The only indication that Cheung King-wai is a filmmaker is where he sits: in a studio surrounded by bright spotlights. He is ready for his close-up. Today he looks somewhat like an accountant — dark suit perfectly pressed and close-clipped hair — but at one point in time, Cheung studied philosophy. It becomes obvious when you speak with him. Ask him a question and his first response is often, “I don’t know…” but wait a second and he’ll launch into an existential theory.
It’s mid-December, and Cheung’s Beautiful Productions office in Tsuen Wan is quiet. Posters line the walls, boxes are piled at random, and mismatched office chairs eventually give way to scads of filmmaking gear. Cheung still looks like an unruffled professional, but the philosopher peeks through once the subject of his work comes up. It’s not surprising, then, that over the course of his late-starting, relatively short career, Cheung, now 49, has become Hong Kong’s conscience.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Cheung was among the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ first music department graduates in 1988. “I was professionally trained as a cellist,” he recalls. “I wanted to be Yo-Yo Ma.” Following graduation, Cheung started working as a music teacher and an assistant principal orchestra cellist. But restlessness and curiosity got the better of him. “I realised I could probably work in an orchestra and teach for the rest of my life, and do very well, but I decided to give up everything and go study some more in the United States. My friends laughed at me.”
It was his arrival at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College that changed his life. Not only did he meet his future wife, a Japanese violinist in Brooklyn who attended an Itzhak Perlman master class, he found a level of academic freedom that was both refreshing and rewarding. Intimately familiar with scholastic rigidity after secondary school, “I really wanted to find out what I could do,” he says. He kept changing his major: music, then philosophy, both interspersed by plenty of history. He finally settled in film school. Cheung remembers how easy it was to change his course of studies. “You go to the faculty office and fill out a form,” he says. “You can’t do that in the UK or in Hong Kong.” Academic pressures are a recurring topic in Cheung’s films.
In many ways Cheung’s directing career was a happy accident rather than a calling. “It wasn’t some Hollywood romance, ‘Oh, I love film!’ I don’t want to dramatise it. I took a film class and got stuck shooting on Super 8,” he admits. “And I must say, during my whole music life I’d never received that kind of positive reaction.”
After debuting his graduation project, Farewell Hong Kong, about reunification with China, scored by his wife, at the Sundance Film Festival, he returned home in 2000. Since then, Cheung has morphed into not only the industry’s most successful documentary filmmaker but also one of its most conscientious, regularly tackling issues of poverty, abuse, adolescence, family fragility and above all, human nature. “I think I got a lot of nutrition by making documentaries,” he says. “That was my blessing. I’m very interested in the relationship between the individual and society, and your immediate society is family.”
His first documentary feature, All’s Right with the World (2008), dealt with Hong Kong’s shameful wealth gap. His breakout came with the formally innovative Golden Horse winner KJ: Music and Life (2009), about a child piano prodigy and the harsh realities that can come with early success. That film lingered in cinemas for a record-breaking eight months and became the highest grossing doc ever in Hong Kong. In 2011, One Nation, Two Cities chronicled a family separated by bureaucracy and one woman’s quest for right of abode. The eye-opening The Taste of Youth (2016) sampled teen moods around the time of the Umbrella Revolution, and revealed a disheartening fatalism among Hong Kong youth — and drastic differences of opinion between the kids and their parents.
Cheung’s films capture a veracity that’s been on the rise since the handover, and he’s done it without preaching or grandstanding. He never appears in his films, almost as if he were lifting a page from the legendary Frederick Wiseman’s book of observational documentary.
At the same time that Cheung’s socially minded star was rising, veteran director and kindred spirit Ann Hui was zeroing in on the troubled Tin Shui Wai district, Hong Kong’s newest and most prominent economic ghetto, nicknamed the “City of Sadness.” Hui was aiming to make another film focused on the area as a follow-up to The Way We Are (2008), which is a defiantly optimistic drama about the friendship between two working class women. Cheung wrote the script for the follow-up, 2009’s Night and Fog, which tackled Tin Shui Wai’s most pressing issues. In it, a mainland Chinese woman’s murder by her Hong Kong husband is the springboard for an exploration of domestic violence, poverty, displacement and isolation. Ironically, Cheung’s return to Hong Kong coincided with massive industry upheaval and a new, complicated reliance on mainland Chinese funding.
