New York Asian 2018 Interview: Hong Kong Action Legend Dante Lam and Producer Candy Leung Talk OPERATION RED SEA

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
New York Asian 2018 Interview: Hong Kong Action Legend Dante Lam and Producer Candy Leung Talk OPERATION RED SEA
The New York Asian Film Festival is celebrating a true Master of Action.  Director/producer/writer Dante Lam’s career spans Hong Kong’s Golden Age with films like Beast Cops, Twins Effect, Jiang Hu, through today with Beast Stalker, Unbeatable, and To The Fore.
With his longtime producer, Candy Leung, Lam spoke with LMD about receiving the Daniel A. Craft Excellence in Action Award and his blockbuster Mainland-made war epic, Operation Red Sea.
The Lady Miz Diva:  Director Lam, congratulations on the honour.  Dan Craft was a man who prized action movies, and he would’ve been thrilled to give you this award.  How do you feel about being here with the NYAFF audience who know your work very well? 
Dante Lam:  Of course, I’m very happy that the film is selected to be shown here, because, after all, it is a Chinese movie – an action-packed Chinese movie.  It was quite a surprise to me actually,
And because many Hong Kong movies are martial arts-focused, whereas this movie features more gunfights, it is more similar to Western films.  In a sense, that’s what surprised me that they enjoyed this.
LMD:  OPERATION RED SEA was released during Chinese New Year, which is typically a time for very light family films, or romances and comedies.  You made such an intense film with close-up violence, and body parts, and blood.  Was it always your intention to release this very different New Year’s film at this time? 
DL:  This is a question for the producer! {Laughs}
Candy Leung:  Actually, you asked the right question; it was our fear before.  When we were doing post {production}, I deliberately tried to push the release date to later in the year, {Laughs} because for both of us, we were worried about Lunar New Year.  It’s actually family days; they would like to watch some comedies.  Nothing like this, with violent and bloody scenes, can satisfy them.
But when the VP came to our office, they viewed the longest version, which was 188 minutes, and then he got tears in his eyes.  He was very touched by the content.  Then after the movie, he immediately made the decision that night.  I had such doubts about it, I said, “No, no, no, no, it’s not the right time,” but they really had confidence about it, and they gave us the money.  I cannot turn them down. {Laughs} Then we went for it.
LMD:  It really is an epic war film on a huge scale.  Please talk about putting the film together from a logistical point of view?  I’m particularly interested in the Chinese military’s involvement and cooperation?
CL:  Yes, this was the first time, and I don’t see that we will have a second chance to cooperate with them anymore. {Laughs} It is quite difficult, because, speaking for ourselves as filmmakers, we actually enjoy the freedom of creation, and also production.  Production is strict; we have to work out a schedule, and according to the budget.  We have to wrap everything within target dates, and also the money, but, if there too many surprises, you’d say, ‘Oh, okay, forgive my innocence.’
The Marines are more strict than we are.  Whatever we committed to, we could never change.  In the process of the shooting, when we collaborated and there happens to be some argument about arrangement – because this was really our first experience – but then to the Marines, it’s a no.  Once you say you want something, you cannot change.  
For instance, one day, when we predicted a typhoon was coming, and I canceled.  I’d rather cancel the call for tomorrow, but they said no.  Once the call was in, they already arranged for four warships to go out.  All the departments knew it; even though there was a typhoon coming, we needed to go out and come back with it.  Really, that was the first time we experienced it.  At that moment I realised that the military is really strict. {Laughs}  But then, at the end of the day, I think for both sides, we all learned something; to me it was obedience and commitment.  To the Marines -- I think because we are strict, too, our strictness is when the director needed something; we needed to have a certain answer that is accurate, all the dates and everything should be very accurate: They have to take into account the history, the details of the warships, we had to know all that.  So, I think we all learned from both sides.
LMD:  You literally have all four elements in this film; sea battle, air operations, ground combat, and fiery explosives.  What in terms of film was your biggest challenge to arrange? 
DL:  To be honest, this type of movie, these kind of topics don’t come by in the Hong Kong movie industry very frequently.  It’s very rare.  In fact, I would say it never happens.  So, I really saw this is the only chance for me to direct a movie like this, and I really like this type of movies, personally.  So, when I got the chance to make this movie, I just threw in all the things that I have dreamed about, and I have watched, and rolled it up into the same movie. {Laughs}  
There were definitely a lot of difficulties.  Like I said, I’ve never done a movie like this before, and there were a lot of big scenes with huge setups, and the movie is also quick tempoed.  So, when we brought the crew to Morocco to shoot, none of us had any experience to shoot there, so Candy and I had to both be very flexible in our problem-solving.
LMD:  So you two had to be very flexible, while the Marines were very strict. 
