New York Asian 2018 Interview: Director Sunny Chan and Star Jennifer Yu Take the Plunge in MEN ON THE DRAGON

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New York Asian 2018 Interview: Director Sunny Chan and Star Jennifer Yu Take the Plunge in MEN ON THE DRAGON
A Hong Kong tradition, dragon boat racing shines in the spotlight of screenwriter Sunny Chan’s directing debut, Men on the Dragon.  Director Chan, and rising star, Jennifer Yu, spoke with LMD at the New York Asian Film Festival about bringing the sport to the screen. 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Director Chan, you’ve been known as an in-demand screenwriter for a long time.  What was it about MEN ON THE DRAGON that made you say, ‘This is the one I want to direct?’
 
Sunny Chan:  I think for every film lover, their ultimate goal is to become a film director.  I finished the script a long time ago, and I always had this goal to direct my own work.  So, I started thinking about which script I should make into my first film?  So, I started looking over my past work, and I found this script, and I succeeded in promoting this film in order to make it into a film.
 
LMD:  You are closely associated with your work with director Joe Ma.  What if anything did you learn from him that helped your directorial debut? 
 
SC:  Joe Ma, as you know, is my mentor, and my master in the film industry.  I finished writing this script when I was working with Joe Ma.  After I grew up a little bit in the film industry, I had made connections throughout the years, and I met the film partners that I needed for this film throughout the years of working in this industry, and that’s how the project came together.  But, after I gathered the team, I thought, maybe it’s time to invite Joe Ma to become the producer of this film.  That would be the perfect team in order to finish this project.
 
LMD:  What was it about the sport of dragon boat racing that made you think it was a great framework to tell the story of the characters? 
 
SC:  Dragon boat is a very Hong Kong sport.  It has a lot of the Hong Kong characteristics, or personality in the dragon boat, because, you know, Hong Kong people like to improvise.  There is a saying that if you are really in a hurry, you go to the Buddha and you beg the Buddha at his feet.  So, you don’t go to the temple until you really need it.  So, there is a saying like that.  It’s a summary of how Hong Kong people improvise whenever there is a need, right?
 
Other sports like soccer, and other things, you have to play them from a really young age:  You really have to train for really long time in order to be good and to be professional-ish.  You are talking about either someone with great talent, or someone who trained very hard for years, right?  But with the dragon boat, no matter how old you are, no matter what type of physical status you are in, as long as you train yourself really hard for six months, you can sort of participate in a professional-ish level of competition.  So, that is part of the reason why I did it.  That really reflects the Hong Kong personality in that way.
 
The second reason is there are twenty people in that same boat, and everybody comes from a different background.  They have different life stories, and different situations, but as long as you play on the same beat together, and try really hard as a team, you can succeed in this competition.  That is part of the reason why I chose this topic for the film.
 
LMD:  I’m not sure if it’s popular anywhere else around the world, but I’ve always thought of dragon boat racing as signature to Hong Kong.  Was that part of the reason you chose this sport? 
 
SC:  Dragon boat also exists elsewhere in China, and also in Taiwan, as well, but the popular place to have dragon boat racing every year is Hong Kong.  In the other places, dragon boat racing might not be as popular as in Hong Kong.  Also, there is a trend that more and more young people anticipate in the dragon boat racing, and I also feel like this is a very manly game, and in that way it fits the story.
 
LMD:  Your explanation that in six months you can become a good dragon boat racer is interesting.  I wonder if being able to see such a change in oneself inside of that relatively short time, assisted the theme of changing and metamorphosis for these characters in this movie?
 
SC:  Another part of my career, which is really important to me, is to write love columns in Hong Kong.  So, I love to study human beings.  I love to study what men and women are thinking.  
 
I have this theory that middle-aged men, in their midlife crisis; they only need one breakthrough in order to get out.  So, I feel like the six month training is enough for them to face their challenges and difficulties directly, and to make that breakthrough.
 
LMD: The role of Dorothy requires a very strong, steady actor to realise her.  What made you sure Jennifer Yu was the one to play her? 
 
SC:  So, for me, I love romantic conflicts.  I think for the drama conflict, you’re determining two things; one, is the acting of the character, from the actor or actress.  The second is the chemical reaction between the characters.  That’s why I chose Kenny Wong to play that man who cries all the time, and instead I chose a girl who the audience would always consider pretty to be the tough trainer.  I thought that would bring up the chemistry of the characters.
 
LMD:  I thought Dorothy was a role that defied gender.  Did you always envision that character as female?  
 
