On a tacky June afternoon, Angie Chen waltzes into the Hong Kong Arts Centre’s 16th floor dance rehearsal space. A spry, unpretentious septuagenarian, she looks unfrazzled, cool, decked out in jeans and a white shirt with bright pink stripes on the arm’s underside. Her cropped, salt and pepper hair is a signature look now. She looks like a filmmaker – and she’s lived a life to go with it.
Chen sits down and launches into a disbelieving contemplation of, what else, Donald Trump, before refocusing on the storied career whose latest chapter is her new documentary, i’ve got the blues. She’s at a loss for words, but refuses to give in to pessimism. “I’m usually a really optimistic person. I think that comes out in my films,” she begins. “I think I zero in on the inspiring parts of human nature.”
It’s obvious Chen finds human nature ceaselessly fascinating; a quick scan of her work reveals that. But she’s also a natural storyteller, and she’s compiled some pretty impressive stories, starting with her childhood in Hong Kong and Taipei. Born in post-World War II Shanghai to a mother who was previously adopted by an Englishman and a father with aspirations to a career in diplomacy, her parents caught the last train to Hong Kong during China’s civil war. After the family relocated to Taiwan in the 1950s, Chen’s earliest pop culture memories were of her father listening American radio serials – before he packed up and left for Bonn, Germany, without Chen, her brother and mother. They headed back to Hong Kong, but he’d already done his part in planting the movie bug in Chen.
“Both my parents loved movies,” she says. “Even when I was a baby, a toddler, my mother would take me to the movie theatre. Back then it was Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Elvis Presley movies. I was introduced to Alfred Hitchcock when I was nine.” A bit young for Psycho, perhaps, but cinema helped her cope when her mother died from tuberculosis when Chen was 17. “When I came to Hong Kong I’d skip classes to go to the movies,” she recalls. “When my mother was sick and I was repressing a deep sadness, it was an escape. I never forgot Cool Hand Luke and the quote about communicating.”
Despite being in Germany, Chen’s father helped her earn a scholarship at Eastern Illinois University, near Chicago, which put her on the path to filmmaking. The trip to the United States makes for “a tremendous story,” says Chen, as she agreed to escort a little boy to his new adoptive parents for US$300 – then a fortune for a starving student.
“That was at the old Kai Tak Airport, and when the social worker had to leave, [the boy] started screaming. He didn’t want her to go. He bit me. He was hysterical and I understand that. A stewardess helped me finally get him into the cabin — it was really embarrassing — and I could see the transformation when the door closed. He was stuck with me. We eventually became friends.” The child warmed up to her, but the same trauma unfolded when Chen dropped him off with his new family. He bit them too. “I am so curious about what happened to him.”
While she was studying in the United States, a friend of Chen’s — the daughter of Taiwanese writer Nieh Hualing — suggested she transfer to the University of Iowa, and she did. She was exposed to Bergman, Kurosawa and the French New Wave. She also met Nieh and her husband Paul Engle, renowned for the prestigious international writing programme they ran at Iowa, but lost touch with the them when she headed for the University of California, Los Angeles – and Jackie Chan.
“That’s another interesting story. I met Jackie Chan in LA because I was helping another Chinese director, Liu Chia-chang, produce and translate a script,” she remembers. Liu’s film, the college romance A Special Autumn, was “kind of chintzy,” Chen says with a laugh. “But that was really, really good experience. It was my first major break.”
Chen met Chan and his agent, Willy Chan, over dinner when the pair were in town trying to crack Hollywood. Liu recommended her for a job. “Jackie turned to me and asked if I’d like to help. He offered me the job of assistant director on Dragon Lord. Of course!” Chen stored her stuff, sold her car and flew to South Korea two weeks later for what turned into a yearlong shoot. Then it was back to Hong Kong around 1981, where she worked alongside filmmakers such as Leung Po-chi on films like psycho-thriller He Lives by Night (starring a young Simon Yam and Sylvia Chang), and with future superstars Anthony Wong, Cherie Chung and Cecilia Yip among others.
