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'Romantic, But Not Sugarcoated'
Veteran Hong Kong director Peter Chan recalls the local film industry's good old days, before the financial crisis swept through Asia.

GH (China) Pictures Ltd.
Aubrey Lam on the set of Twelve Nights.

Hong Kong's Golden Age of cinema is irretrievably over, he says, which means the city has to reinvent itself to compete with Hollywood. Just before the '97 crisis, Chan teamed up with scriptwriter Aubrey Lam. Fifteen months ago they signed up a young, unknown actress named Cecilia Cheung, who has since blossomed as Hong Kong's latest "It" girl. The trio have collaborated on Twelve Nights, an unorthodox movie about relationships and love, written and directed by Lam, produced by Chan, starring Cheung and opening in Hong Kong on April 20. TIME reporter Stephen Short's interview with Lam and Chan:

TIME: Aubrey how did you feel directing this movie? You must have been nervous as a kitten. Sam Mendes told me that when he directed American Beauty as a first-time film director, he was anxious and had to chuck away the first three/four days of filming.
Lam: Everything came out almost exactly as I planned it, except the pre-production process. Looking for locations, images or the style of the characters, I was rather inexperienced at that and that can be a little bit scary.

Chan: You've got to remember Aubrey wrote her own script. It's not like Sam Mendes making his first film, where he picks up a script that's hot property. For Aubrey, it's a very personal story and it's very close to her. It's based on something that she would react to if she were the main character. Aubrey wasn't very technically familiar though. So we did throw away the first few days of shooting, exactly as Mendes did, and restarted the movie again. I think in some ways it's a great investment when that happens. We went through three days of shooting and because of conflict over the actress schedule--Golden Harvest wanted Cecilia Cheung for a Christmas project--we shot for only three days in November, then closed production for three months and had to start again in January having thrown away everything that we shot. And it's such a surprise that the same director who shot those first few days, stepped back onto the set and was totally in control.

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TIME: Was there a big shift in your thinking and approach during that period Aubrey? Did you rethink the way you wanted the film to look?
Lam: Definitely. From the outset, I was trying to shoot the film without much camerawork or movement, but it didn't really seem to work with this kind of story. I hadn't realized that would be the case, but after those three days of shooting in November, I realized it was a problem. I've always liked movies that have very minimal camera movements, but it doesn't work with all stories. Twelve Nights I think requires a lot of energy, a lot of editing and camerawork, so that required a big change in my thinking over those months. Also the way in which I shot the characters changed and how I wanted them to look.

GH (China) Pictures Ltd.
Twelve Nights.

TIME: You based Twelve Nights on an Ingmar Bergman film, right?
Lam: Yes. It's called Scenes from a Marriage. It's the story of a marriage told within five to six scenes and lasts about two/three years with very minimal effort but large impact. The format for my film is very similar. I like the way Bergman analyzes relationships in film always very precise and perceptive. In Twelve Nights, the conclusion and therefore partly my own is that relationships and love are no big deal because everyone is selfish, they love themselves and what's gone is gone. You can't change things.

TIME: So you're an existentialist and a pessimist at the same time. In the Bergman film, the characters split up and have affairs with others before getting back together again. Same in yours?
Lam: No. In mine they split up, try to get back together, then split up again. There's no affairs. The ages are also quite different.

TIME: What's Twelve Nights like in terms of Hong Kong film?
Chan: It's romantic, but not sugarcoated. It has real impact. It's a relationship movie, without being a romance. It's quite blunt in terms of addressing the weaknesses and selfishness of both characters, who you are trying so desperately as a filmmaker to try and make the audience sympathize with. But Aubrey's doing everything she can just to trash these characters and say that's what we're all like. We are selfish, let's just admit it.

TIME: Are you worried about the audience reaction as a result Aubrey?
Lam: Yes. In this story everything that takes place is very ordinary. Usually in movies there will be more twists and turns, but in this you can identify with all the characters because of the ordinariness of their lives. I consider making such a film very risky as a first-time director in Hong Kong. It's hard to draw the attention of the audience if you don't have big themes.

Chan: It's almost not a story. Most movies are from point A to B. In this there's no expectation. You don't root for anybody in this movie.

TIME: Sounds like Kieslowski [Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski]. Looks great but what the hell's going on!
Chan: That's been the great thing about working with a young first-time director. They can be so unorthodox. They have the kind of guts that we, or I, don't have. We're so jaded with the whole experience of test-screening and what the audience likes, and sometimes we lose perspective of what could be done. We think unorthodox falls outside the practical parameters. But if I said to Aubrey, 'you can't do that,' she'd just turn around and say 'why?' And then I'd think, 'why not? She's right.'

TIME: Aubrey, do you feel fearless as a director?
Lam: No. I needed suggestions, I needed reassurance, I needed advice. It's difficult enough for me just adapting to this industry. I'm a writer by nature. I'm used to working alone.

Chan: We really don't come across people like Aubrey so often. Most people in this business have wanted to be filmmakers since they were very young. She started on a different track. Her first ambition wasn't film. It's like Woody Allen's film Bullets Over Broadway--you can write and it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, you can write.

TIME: Who's films do you most want to imitate?
Lam: Kieslowski and Edward Yang.