SC:  For me, what’s interesting in the story, is that there are two characters that have wisdom: The first one is Dorothy.  The second one is the young guy in the group who was played by Tony Wu.  Because there is always a stereotype in Hong Kong that old people have more wisdom, and young people, whatever they say has no weight.  I wanted to confront that.  I wanted to oppose that, so I chose these two characters to tell the older man what they should do with their lives, now that they’re in their midlife crisis, when they think they know everything.  I make these two characters to bring out the wisdom in the middle-aged men.
 
LMD:  Ms. Yu, what intrigued you about Dorothy?
 
Jennifer Yu:  So, traditionally in Hong Kong, dragon boat is a man’s sport.  Men are considered to be good at it, and women are not.  So, I think to tell people this is not true; this character made that statement.
 
Another challenging thing was to get these middle-aged men to listen to her, right?  So, she is a young woman who is teaching them how to dragon boat, and teaching them something that is traditionally done by men.  She is very mature, which is the foundation for her to make this change, because the men, even though they are older -- they are more senior -- they behave immaturely.  They behave like kids, they like to play.  That is the foundation why I think this character makes sense, because she is very mature in her mind.
 
LMD:  You’re still a relative newcomer to film.  What was the most challenging aspect of the role for you?  The physical aspect and the training you surely had to endure, or conveying Dorothy’s emotions? 
 
JY:  First, is the physical aspect.  As you know, in the film I’m playing the trainer, and I needed to be better than the other crew actors in the group.  So, even though the film company arranged training together, I felt that I needed to be better than the other characters, so I found myself a really experienced coach, who taught me how to dragon boat.  
 
Also, a lot of people may think that as an actress, after making this film you would get very tanned, which is considered not as pretty in Asia.  You will get a lot of muscles and your appearance may change a little bit, because the Asian perspective of pretty is very different than here.  But I think as an actress, appearance is not that important to me, and I am very prepared psychologically to get tanned, because this is the film I’m trying to make -- of course I’m getting tanned.  I also found personal trainers to make me look like an athlete, so I would have muscles and everything.
 
As for the emotional aspect, I actually learned how to yell at people from the professional coach.  I am quite a submissive personality, if you say; I always will listen to other people.  But in this film, I needed to tell them what to do, and I was pretty bad at that.  So, the professional coach, who actually coached dragon boaters, that person taught me that I needed to have the attitude to talk to the rowers.  So, he brought me on the boat and he put me on the stand, to yell at people who had a lot of experience dragon boating.  So, was put on the spot and he said, “You are too soft to them. When you are in the water, you can’t do that.”  So, he pushed me to be assertive and more assertive, and that was the training, as well.
 
There was the technical part of the training, and there was also the emotional part of the training, and I really enjoyed myself through the training.
 
LMD:  There’s a coach that teaches you how to yell?  That’s great.  Has that training helped you to be more assertive in your daily life?
 
JY:  Yes, a little bit.  I started to have the courage to express myself. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  Director, can you talk about the logistics of filming the boat races, and whether we see any of the cast members actually racing in the boats?  
 
SC:  Most of the time, it was them by themselves.  The actors and actresses actually played themselves most of the time.  We couldn’t have stuntmen, because we always used to have three cameras together to make a wide shot, as well as for full shots of their bodies, so you could always recognize who they are.  So, you really can see them from every angle, so you really can’t use a double.  So, because we didn’t have any postproduction, or special effects, or stuntmen, they had to physically row the boat.  A one to two minute scene in the film, we shot for a few days.
 
So, the last scene that you see the movie, when the two dragon boats were racing parallel like cars, we had coaches in each boat to tell them what to do, but after I shot the scene, all these actors were shouting at me saying, “We almost hit the other boat!” {Laughs}
 
LMD:  You have the topline idea of the older men training to win the dragon boat competition, but you also have the human stories within the film.  How did you find the balance between those two aspects?
 
SC:  For me, I think stories always go first, because I think in order to make the good film, the human story is more important in the storytelling than the plot.  So, I wrote the human stories first, and then I Incorporated the dragon boat scenes into the human characters, after the characters were written.  So, I think that the reason for the dragon boat shoot fulfilled the human characters, instead of the other way around.
 
LMD: MEN ON THE DRAGON is the kind of film that appeals to all ages.  Was it a conscious decision to make a family-friendly film? 
 