By then Chen was ready to strike out on her own. “When I came back, the new wave was just starting — Tsui Hark, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam — and they were making a mark,” she says. A friend suggested Chen call Mona Fong, then the Shaw Brothers deputy chair and general manager — and now an industry legend — and as only a newcomer can, Chen did, intending to pitch a film loosely inspired by Rear Window. “I called her, introduced myself and asked if I could come in to see her. There was a pause and she asked me to pitch [my idea] right then on the phone. Then she told me to come see her the next day.” The result was a three-picture production deal – something that could have only happened in the 1980s, the golden age of Hong Kong film.
Chen’s feature debut came in 1983 with Maybe It’s Love, a whodunit set in a small village tracking two investigations into the disappearance of the local sex kitten, went on to become a popular hit. Chen’s critical breakout was My Name Ain’t Suzie in 1985, a drama about a Wan Chai bar girl in the 1950s that stripped the fetishistic veneer from the Hollywood “classic” The World of Suzie Wong while nonetheless paying homage to it. My Name Ain’t Suzie tackled issues of identity and re-contextualised the older film with a more realistic, local voice.
The release of Chen’s third picture in 1988, Chaos By Design, was troubled by a spat between Chen and her studio that saw the film pass into obscurity. Chen ended up eschewing another big studio contract and dropped out of the commercial film industry, instead launching a successful second career in advertising. “My films are really not very mainstream,” she says. “So I had to question where I was going. Filmmaking is exhausting.”
But not exhausting enough to keep her from it forever. In the mid-2000s, Chen once again picked up a camera, but on her terms, turning her attention to documentary. She started with an unlikely subject: her dog. “He was 16 or 17 and I was wondering, ‘Why am I so attached to him?’” she says. “He was sick and I was emotional and I wondered why. I decided to investigate this peculiar relationship.”
The result led to This Darling Life (2008), a meditation on life, death and love. That lit the fire that compelled Chen to revisit a long-simmering doc about Nieh and Engle, a project she had abandoned when she left Iowa for Los Angeles. Engle died in 1991 but Nieh remembered Chen and agreed to help. One Tree Three Lives (2012) was an intimate exploration of a writer and her tremendous impact on the Chinese diaspora – as well as a love story.
Nieh was a colourful, charismatic character, very much like Hong Kong artist Yank Wong Yan-kwai, who is the subject of an engagingly cantankerous portrait in Chen’s latest film, i’ve got the blues. “I’ve actually known [Wong] for about 20 years, but I don’t really ‘know’ him,” she says. “I knew Nieh through her daughter, and she was like an auntie. When I did the doc on her I had to relearn her and uncover her. With [Wong] it was the same.”
Shot over roughly 18 months, i’ve got the blues chronicles the fractious, often confrontational, philosophical and entirely human process of creating a portrait of an artist as a complex, flawed, talented man. Chen, who gets drawn into the story because of Wong’s constant challenges and dodges, also raises more fundamental questions about a connection between moral integrity and artistry, family, and working as an artist in business-minded Hong Kong. The film is one of the highlights of the year so far, and a must-see for anyone remotely interested in Wong, art in Hong Kong or documentary as a narrative form.
Chen’s choice to insert herself into i’ve got the blues will upset documentary purists, but she preemptively dismisses such criticism as disingenuous. No film exists in a vacuum, and none is free of the filmmaker’s own personality. “There’s no such thing as neutral. That’s cheating yourself,” she scoffs. “I never expected this to evolve the way it did. Even my cameraman asked who he should be shooting. I said ‘Of course, Yank,’ but as we progressed and he was constantly needling me. The camera had to open up. That’s how I like to approach filmmaking – to be open to taking risks.”
She should know: Chen’s life has been built on risks, and i’ve got the blues is no different. And for Chen, the format of the film is ultimately irrelevant. “If you see something different in the film, and it works, and makes you think, and affects you, it’s a good film. Simple.”
i’ve got the blues opens in general release in Hong Kong on July 5.