London BFI Film Festival: Interview with director Jacob Cheung
There were 21 East Asian films at this year’s London BFI Film Festival, a very limited representation within the overall selection of 248 films (8.5%). Leading the selection was China, Japan and South Korea. Several films were entered under both China and Hong-Kong, suggesting how interconnected the two film industries have become. As the Chinese film market has been booming over the past 5 years, there has been a need of talents to tell stories that would resonate with the local audience. That is how many Hong-Kong filmmakers have started to look towards Mainland China to be part of the rapid developments. Jacob Cheung, a household name in Hong-Kong, is one of those: after creating his own company – Straw Family – in 2008, he established his office in Beijing in 2010 and is now living there full time.
Cheung has had a very rich film career since he started directing 26 years ago! Indeed, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, he was mostly focused on the Hong-Kong film industry, being born there, and worked with almost all the local stars you could ever think of, from Andy Lau to Sammo Hung. But, in 2006, he went back to source inspiration from Chinese history like he did for his first film Lai Shi China’s Last Eunuch (1988) and made A Battle of Wits (2006). The period action film being quite successful at the Chinese box office, he remained in China to work on other genres.
Very versatile he proved it again with his latest film, The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, a fantasy film inspired from Liang Yusheng’s bestselling novel and a remake of Ronny Yu’s 1993 adaptation, which was screened as part of the Cult Gala during the London BFI Film Festival this year.
For this occasion Cheung came to London and on Friday 17 October we were lucky to have a few minutes to meet him during the festival’s filmmakers afternoon tea session at the Mayfair Hotel, and discuss his experience in casting and collaborating with actors from across Asia, including South Korea.
DaehanDrama.com: We noticed that you have had an ongoing work relationship with Taiwanese singer-actor Nicholas Wu for the past 20 years. You have worked with another singer, this time from South Korea, Super Junior’s Choi Si-won, on A Battle of Wits (2006). Many of the Hong-Kong actors you worked with also had such multiple profiles. Why did you decide to cast pop singers in your films? And how is the experience working with them (compared with more “standard” actors)?
Jacob Cheung: Hong-Kong is a very small place, where collaborating with celebrities is natural. You quickly and easily get to work with authors, singers, and other talents from various fields and backgrounds but also from all over the world. Performing skills are very important, any skill is good. The director’s job is to motivate the actors, and it turns out singers are very good at collaborating. Through the experience of performing on stage, they learn how to work in a team and show respect to the director. Therefore, I am usually very keen to work with (pop) singers.
DaehanDrama.com: You have worked with actors of many nationalities, beyond the two mentioned right before. Some from South Korea – like Ahn Sung-ki in A Battle of Wits (who will attend the closing ceremony of the London Korean Film Festival)-, Taiwan and Japan (Collin Chou and Yukari Ôshima on Cageman, 1992). How different are the actors and acting cultures between people from Taiwan and South Korea? And from Mainland China?
Jacob Cheung: Both Taiwanese and South Korean, but also Hong-Kong actors, are very professional. They follow instructions and work hard to put into action what is asked from them. On the contrary, Mainland Chinese actors tend to be difficult to direct. They are not as good as taking instructions.
DaehanDrama.com: Could that be partly due to the different educational systems in terms of performing arts? For instance, Mainland China and the UK are quite similar in a way, where actors are asked to get a degree – most prestigious being from the Beijing Film Academy – and only start to learn and apply their craft at university. On the contrary, Taiwan, Hong-Kong and Korean actors often start from a very young age, through modelling, theatre, and other performing arts including television and film, and do not really need degree as they have already acquired enough experience to be fully operational, experience which lacks their Chinese counterparts.
Jacob Cheung: You are partly right, indeed. But I would say it is deeper than that. It is more rooted in different value systems and social structures. In China, social structures are very strict. Taiwanese, Hong-Kong and Korean societies are more open. Also, in China competition is very harsh to get to the top. Once they get there, actors tend to be very protective, even defensive. They really want to protect themselves from falling down. Therefore it impacts the way they work. They might be less flexible, both in terms of the time they dedicate to prepare a role, but also how they are willing to compromise towards what the director is asking them.
DaehanDrama.com: Let’s talk about your film screening tomorrow, The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. You have been on some movies as an actor by the side of Zhou Xun (Silent War, 2013; All About Women, 2008) who is famous for her role in Painted Skin, another legendary-themed Chinese movie. Yet, you cast Fan Bingbing who is relatively inexperienced for that type of role. How did you proceed to cast your lead actress (and actor)?
Jacob Cheung: To choose the lead actor and actress I had to consider three main factors. 1) as the film had a considerable budget (RMB 100 million), I had to make sure investors approved them, meaning that they expected they would be bankable enough to make profits, 2) the chemistry between the two was also important, and how convincing they could be to the audience, 3) their availability, as many high-profile actors were unfortunately busy at the time of filming. Actually, in the case of the lead actress, I had initially confirmed Tang Wei. But she had to cancel, due to other commitments. Fan Bingbing happened to be available, and as she appeared suitable and available, she was the one we went for. So I would say it was a matter of circumstances and limited choice, which is a natural constraint for a film with such a budget.
After the interview, we also met the director and attended the Q&A session that followed. An anecdote that came out of it was that, although the film is in 3D, they had to shoot scenes in 2D as Huang Xiaoming had an accident on set (actually had a 3 meters fall, due to a wire malfunction, which caused the fracture of two toes on his left foot) and was reduced in his movements.
We are not quite sure yet whether Jacob Cheung has any new project in mind. Maybe he will work with other Korean actors. Maybe he will work on a large scale international co-production involving South Korea. But, what we can be sure of it is that he will surprise us, once again.