SC:  So, I really believe in universal appreciation of films.  So, I didn’t really separate a target audience for this film.  There wasn’t a target group that I wanted to show this film too.  I really love Pixar animation, myself, and I think from those films, everybody can take something home, and that’s what I want to do with this film.
 
LMD:  After seeing so many of your screenplays be made into hit films, I’m curious what you learned from watching directors bring your words to life, that you used when making MEN ON THE DRAGON?
 
SC:  One thing I really learned from Joe Ma, from observing his directing; is how to communicate with the actors and actresses.  He is really good at finding the characteristics of the actors and actresses, themselves.  So, for example, when he was working with Miriam Yeung, and also Charlene Choi, and Jordan Chan; he was really good at discovering their own personality, and how to use that personality in their drama characters.  And then, he’s also very good at taking someone who is very technically good at acting, and he will ask that person to play something really different from their real life.  
 
So, from that perspective, I’ve learned to communicate with our crew, the actors and actresses. This time, after I got to know them, I started to give them different characters.  So, for the second guy in the movie {Poon Chan-Leung}, he is a stage actor, he is really good; so I gave him a character that is not like him, at all.  
 
And then for Francis Ng’s character, that moment when he’s listening to the other apartment -- if it wasn’t Francis Ng, I wouldn’t have written that scene that way, because I know he has the technical skills to finish that scene really well.  
 
LMD:  Ms. Yu, speaking of the more experienced cast, did you look to them for guidance or advice, or did they help you in any way as someone still new to film?
 
JY:  I’ve been really lucky in every different movie I’ve made.  I’ve been cooperating with really senior actors and actresses, and instead of really asking them how to act, I would rather just observe them in the shooting sessions.  
 
So, for example Francis Ng, I was watching him play, and he was just really into his character; so every single take that he was shooting, he would add something different, and he would try something different.  That made me feel like this is really professional as a comedy film, adding something new to the character every time.  That made me realise that my imagination for the character may have been a little bit narrow, and I could widen my imagination a lot more.  
 
So, for Poon Chan-Leung, his real life character is very manly, but in the film, his character is a weak man, and the change between real life and his character made me realise how acting can help you make a character.  
 
The other really important thing that I learned from them is professionalism.  This is a physically challenging movie, as you know, everybody was having of difficult time physically to make the movie.  It was really hard work to make it.  But you see all the senior actors, and they are just not complaining, and they are still there, even though it’s super hot.  Francis was sick and he was still going into the dragon boat, and rowing the dragon boat, himself.  That is something you don’t really have to ask, you just see it when you’re there.
 
LMD: You’ve only made a few films, yet your choice of role has been impressive. You are here playing the strong, determined Dorothy, and you also appear as a troubled student in Jevons Au’s DISTINCTION.
 
JY:  I want to try everything.  I think that the perks of being an actress is you get to live a lot of people’s lives, you get to try a lot of different things.  I think for me, the entertainment star and being an actress; yes, of course they are related because you act, and you are considered as a star in your film, but for me, my goal is really for the audience not to recognise me anymore in the movies.  Because as a star, you want people to recognise you, but as an actress in the movies, you don’t.
 
LMD:  What would you like MEN ON THE DRAGON to say to the New York Asian film Festival audience?
 
SC:  Everybody in the big city, they have difficulties.  Living in the big city, I think everybody is challenged in their own different ways, as well.  I don’t know about you, but I feel like everybody may feel little bit helpless living in the big city.  You are so small in the big city.  
 
The other day, I was in Times Square, and I was looking up to those big screens, and I was wondering if life in New York, is really that wonderful?  That applies to Hong Kong, as well.  We are talking about Hong Kong as like a wonderful city, but life in Hong Kong, is it really that wonderful.  
 
So. the message I want to send to the New York audience is that the world we cannot change, even though everything around us is changing so fast.  We cannot influence the world that much.  But for ourselves, if we find our own beat, and find our own rhythm, we can bring out the best of ourselves.
 
JY:  He is talking about life, and now I will talk about dragon boat.  So, I think a lot of people have a misunderstanding about the sport of dragon boat racing, and thinking that this is a professional or ancient game.  But I want to say that a lot of the nonprofessional people participate in this game, right now, so people who have a job, or people like stay-at-home moms, and others, they all are very passionate about it, right now.  
 
They go to different countries to participate in the racing.  They’ll form a team and go to different races around the world.  I want to promote the sport, and I would like to have more people try it around the world, and have this sport become bigger and bigger.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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Hong Kong cinemaInterviewJennifer YuMen on the DragonNYAFF 2018Sunny Chan