Filmmaker Derek Chiu Sung-kee is, in a word, academic. Sitting at his desk in City University of Hong Kong’s Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre, where he works as an associate professor of scriptwriting and directing, Chiu looks the part of a scholar. Relaxed and surprisingly composed on yet another 35-degree afternoon, he’s polished without being stiff, soft-spoken without being meek. A week ahead of the release of his latest film, No.1 Chung Ying Street, the veteran director has plenty on his mind.
Chiu started working on Chung Ying in 2010, when he was approached by a former leftist activist who was 16 years old at the time of Hong Kong’s now-verboten anti-British labour riots of 1967. Though the man had his own agenda, it sparked Chiu’s interest. “That is a very important page in Hong Kong’s history book,” he says. “But I didn’t want to make a movie about just the 1960s. He had his point of view, which I didn’t agree with. But he asked me if I was interested and I said yes.”
That meeting led to three years of research with culture critic, poet and novelist Tse Ngo-sheung, and a final script that incorporated more current movements in the narrative, including the protests to save Tsoi Yuen Village and Queen’s Pier, and the Umbrella Revolution. Chiu and Tse ended up with a two-part story linked by a single character. “I never intended to make a historical drama or recreate a historical event,” says Chiu, arguing the real story is in the characters and their choices. It’s also “a love story between the three friends, between them and their parents, between them and their land and their home. Everybody says their actions are because they love Hong Kong. How do you judge that?”
Born in Hong Kong in 1961, Chiu studied languages and literature at National Taiwan University, which in the early 1980s was the best choice for students keen to immerse themselves in Chinese literature. “I was really into Chinese literature in high school, and the best places to study it then were in Beijing, which didn’t’ accept that many Hong Kong students, and Taiwan. I read a lot of great Taiwanese authors and I realised most of them studied at National Taiwan, so I went there.” Taiwan was on the cusp of a filmmaking new wave, with auteurs Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Boys from Fengkuei) and Edward Yang (Taipei Story) leading the charge, and Chiu found himself as the chair of the school’s film club. Eventually he started making his own short films – a natural progression from writing.
“For me, literature and cinema is the same thing,” he says. “It’s about telling a good story. The media are different but the purpose is the same. I’m also a writer; I enjoy it. But when I think about which has more impact, an article or a film, I think movies are more powerful. There’s a book about [the same topic] published a year ago. No one cared, but everyone is talking about the movie now. I learnt in high school that one image truly does speak one thousand words.”
Chiu’s influences range from Michelangelo Antonioni and Krzysztof Kieślowski, to Stuart Hagmann’s Strawberry Statement, about Columbia University’s 1968 student riots, as well as social issues and current events. “All films connect to society, no matter the genre, and I usually include social, historical, or political issues in films, but in Hong Kong that’s not a wise choice.”
Chiu retuned to Hong Kong after graduation and put two years in at the now defunct ATV and another six with TVB before striking out in cinema in 1993 with his debut, Pink Bomb. The comedy pivoted on a group of tourists in Thailand mixed up in a counterfeiting scam. Despite starring John Woo regular Waise Lee and an emergent Lau Ching-wan, it was a forgettable debut, and it didn’t establish Chiu’s filmmaking personality. It wasn’t until 2001’s quirky, deadpan crime thriller Comeuppance, produced by Johnnie To, that Chiu hit his stride, cementing it with Before the Sunrise (2007), a Sun Yat-sen biopic of sorts that thankfully avoids hagiography and focused on Sun the man rather than Sun the legend.
“I’ve been thinking about my career, and how to make movies,” he says. “I have done commercial films where I’ve tried to put my point of view into the script, and it made the final product kind of weird, neither commercial enough nor artistic enough. After No. 1, I decided I could make truly independent films. I can raise my own funds, I can produce myself, I can find casts and crews. Now I’m sure of my film career path. The most important thing is to say what I believe.”
Chiu’s commercial work includes the 2013 Chinese rom-com My Boy Boy Boy Boyfriend, not an experience Chiu is keen to repeat. “I prefer the freedom of Hong Kong. I insist on using my scripts, my way, but working in China involves compromise. I mean, I’m happy to make something shorter, or flesh out a character, but I’m not cutting what I feel is important. And if you get into the habit of it, you start to censor yourself.” His next film will be about a young artist who is a lesbian with a drug habit. One of Chiu’s Chinese investors wondered if he could remove those two elements. Chiu expects there will be two edits of that film, one for the mainland, one for Hong Kong and overseas.
Which brings him to the film what he considers the most important of his career so far, and possibly his biggest challenge. Just a whiff of controversy sent funders, exhibitors and potential cast and crew running for cover, in the process scuttling Chiu’s plans to have Chung Ying ready in 2017 for the 50th anniversary of the riots. Talent managers praised strong roles for young actors while expressing regret their clients couldn’t jeopardise work in China by being involved with Chung Ying. The Film Development Fund invited Chiu to apply for a grant and then promptly rejected his application. “They told me it wasn’t commercial enough. Oh my God! Are you kidding?” he scoffs, clearly still baffled. “If it had any commercial elements I could have gone to any number of studios. They said the budget was unreasonable and the script wasn’t strong enough. I was very disappointed.”
The FDF’s rejection took Chiu’s final budget from HK$9 million to $3 million. Finally, after assembling a crew of students, professional friends — many of whom requested pseudonyms in the credits — and three fearless leads, production unfolded over two 30-day shoots in 2016 and 2017. Adding insult to injury, the Hong Kong International Film Festival passed on any screenings, never mind opening or closing, opting instead for two Taiwanese and one Japanese family dramas, claiming politics was not the issue. “They just said it was a poor ‘fit’ for the programme. What does that even mean?” Chiu wonders aloud. “But everybody’s talking about it now.”
Chatter is good, but the fear is unfounded. No. 1 Chung Ying Street is a thoughtful drama about resistance, self-determination, and the consequences of our actions. Actor-activist Yau Hawk-sau plays a leftist protester in 1967 and an Umbrella Revolutionary in 2019; Malaysian actor Fish Liew is a moderate student who gets caught up in the border clashes and an activist newly released from prison; and indie filmmaker Lo Chun-yip is a rich kid in ’67 and a young man ambitious enough to leave activism behind. Wing-kuen, a refugee from China who stays in the border village and is compelled to defend his home 50 years later, is the thread that connects the two stories. Shot in a stark black and white, Chung Ying is rife with ironies and observations that should get audiences talking. Which is fine with Chiu. “I really enjoy the arguments. That’s how it should be. A movie has its own life afterwards, and there should be room for discussion.”
The box office numbers will ultimately tell the story, but for now Chiu seems vindicated. The film won the Grand Prix at its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival, one of the most important events of its kind, and it received a standing ovation at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. It’s already been accepted to Vancouver International and Chiu is waiting on word from the Toronto International Film Festival. Best of all, unlike Ten Years, the provocative, self-distributed indie, No. 1 Chung Ying Street is getting a general — if not Avengers-level —release. That wasn’t easy to achieve as no cinema chain was willing to stick its neck out. “I was told they couldn’t release it exclusively,” recalls Chiu. “That makes no sense, because if you’re the only theatre playing a ‘hit’ movie, you make all the money. My guess is that they need to share the risk.”
No. 1 Chung Ying Street is political, but it’s not a screed, and Chiu obviously feels strongly about the material. With the world in the state it is, the film is as timely as it is universal, and the time is right for more films like it in the SAR. “After 1997 more and more people cared about what was happening in Hong Kong. In the last few years a lot more films are talking about politics,” concludes Chiu. “The young people in the film are not choosing history. History is choosing them.”