For his first feature film, director Wong Chun decided to shine a spotlight on the serious topic of mental illness, and one Hong Kong family’s struggle to cope. The project generated such momentum that both of its stars, Shaun Yue, and cinema legend Eric Tsang, donated their acting fees back to the production.
Mad World was greeted with acclaim and even the prestigious Golden Horse for director Wong At the New York Asian Film Festival, Wong spoke with me about the film’s blessings and unexpected success.
The Lady Miz Diva: It is rare see films from Asia dealing seriously with the ramifications of mental illness. Was bringing that issue to the attention of a wide audience part of the inspiration behind MAD WORLD?
Wong Chun: This is one of the major motivations behind this project. We want people to easily understand the film, but also care about the characters and the issues, and allow them to understand and realise all these different issues and consequences related to mental illness.
To me, mental illness is actually no different than a lot of social issues that we encounter every day in our daily lives, but there are barriers that people don’t understand about the stigma of mental illness, and certain complications that arise from having family members that have mental illness.
So, I hope that by portraying the subject as a theme for the film, that people have a better understanding of mental illness, and that it is actually not much different from a lot of social issues that we face in our daily lives.
LMD: The portrayal of Tung, who has Borderline Personality Disorder, is so sensitive and realistic, I wondered what kind of research and interaction with real-life patients and families did you have?
WC: We did a lot of interviews and research about the subject. We went to interview people who are recovering for mental illness. We interviewed the caretakers of mental illness patients. We went to doctors, relatives, people suffering from mental illness, and listened to many stories. So, a lot of the dialogue and the events in the film were based on real cases, but they are derived from different cases, so they’re not from one case. So in a sense, Tung’s story is everybody’s story.
When you watch the film, you realise he is just a very sensitive man. He is not crazy. He is not violent. But he is just sensitive; his senses are very strong. His senses are over the top, but in the end, he is no different from us in terms of the emotional issues that he goes through. My ultimate hope is that by showing mental illness in this way through the film, that it can help pull us all a little closer to the understanding of mental illness.
LMD: This is your first feature, yet you received so many blessings with Eric Tsang and Shawn Yue and the production team. Now, here you sit as a Golden Horse winner. What has this all been like?
WC: I didn’t actually have the problem of feeling success had come too quickly or too early for me. The reaction of the film was actually way better than I expected, but also I had a lot of help and support from others, like Mr. Tsang, the veteran staff, and cast and crew.
Many have asked me if success has come too early or too soon for me, but I feel a little bit more embarrassed; I felt that I can improve, the film could be much better. I worked on the film for so long, I know all the flaws within the film. I know where it could be better, where I should’ve improved, where it should’ve been done this way or that way. I realise I need to do better to deserve this recognition. So, hopefully my next one will be better.
I keep telling myself, ‘No more regrets. I have to be more satisfied with what I’ve done without many regrets.’ With the success of this one, I honestly feel that with the next project, I have to work much harder.
LMD: MAD WORLD has played and received honours at festivals around the world. What do you think is striking a chord outside of Asia?
WC: I’ve been to many international film festivals and I’ve often been surprised by the reception that I’ve received at these festivals. For example, some film festivals, they have no idea where Hong Kong is. Or some have been to Hong Kong, and they believe the entire Hong Kong is Central. The idea of living in such a cramped space is a totally alien concept to them. Some thought that Hong Kong was Japan.
Once I left Asia and I went to all these film festivals I realised that outside of Asia, people know very little about Asia. So, when we have a film that is that local in terms of flavour, we thought that the audience might need some time to pick it up or understand it, because it is so local. It is so made for Hong Kong audiences.
But in the end, we were surprised that a lot of moviegoers seemed to understand the film pretty quickly, and I think that is because, in essence, we are still talking about human beings: Isolation, emotional isolation, social isolation, the difficulties they encounter in life. This makes me a true believer in cinema.
Cinema might have its own local flavors, but in the end, the story of a human being remains the core of cinema, and that is how, by watching such a human story, even though the film has its own cultural differences, audiences still can relate to it in the characters on the screen.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.