Anthony Pun Wants One More Chance

Anthony Pun Yiu-ming glides around his producer Ronald Wong’s office in Chai Wan, a tall, lanky figure hovering around the staff but never getting in the way. Dressed all in black and completing the look with a knit cap and thick-framed glasses, he’s considerably less guarded than the aforementioned look suggests he might be. It’s been a tough couple of years for the cinematographer-turned-director, but he’s looking forward to the release of his second feature film as director – his first solo effort – One More Chance. The film about a self-involved gambler suddenly on the hook to take care of an autistic son he never knew he had, has been almost a decade in the making.

Born in Hong Kong, Pun grew up working class and got into cinematography the old fashioned way: by learning on the job. “I only finished high school, and my grades weren’t that great. And on top of that my family was fairly poor, so going to university was out of reach, and studying in the West – forget that. So I explored what I could do here, and after a couple of years I stumbled into working on film sets. Though when I was younger I was always interested in photography.”

His career started with work as a hired technical gun in the electrical department and as focus puller, while teaching himself the tricks of the cinematography trade. Gigs as a second and fourth unit cinematographer followed. This was the late 1980s, the heyday of the Hong Kong New Wave, when churning out 400 films per year was not unusual. Pun admits the hours were demanding, but used them as a private classroom, along with VHS tapes of films from home and around the world. If work and home video were high school, then a trip to see Bernardo Bertolucci on the big screen was university.

“I remember going to the old Palace Theatre in Causeway Bay. It had a huge screen, and it was playing The Last Emperor,” he recalls. “I saw the first image and it was just so stunning. The colour, the composition, how it told a story, how it showed off a Western point of view. I had never considered telling a story through its visuals. But that one opened my eyes to the possibilities.”

The film’s legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now) became Pun’s unofficial mentor. His official mentor was director Raymond Lee (New Wave classic Dragon Inn), who tapped Pun as cinematographer for Fatal Obsession (writer Erica Li’s first film) in 1994. “He was my champion. He was the first director to look at my work and think I could be a director of photography.”

Lee’s instincts turned out to be right. Flash forward to 2023 and Pun is a five-time Hong Kong Film Award nominee for outstanding cinematography, and winner for Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Silent War in 2013. He also won a Golden Horse Award for Benny Chan’s Divergence. Over the course of his career, Pun has worked with Chan, Mak and Chong nearly a dozen times apiece, with Wilson Yip, Danny and Oxide Pang, Raman Hui, Renny Harlan, and on Longman Leung’s Anita, and Jack Ng’s box office champion A Guilty Conscience.

Which begs the question: why make the leap to directing if Pun was finding success in images? Despite what may seem the logical next step, in reality it’s a gamble, and not that many directors of photography (DOP) do it. In Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai’s preferred shooter Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) are the most prominent DOP-turned-directors. Nicolas Roeg, Barry Sonnenfeld and Zhang Yimou have all become better known as directors than cinematographers, but they’re in the minority.

“I wanted to prove myself, and then later on I wanted to do something for myself,” Pun states bluntly. His first directorial effort came in 2017, on the run-of-the-mill Chinese action thriller Extraordinary Mission, co-directed with Mak and written by Chong. “I’ve worked with so many people, I thought it was time to say something for myself, from my heart,” he says. “I have a great relationship with my dad, so I wanted to make a film about a father and son.”

He’s waited until now because, as an industry veteran, Pun understands the ebb and flow of production trends and macroeconomics. Until recently, the local market demanded big, blustery action, but Hong Kong cinema lately has been dominated by more intimate dramas like The Narrow Road. Pun’s quasi-two-hander wasn’t the right material a decade ago. It is now, and he’s confident the recent surge in interest in local films will continue.

“At the moment everything is moving, and changing,” he says, referring possibly to changes in the censor’s code and new funding programmes as just two factors bearing down on filmmakers. “I am confident there’s a bit of a filmmaking renaissance here. It’s not the same kind of film Hong Kong became famous for, and I’d love to make a documentary. But I’m happy to go with the flow. I’ll find my way.”

