Popcorn Flicks With a Message: Herman Yau’s Hong Kong Movies

Director Herman Yau Lai-to doesn’t stand out much from the crowd. Yau leans against a roadside fence in Wan Chai, fiddling with his phone like so many others, oblivious to the Friday crowds and the traffic. Nonetheless, his signature long, rock star-style hair (he plays bass in a rock band) identifies him as someone exceptional. It’s not something he’s willing to give up. He has only cut his hair shorter than shoulder length once since he was 16, when it got in the way of feeding his infant daughter.

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Herman Yau

In his nearly 35 years of making films in Hong Kong, Yau has been called a lot of things, “average” not often one of them. He started his career in charge of ensuring on-set continuity — he was the novice employee responsible for tracking how far a cigarette has burnt down in a scene — after graduating from Hong Kong Baptist University’s communications department in 1984. Since then, he has made nearly 100 films as writer, director and cinematographer. He is now one of the industry’s elder statesmen.

In 2008, Yau demonstrated a healthy degree of self-awareness when he told HK Magazine“I’ve made over 80 films – a lot of them are crap. Ask people on the street and they’ll tell you the same. But I enjoyed the process, even when a movie was doomed. Even the worst football player can still enjoy the game.” That may be so, but he’s also become a stalwart technician, who industry titan Tsui Hark refers to as “the fireman” for his ability to rescue troubled productions.

Yau puts away his phone and makes his way to the Emperor Centre, where he passes through a hallway lined with photos of the entertainment group’s substantial talent roster, many of whom Yau has worked with. Yau takes a seat in a boardroom. He is all business: patient with technical difficulties but quick to make a joke. Decked out in a leather jacket, he’s unflappable, even with a canned coffee within easy reach. His phone is nowhere to be seen, and it never rings or buzzes during the conversation. The Hong Kong native, now 54, is relaxed in a way that makes it clear he is comfortable reflecting on his career and the state of Hong Kong’s film industry. With production down and restrictive Chinese co-production up, Yau is also one of the few purely Hong Kong voices working in the industry, not counting the independents. He didn’t really mean for that to happen. It just did.

Yau’s directorial debut, No Regret, came in 1987, but it was the Category III one-two-three punch of his exploitation films, The Untold Story, Taxi Hunter (both 1993) and Ebola Syndrome (1996) that launched him to the forefront of Hong Kong cinema. Starring Anthony Wong — the De Niro to Yau’s Scorsese — The Untold Story is the gruesome tale of a murdered family that winds up as filler for a mad chef’s char siu bau. 

It became a massive cult hit, both in Hong Kong and overseas, much to Yau’s surprise. “I wasn’t as experienced as I am now. It was my fourth film and I just treasured the chance to make it,” he recalls. Yau calls it a simple portrait of murder, but the garish aesthetic, Wong’s committed performance and an underlying condemnation of questionable policing make it much more compelling for those that can stomach the carnage. “The idea was initiated by producer Danny Lee and I knew it was Category III, I knew it would be a gory,” he says. “I knew all this. But I had no idea at the time how it would function in the market. I sat in an auditorium and watched it with an audience a few times, and for every show someone would walk out within 15 minutes.”

Terminally ill Mobster Anthony Wong telling the police he can't control rivals fighting over his job

Terminally ill Mobster Anthony Wong telling the police he can’t control rivals fighting over his job

Yau earned his stripes in Cat III, like many of the industry’s stars, including Wong, actor Simon Yam and producer Wong Jing. But when Ebola, which featured Wong as a rapist spreading Ebola in Hong Kong after his crime, garnered charges of racism, Yau’s filmmaking started to take on a more challenging tone. Yau remains adamant the film was attacking the very ideas he was accused of — among others. “That film touches the topic of racism. It’s an issue and I don’t think I was feeding into it,” he says. “It also tackles governance, sexism, gender inequality and a lot of issues that still affect us today.”

In the years that followed, he began weaving bigger ideas into his work. He injected the popular horror series Troublesome Night with explorations of medical and media ethics. He then ended the 1990s with a fluffy Lunar New Year entertainment, Fascination Amour. In the next decade, From the Queen to the Chief Executive (2001) dealt with the judicial quagmire revolving around several young offenders “detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure” – incarcerated without fixed sentences before the 1997 handover. In Whispers and Moans (2007) and True Women for Sale (2008) he delved into women’s rights at a time when crimes against sex workers had spiked.

“I never intended to make any of those films,” says Yau. “But those issues are things I’m concerned about. As a creative person I should try to do something others are not doing, to fill the gap.” He makes the point that, even if they tackle thorny issues, Yau’s films are entertainment. “Chief Executive is a crime film. Whispers and Moans is about prostitution. The first step in pitching for a green light is figuring out how to package the movie. Then I figure out how to integrate the political and social with commercial elements. It took me a long time to get the experience to figure out how to do that.” In pitching and packaging, Yau has also learnt to be flexible, toggling his aesthetic from the slick neon-lit streets of crime thrillers to soft, sunny images in romantic comedies.

Janice Man as Jasmine hiding her part in the crime in Nessum Dorma

Janice Man as Jasmine hiding her part in the crime in Nessum Dorma

That blend of entertainment and social conscience now defines Yau’s work, something that is doubly relevant in these turbulent days. Yau has two films premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival: revenge thriller Nessun Dorma and the more politically charged The Mobfathers. Starring Wong as a triad leader and Chapman To as an ambitious underling (both actors have allegedly been blacklisted in mainland China for publicly supporting the Umbrella Movement), The Mobfathers is a not-so-subtle critique of the process that chooses the Chief Executive.

Wong says the film speaks to his desire for a strong local cinema. “If you’re trying to define what a local film is, it’s in this relationship between the subject matter and the context of the production, its origin,” he says. “Mobfathers is absolutely local in its cultural identity.”

Where the local film industry goes from here is another question. While things have changed for the better on many fronts — technical improvements, more professionalism and no more triads looking to angle their way into the film business— it’s not perfect. Filmmakers must now contend with the restrictions on their freedom of creation that comes from working on mainland co-productions, not to mention government policy and a financial system that prioritises big box office revenue over artistic merit.

“I don’t object to the co-productions but for a healthy film market all kinds of films need to find a way to co-exist,” says Yau. “Five years from now things could be very different, so why waste time worrying about it instead of doing something substantial?”

Meanwhile, the prolific Yau continues to work. Ask him what the next five years will look like and he lets out an ironic laugh. “I really have no clear picture. But I’m selfish – I just want to work.” Yau is currently getting ready to shoot a horror film in Malaysia with his muse, Wong, and is also prepping an action thriller, currently titled Shockwave, for later this year. Beyond that he has no fixed plans. When asked what he’d like future movie buffs to say about his body of work, he is humble. “It doesn’t matter to me. As long as people watch my movies I’m happy enough,” he says. And his legacy? “That I was an honest filmmaker that loved Hong Kong.”

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