GH (China) Pictures Ltd.
Cecilia Cheung, Hong Kong's current "It" girl, in a scene from Twelve Nights.

TIME: Did you feel like you were manipulating her more than was healthy sometimes Peter?
Chan: Because Aubrey's a new director, I was trying to navigate the movie...more than that...navigate the ship (meaning the crew), making sure it didn't hit any icebergs. So I was just trying to make her aware of things that might happen or go wrong. Also, first-time directors may try to include things that are too personal. I had to remind Aubrey that if I didn't understand some references having read the script many times, then the audience certainly wouldn't know what the director's trying to say. So I encouraged her to find another way to say things, without changing the fundamental message of what she was trying to say.

TIME: Was she so brave and unorthodox that that happened quite a lot?
Chan: At first I thought that sometimes she could be offensive and justifiably so as a new director but then, by the end, I realized that she understood the whole process and had matured a lot as a filmmaker.

TIME: Pretty impressive!
Chan: Even better than that though was what Aubrey told me a couple of days ago. We were trying to get a little piece out of the movie so a scene could be shortened. I was saying to her, 'I know you love those three lines but they might not be the most relevant three lines in the film and without them it would clip along so much better. But it's your call, I'm telling you, ultimately it's your call. So?' Then she turns around and says to me, 'It's not about whether I like it or not, it's about what's effective.' I thought that was a very mature thing to say because she's got some very beautiful shots with those lines, which I was very attached to. I really respect a filmmaker who can agree to cut the arms and legs off their baby for the betterment of the movie; it's very objective and very tough.

TIME: Did much of your dialogue get cut?
Lam: Some. At first it was a little word-heavy and also some actions were out of character. I think again though, due to the ordinary nature of many people's lives, the dialogue is repetitious.

Chan: Yes, but sometimes I thought that made the film more charming and real for being so repetitious.

TIME: Have you ever wanted to act Aubrey?
Lam: No. I'm very camera shy. I don't take very good pictures. I only let people take my picture about once a year.

TIME: How did you get on with Cecilia being only 19 and very much the current Hong Kong It-girl?
Lam: Cecilia's a lot like the character she plays. She's very smart. She could play exactly the way I wanted instantly and if not, with suggestions she was very capable and very sharp.

Chan: Cecilia's quite a phenomenon. I mean, even Maggie Cheung did not get the kind of attention within three years that Cecilia's getting now. Maggie bloomed more slowly before she evolved into what she is today. But that's happened with Cecilia overnight, just like that.

TIME: That must have really surprised you both? How did that happen?
Lam: I think it's because the industry needs new faces. But then, she can definitely act.

Chan: She's a baby. I mean, she's what...19...but she certainly doesn't act like one in terms of the way she thinks. She's so mature. I think her image is very attractive to Hong Kong people. Fly Me to Polaris really put her on the map, but if she only had that, people wouldn't take her seriously. Her performance as a really foul-mouthed cigarette-smoking character in Stephen Chow's God of Comedy really helped to paint a different picture. No baby-faced actress ever started by talking with a harsh voice like that. Twelve Nights is a mature and sophisticated piece of material. Put the three together and she has a very broad portfolio. She's really going to go places.

TIME: If Cecilia Cheung is Hong Kong's It-girl, who's the It-Boy?
Chan: Nicholas Tse, by far. And he's only 19. In fact, the next eight or nine guys are not even close to him. Things like that never used to happen. Our idols took a lot of time to become idols. This is now getting like Japan. You pick up a magazine and think I've been reading about these stars since I was a kid and they're still only in their late 20s, early 30s.

TIME: The Hong Kong film industry's not in a pretty state at the moment is it?
Chan: It's coming back, but like most developing countries. In Southeast Asia you see these beautiful malls and theaters but everything else is prehistoric. In Hong Kong there's about 5/10/15 movies a year that make money. But on the whole, the Hong Kong movie industry isn't even profit-related anymore. The only market-driven cinema in Asia right now is coming out of Korea.

TIME: Is Hong Kong still creative?
Chan: I think it's trying to reinvent itself as a film capital. The Golden Age days won't be back. The market has changed and matured. The demand for Chinese language entertainment to counterbalance Hollywood is non-existent, it's dropping; before we had a niche in the '60s, '70s, '80s because there were people who needed sophisticated Chinese language entertainment, but the older generation has stopped going to theaters anymore and the younger generation can speak English (and that's not just Hong Kong, it's the whole of Asia). Hong Kong needs to export films harder than ever. For this generation, a Hollywood film is practically as good as a Chinese film. So they don't look for Chinese entertainment, but if there is a good Chinese film they'll watch it. Before, if Chinese films were rubbish, they'd still watch them, because there were fewer American movies to see. But this is a very different day and age, so Hong Kong needs to reinvent itself, not as the Chinese film capital, but as an Asian film capital. It will become like Europe, where you can't always tell which film is French, Italian or English. Think Il Postino being directed by a British guy. That's the future of Asian cinema and perhaps the only way it can counterbalance Hollywood. Asia has a huge collective cinema audience. Co-productions are Asia's film future and Hong Kong's trying to be a step ahead in that aim right now.

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