Pun pitched the story idea for One More Chance to producer Ronald Wong and showed him his script, then passed it on to Chong, who did the final draft. In a stroke of luck, Wong and Chong had just worked on Project Gutenberg with megastar Chow Yun-fat, and won him over. At this point, Pun was only half paying attention; his wife was in hospital with a what turned out to be a terminal illness. When he heard what they’d been up to, he was excited at the prospect of an actor of Chow’s wattage in the lead.

In One More Chance (whose Chinese title is bit6 giu3 ngo5 dou2 san4, 別叫我賭神, literally “don’t call me God of Gamblers”), Chow plays Ng Kwong-fai, a gambling addict whose habit forced him to flee Hong Kong nearly 20 years earlier, leaving behind his wife, social worker Lee Jik (Anita Yuen Wing-yee, A Queer Story). Now firmly ensconced in Macau, Fai spends his days at the hair salon he runs with Flower (Ten Years’ Liu Kai-chi in one of his last films) and nights in the casinos. Out of the blue, Jik tracks him down and demands he take care of the son he never knew he had. Her offer to pay wins him over, and the rest of the film follows the slowly blossoming relationship between Fai and the son, Yeung (Will Or Wai-lam, Far Far Away, No.1 Chung Ying Street), who also happens to be autistic.

Chow thought the story about the autistic son was too sad, too tragic, and didn’t go far enough to de-stigmatise autism. He didn’t want to make autism the main focus of the story, and wanted to make it just another type of neurology, not something to fear, hide or pity. Pun agreed. “Let’s face it: the world is fairly unhappy right now, and we don’t need to tell people how awful they are,” he says. “So we also used colourful Macau locations and background spaces with character.”

The casinos are key to the story, but Pun and Chow wanted the gaming hotspot to feel more lived in. On top of that, they both wanted to play with Chow’s cool God of Gamblers image, and make him a bit more realistic. Fai has a problem, detailed in grittier Hong Kong-set flashbacks, that manifests as exploitation and abuse of Yeung. At least at first. This is not the heroic, righteous Chow audiences know and love.

“In my mind, [Chow’s character] Ah-Fai isn’t really a jerk. He’s a little dumb, and has no regard for people whatsoever – his family or the people around him,” reasons Pun. “I didn’t even realise how meticulously Chow created that character. When I watched early footage I thought, ‘Maybe that’s a bit too much. Do I tell him to tone it down?’ But that ‘overacting’ was targeted, and by the end of Ah-Fai’s arc it made sense. It was a thrill to work with him.”

The arc he’s talking about is Fai’s growth from selfish reprobate — who disrupts Yeung’s crucial routine to make him count cards at the craps table — to responsible father and more tolerant man, one who is supportive of Yeung’s passions and responsive to his needs. It’s sentimental stuff to be sure, but Chow keeps the story from tipping over into maudlin, and young actor Or similarly steers clear of histrionics.

Pun leveraged his 30 years’ experience to wrangle a strong technical crew, including DOP Tam Wan-kai (Tracey, Septet), production designer Man Lim-chung and editor Curran Pang (Chili Laugh Story). But One More Chance is a much more personal film, and it was Benny Chan that ultimately had the most influence. “If I have to pick one filmmaker that really had an impact, it was Benny,” recalls Pun, visibly emotional at the memory of the popular director who succumbed to cancer in 2020. He cites Chan’s willingness to share technical knowledge as well as his ability to lead by example as lasting impressions; how to be kind on set, but also to have the courage of one’s convictions, about the process and the material. “The first time we worked together we had a big fight about how to shoot something, but we became good friends, and stayed that way until he passed away.”

One More Chance had one last rapturous screening in Macau the week before it opens at home, and Chow Yun-fat fans showed up in force. As with all of his work, Pun thinks he could have done better. But he’ll leave final judgement up to the audience. He just wishes for one thing: “I hope they’ll remember to have empathy. To care and be kind to those around us – everybody around us,” he says. “So many of us lost someone during the last few years. I lost my best friend, my wife, Kai-chi. Maybe viewers can take it from me: empathy is important.”

One More Chance opens on June 29.

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