality, their system is quite different. Even in Hong Kong, if you make a commercial film without a famous cast, it can be difficult. Audiences only recognise big names and big productions now.
Weren’t your last two productions mainland productions?
Yes, Kill Time and Shining Moment, which is a low-budget film we shot in Guangzhou. We made Kill Time two years ago in Beijing. It was not a success, because of some kind of problem. I mean, you have to spend money on promotion, especially in China. You have to show it in the commercial marketplace. Actually it’s really big money, it’s like Hollywood already.
But China is very interesting if you compare it to the US. In the US, every year you will have one or two low budget successes, like Manchester by the Sea, Lion or Moonlight. At least these three movies were successful, and they were all independent. But in China, the audience doesn’t like to watch art-house movies, talking about life, talking about real people, they just want entertainment. The mindset is not changing very quickly, and the industry, at least right now, cannot make them.
It’s not like in Korea, where some good quality arthouse movies can be successful. In Hong Kong or China it is very difficult. Unless you are a big director like Zhang Yimou, it’s not easy. Maybe in 10 years it will be better.
Do you feel more pressure working in the mainland?
If you know the rules there is no pressure. The pressure is that you have a big budget, how do you get that money back? This is the investors’ pressure. With a commercial movie you know right from the start that this movie must be successful, the investors give you money, so everybody must “choi soi” (bullshit) their investors. But now, when you shoot a movie in China it’s so expensive, it’s not like 10 years ago. Sometimes it’s more expensive than Hong Kong, because for RMB5 million, at least 70% is spent on set. In Hong Kong, just 20%. If the budget is over RMB 10 million, close to 100% is spent on the crew. That’s why I say it’s so expensive.
What can you tell us about Shining Moment?
Shining Moment is a China story about ballroom dancing. My lead actress was younger than 9 years old. We showed it at the Macau Film Festival [last December], and will show it in Shanghai in June, maybe, I don’t know yet. They already asked me if I have time to go there, but I don’t know yet. That was a very low budget film, because we used children, who are non-professionals, and no famous guys, so we can save money for the production. But the other problem is that a small movie is difficult to release, because you have no cast.
How important are festivals to helping release this kind of movie?
This is not my problem. Sometimes the distributors don’t know what to do with a small movie. Last year they already opened some arthouse theatres around China. There are at least 200 screens for arthouse movies, but this has only just happened, so the audiences are not used to going to watch these films. But this movie is not arthouse, it’s commercial, but without famous actors, so they have no idea what kind of movie it is. They have no idea how to release it, because they never experienced this kind of situation before. All they ask is how successful was your last movie. Whoever releases this film, for them it must be a success. But now, everyone is looking towards China, even Hollywood has surrendered. They have to dig into the Chinese market. The situation is better than 10 years ago. Distributors have the courage to release a few small movies, but really they’re just watching and guessing how to do it.
How do you feel about the Hong Kong industry now?
This year the [Hong Kong Film] awards were very strange. The director is new, the screenwriter is new, except for the actors, everyone else is quite young and new…thanks to government support. The government offers financial support without any refund, this year Mad World received $2 million. At least they can hire famous actors, to join together to finish this movie. Now the box office is very good, after they won the awards, so at least you see something brighter from the young directors. I think slowly they may get better.
Do you think the current political situation in Hong Kong is inspiring good work?
Whether there is change or not, it makes no real difference, because of who is the boss.
What are your thoughts on the Okinawa Film Festival this year?
I saw around 10 movies - some good, some not so good. The average age [of the directors] is around 28, so they are not so mature, not much technical control. But the acting, whether from professional or non-professional performers, I think was quite ok, which is very important. Even if i am watching some new director from Hong Kong, they cannot control their actors. For script or directing, even older directors sometimes make a mess, I don’t think this is a big problem. The trend in the world seems to be looking towards young people, at least we have hope when watching young people make movies.
But compared to the Japanese New Wave of the 60s, 70s and 80s, young directors nowadays have a long long way to go. Making movies is too easy now, anyone can make a movie with a phone, they don’t have any teacher or producer telling them not to make their first movie so easily. Like a virgin, you don’t need to lose it so easily. You have to enjoy your first time and make your movie powerful. I don’t think they care about this, they just want to make movies, send them to a festival, show up and say “I am a director” - that’s the problem.
Your films use a number of fascinating concepts. Where do you look for inspiration?
I understand that if you want to survive you have to make some movies that people will enjoy, or at least that they will watch. So that’s why you have to choose your subject matter carefully, and make a movie that will attract people to the cinema. So whatever the subject, I try to find out what is the most important element in the movie. So the first idea may not be from the script or the characters, because our teacher taught us if we write one script, only two things are important. Firstly, what do you want to say, and what character do you want to use.
Maybe because I grew up in the main industry, I’m already used to co-operating with the director. At least when they make their movies they think about how to get people into the cinema. How to get people to watch their movie. They try hard to make something attractive. But for arthouse movies, one from the heart, the director must have some kind of talent, and use their mindset to attract people.
In Dumplings, at least the short story is very interesting because people, human thinking is already upside down. How to make a movie not like a ghost movie? In a ghost movie you can say anything without logic. But I don’t know how to make movies without logic. I remember when Dumplings screened in Korea and Australia, the foreign audiences were scared and laughing at the same time. At least I win, I want to watch their feelings. I have to find some point to make myself happy. Once I understand that this must be funny, I can move onto the second step, the writing.
My favourite scene from any of your movies is the fight between the octopus and the crabs in PUBLIC TOILET.
Public Toilet is a special case. It’s so funny, just using digital video, so you have no CG, but at least it was realistic, combined with some kind of fantasy. With Dumplings, it was totally realistic. Some Chinese people like to eat foetus. Southern Chinese believe “what you eat is wha you get”, so if you eat chicken’s feet your legs will become strong. That’s why women like to eat chicken soup after giving birth, so they can recover quickly. It has some kind of energy inside it. Maybe they put some kind of Chinese medicine in thee also. I don’t know, you’ll have to ask a Chinese woman. It’s very funny.
You have said that the directors who influenced you the most are Japanese. Who specifically?
Oshima. When I was an assistant director I was watching his early 60s movies. They were very low budget, but powerful, talking about society’s problems and political problems. That’s why I added these elements into The Midnight After, but in Hong Kong some people didn’t like it, they said it’s very commercial. They asked why I put such political elements into the movie. So I just try. If you like it, ok. If you don’t like it, no problem.
There was talk of a sequel after the success of THE MIDNIGHT AFTER. Is that likely to happen any time soon?
No. Well, i don’t know. Not yet. The problem is the political situation in Hong Kong right now. A few years ago, I didn’t have to show if I was a blue or a yellow [political affiliation]. But now you have to say it. It’s difficult. I just want to include some black humour in my movie, but sometimes that hurts people. But I don’t know who. Some people are just like that (sighs). Now it’s so political, that’s why I don’t want to make it. At least I’ve put it down for now. In five years’ time, let’s see what’s going on in Hong Kong, but I want to put it down for now.
Pierce Conran contributed to this story.