“After 1997 everything was about reunion with China, about this… coming back,” he says, grasping briefly for the right descriptor. Reconciling? “Yes, yes. Reunion is too warm,” he says with a chuckle. “That was the main theme for Hong Kong films, and my first film for [government broadcaster] RTHK was about cross-border students. I thought, why are primary school students crossing the border to go to school, it sounds ridiculous. Can you imagine Canada and the US doing that?” The collaboration with Hui was on the kind of material that put Cheung outside the Hong Kong industry’s new Beijing-friendly model. “No way would Night and Fog pass the censors [in China]. The ideology of it was all wrong,” he notes. Night and Fog went on to pick up three Hong Kong Film Awards nominations, and screened at the Gothenburg, Rotterdam, Vancouver and Tokyo international film festivals.
In yet another bit of irony, Cheung’s feature debut — Somewhere Beyond the Mist — was made with government funding: CreateHK’s First Film Initiative (a programme of the Film Development Council). Cheung is conflicted over state assistance in cinema, but he admits that state subsidies for example helped the Taiwanese industry get on its feet by cultivating talents like Edward Yang and Midi Z. As long as it’s done right, public support could help Hong Kong cinema regain its lustre, now that the old private funding models no longer work. But Cheung takes care to stress that freedom of speech cannot be compromised. “In Hong Kong, I make a film and I don’t need to guarantee the police survive at the end,” he says, referring to the insistence of mainland Chinese censors that the good guys always win. He admits that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, but he doesn’t think the government is the one to impose those standards.
Somewhere Beyond the Mist took the long road to screens. It is based on a crime that occurred in New York in 2000, when a 17-year-old girl murdered her Hong Kong-born parents with the help of her 20-year-old boyfriend, and dumped them in the East River. The girl’s dispassionate confession caused a media sensation in the New York press. “She confessed and it was case closed, but for me, as a Hongkonger, it was just the beginning. I had so many questions that drove me to write the script,” Cheung explains. It also drove him home.
Cheung entered his script in a competition when his younger brother told him actor Michelle Yeoh was building on her Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon success by looking for scripts to produce. It made runner up, but Cheung didn’t think New York was the place to make the film. “New York is great, but let’s be clear. But for every, say, 10 opportunities in New York, there are 100 people waiting for one of those breaks,” he says. “In Hong Kong, there may be three opportunities, two are lousy — but only 10 people on the waiting list. It was very calculated.”
There was also the threat of being pigeonholed as “the Chinese filmmaker” or “the immigrant story director,” two issues of representation that Hollywood is currently wrestling with. Did he fear getting caught in a so-called ethnic trap? “I did. I can’t complain too much, but there is that stereotyping. It’s human nature. If I’d stayed in New York I might have made things like The Joy Luck Club. When I look back now on my ten years there and the way I looked at myself, I was a bit tinted by it too. I was a ‘Chinatown’ guy finding his identity. Identity is a hot topic in New York, and naturally we fall into that perspective when looking at the world.”
Starring Stephy Tang and produced by Derek Yee, director of Hong Kong classics Full Throttle and Viva Erotica, Cheung describes Mist as a deeply personal film that takes some of its cues from the likes of Shohei Imamura’s 1979 serial killer drama Vengeance is Mine in its lack of resolution. It’s also an experiment in storytelling, craft and aesthetics that tries to avoid falling into pop psychology. The story revolves around pregnant police detective Angela as she investigates high schoolers Connie and Eric, and their involvement with Connie’s parents’ deaths. Mist shares an observational, impartial tone with Cheung’s documentary work that lets the frequently voiceless subjects speak for themselves. Connie’s parents aren’t faultless, but their lingering resentments are clear, as is the cycle of violence Connie is caught in. The departure for Cheung is in construction — a narrative rather than a chronicle, something that allows him to exploit Hong Kong’s confined spaces and oppressive palette.
“People ask me why I’m so concerned about teens. I don’t know,” says Cheung. It may stem from his own youth, as a self-described “stupid kid” and a “brat” who wasn’t a particularly strong student. He was once labelled a “problem student,” and was a regular disruptor in class. Now Cheung has made a vocation of turning a spotlight on the marginalised. “Recently I was talking with my niece, who’s 14, and she described all teenagers as sociopaths, because they’re disconnected from society to a degree.” He can’t but see himself in that indictment. As a teenager, he always struck his own path. “I always asked ‘Why?’”
He’s older and wiser now, and less disruptive, but still considers himself a bit of a rebel; the industry black sheep, as it were. “That’s why freedom of speech is so important to me. If you don’t let me speak I’ll never find my audience,” he says. Finding a voice on screen for the voiceless, free of commercial demands, is also why Cheung is likely to stay where he is. He could easily cash out, direct mainland co-productions and buy a Ferrari. But he won’t. He shrugs. “I’m still stupid.”
Opens January 18, rated IIB; running time 87 minutes.