DL: Even in Morocco. {Laughs}
If you ask me, I would say everything had its difficulties, but perhaps the most difficult one was the scene featuring the tanks fighting amidst the Sam storm, because we had to handle such a difficult situation in nature.
CL:  Actually, the line producer already warned us that that was the season that the sandstorms always come to the desert.  In the desert, it was normal, everyday on daily basis, from 3PM to 4.  We couldn’t force it, because we only had limited days to do the tank scenes.  So, when the sandstorm came, we would just pause for a while, and then continue the shooting.  But this kind of modulation actually inspired Director Lam to think, to add more elements to the tank scenes that were out of our expectations.
LMD:  Watching your films like OPERATION RED SEA, UNBEATABLE and BEAST COPS, you can see the dedication that your actors put in to their roles.  In UNBEATABLE, Eddie Peng literally grows before our eyes due to his physical training.  How do you get your actors to commit to their characters so strongly?
DL:  I would say perhaps I’m not really strictly pushing them on the surface.  It’s more that the topics that I picked for these films, they required certain things from the actors, and as I develop the film, I envision the things that are needed from the actors, and when they come on board, they see what is needed from them, as well.  So, they push themselves to get there.  And I would say that if you can’t do it, if you can’t achieve it, then this thing will fall apart.  So, it’s a less aggressive way of pushing them, perhaps.
LMD:  You are synonymous with Hong Kong filmmaking, yet have transitioned into Mainland films very successfully.  What is the difference in filmmaking between the two systems? 
DL:  To be honest, I’ve only done two movies that are for the Mainland, so to speak; OPERATION MEKONG and OPERATION RED SEA, and in fact both movies had more of an international scope, and used more of an international language, and they’re both commercial films.  So, after doing these two movies, I still have some distance from those “pure” Mainland Chinese films that are more contained within Mainland China.  
That is also partly why I feel more comfortable directing these two movies, because I combine my own experiences filming before, and the topics of the two movies, themselves.  That makes me feel comfortable doing this job.
CL:  To explain further, OPERATION MEKONG and OPERATION RED SEA, those two incidents happened overseas.  They did not happen inside Mainland China.  If you asked Dante to shoot a movie like how to build the army during Chairman Mao, that is out of our knowledge, because we come from Hong Kong.  But speaking of OPERATION MEKONG, it was about chasing a drug king, and OPERATION RED SEA was a real story talking about the 2015 retrieval of the Chinese people coming back to China.  So, both of them have the space for Dante to use those incidents as a global language, and then to combine with his experience and his technique in action films, it comes together perfectly well.  If you asked us to shoot a mainstream Chinese movie, we would have to probably study more. {Laughs
LMD:  One of the things I most enjoy about your films like OPERATION RED SEA, UNBEATABLE, BEAST STALKER, is how beautifully they are shot.  Unlike many directors, you know how to show the action to its best effect.  I’m sure you work closely with your cinematographers, but can you talk about how to frame action?
DL:  I have a lot of capable colleagues that worked on this film with me.  Cinematographers, editors, visual designers, but they all see this film from their own niche, and I would say that my job as the director is to combine all their niches.  And my last role as the director is to return to the role of audience; to look at the film as an audience.  And if the audience can see this thing that we’re trying to show, it’s there.  If the audience cannot see it, then no.
LMD:  While you are here being praised for your action work, you haven’t just done action films.  You began your career with a lot of comedy films, which were the first things of yours that I watched.  I think one of my earliest films of yours was TWINS EFFECT…
DL: Hmm… TWINS EFFECT, 2003 {Laughs}, also from Emperor Film Group. {Laughs
LMD:  Was it just a natural progression for you to do more pure action, or was it your intention?  Would you like to return to comedies?
DL:  In fact, I did other comedies before TWINS EFFECT, as well.  Personally, I would prefer action.  If there’s only comedy and no action in a movie, I probably would not do it…
CL: Even a love story! {Laughs}
DL:  But I did a movie called JIANG HU, and that movie had lots of black humor in it.  It was a combination of action and comedy.  It was a stylistic kind of movie.  So, I could say I would be interested depending on the specific topic of the film.
LMD:  As someone who truly represents the Golden Age of Hong Kong action films, who is still active and successful.  I’m curious where you see the future of action films going?
DL:  This is a difficult question that we’re facing, because we don’t have too much fresh blood in the line of action actors.  We used to have Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but they are no longer acting so much, and we don’t have newcomers, really.  For the audience, they see so much fake stuff on film these days, with the special effects and everything, that they would really want to see some real acting to get excited.  So, that’s the hope.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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ActionCandy LeungChinese cinemaDante LamHong KongInterviewNYAFF 2018Operation Red Sea

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