Filmmaker Heiward Mak on Gender, Sexuality and How Hong Kong Film is Changing

Heiward Mak is elusive. Finding time to chat with the writer and director is a feat unto itself; interviews are rare. Similarly, it would be easy to brush off the writer-director’s work as sentimental, particularly given that her most recent feature, Fagara, is based on a novel by “chick lit” writer Amy Cheung. But that would be dismissive of her astuteness, especially in this post-#MeToo and Time’s Up world. Not that Mak puts any special emphasis on gender issues or identity. She’s more—for lack of a better word—artistic than that. 

“I am aware of my gender,” she says. “I am also sensitive to gender identity, and I have explored women’s growth and maturity in my work. However, I also articulate and discuss men’s mental state issues in my films. I am extremely sensitive and curious about human nature and different matters, and I am obsessed with logic and critical thinking. My curiosity about human nature and my obsession with exploring its diversity come from my identity as a creator/writer, not necessarily from my gender or sexuality.”

A native Hongkonger and an only child, Mak grew up with two working parents whose busy lives shaped her worldview in more ways than one. She often stayed with relatives or neighbours, and Mak theorises that simply watching her parents lead their lives with loyalty and integrity shaped her personality. “Witnessing various combinations of how a family is formed, from the perspective of an outsider [formed] my own view on family foundations,” she says. Mak is not humourless or unusually serious, but a keen sense of kinship and integrity emanates from her. “I have a strong sense of honour towards my brothers and sisters in the industry,” she says.

Secondary school was a riot of anxieties and packed curricula until Mak stumbled on visual arts as an elective and promptly found peace of mind. She went on to study design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where she dabbled in other art forms. “Becoming a children’s book illustrator was my ambition at that time,” she recalls with a grin. “I wrote some allegorical stories that not only served kids but also adults. Yet my illustration was criticised for maybe frightening children reading them.” 

Her experience with installation art while at Poly U was what really turned Mak towards filmmaking and what she calls the “power of the unspoken – how an artist uses imagery, the sense of touch or even the mass of an object, to present something that can’t be simply expressed with words, feelings or emotion. It’s a conversation between the creator and the audience,” she says. She also admits to learning that an artist’s intended message isn’t always perceived that way, and that audiences’ personal experiences ultimately shape how they see things. “The meaning and interpretation of art is what makes me want to keep discovering this aspect,” says Mak.

Three sisters who find each other late in life. Image courtesy Media Asia Film.

Next came the School of Creative Media at City University, where she was mentored by director Patrick Tam (best known for After This Our Exile) and documentarian Nancy Tong (In the Name of the Emperor). Her first short film, Lovers’ Lover in 2007, was her graduation project, which would go on to win an ifva Gold Award and entry into the Women Make Waves Film Festival in Taiwan. Tam recommended her for her first job, where she cut her professional teeth as a casting manager among other duties and crossed paths with veteran actor-producer Eric Tsang (Golden Swallow, Infernal Affairs). He invited her to work for him as a writer, she did, then quit to incubate her own stories. While working in restaurants and coffee shops to pay the bills, she says, “Mr. Tsang found me again, and became the producer of my debut.”

That debut was High Noon (2008), a teen drama influenced heavily by filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s observational, non-judgemental tone. High Noon made Mak one of the industry’s youngest working filmmakers at just 23 years old. It also announced her as a keen observer of how Hongkongers relate to each other and the world – and to the myriad expectations bearing down on modern women and occasionally—yes—men. The film followed nine Hong Kong students coming of age in the shadow of the glitzy 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The idea was to paint an accepting portrait of the absurdities of modern, messy teen life – and really all our lives. “Acceptance is something that most teenagers really want,” says Mak.

Mak’s next high-profile producing partner was Chapman To (known for his roles in Pang Ho-cheung’s Aberdeen and Lee Cheuk-pan’s G Affairs), with whom she collaborated on her next two features, Ex in 2010 and Diva in 2012. While High Noon was a cannon shot of a debut, Ex was the work of a filmmaker finding her footing. It fearlessly crafted a group of characters that weren’t traditionally sympathetic, but which were authentic representations of young Hongkongers; it also fearlessly starred former pop star Gillian Chung in the wake of a 2008 nude photo scandal. Similarly, Diva chronicled the life of a level-headed pop star caught on the dark side of Hong Kong showbiz. 

Long before the Harvey Weinstein scandal made #MeToo a clarion call, Mak was skewering the entertainment industry for its systemic sexism and abuses – at least, as much as she could, as Ex was produced by industry heavyweight Emperor Entertainment. Yet she insists her films aren’t feminist polemics. “I never attempt to emphasise my identity as a female author in my films,” she says. “When it comes to diversity or differences, I think it is a matter of individuals rather than genders. When I articulate my observations about human nature, I would rather see from the perspective of a compassionate ‘human’ than simply from the perspective of a ‘woman.’ I care about whether I am an empathetic individual when I observe others or write my characters.”

Mak can now add Ann Hui to her list of elite producers. The renowned filmmaker, along with her producing partner Julia Chu, sought out Mak when she was looking to make Fagara, believing her uniquely suited to the material. It turned out to be a fruitful working arrangement, which shows in the final product. “I was given freedom when it came to scriptwriting and directing, which included changing the original theme, the character designs and the entire narrative structure,” says Mak. “We [had] a common consensus on limitations and boundaries. In other words, I was given the freedom to explore the endless possibilities between the pages of the novel that the movie is based on.”

Fagara is easily Mak’s most accomplished and assured film to date. The story pivots on Acacia (superstar Sammi Cheng), an overworked Hong Kong woman who discovers she has two half-sisters after her estranged father, Ha Leung, suddenly dies. One is Branch (Megan Lai), an androgynous professional snooker player in Taiwan, and the other is YouTube-style fashionista Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), living in China. As the eldest, Acacia is the responsible one, and when she meets her new sisters she is grappling with her failure as a “good” daughter, and how best to handle two relationships: one with an uninspiring boyfriend (Andy Lau) and one with a doctor that genuinely excites her (Richie Jen). 

Sammi Cheng and Richie Jen. Image courtesy Media Asia Film.

Meanwhile, Branch’s leather jacket and female groupies (often movie shorthand for lesbian) stress out her traditional mother (Liu Jueichi), who doesn’t understand her desire to play pool. And as young as Cherry is, she has trouble convincing her grandmother (Wu Yanshu). She lives with her and takes care of her by choice. Each woman has a very different relationship with their dead father, rooted in rage, indifference and adoration respectively. And despite their mutual surprise at each other’s existence, the three create a new kind of family, while also finding closure by keeping their father’s struggling hotpot restaurant open for one more year. 

Mak was attracted to the story for its fundamental message about how we collectively hide pain and emotional wounds to the detriment of personal opportunity. That may seem like a detour from her earlier work, but the way Mak positions the sisters is very much complementary to her body of work so far. Her script sheds the original novel’s letter format and central romance and focuses on the three women in three cities and on family ethics. Mak retained what was a subplot about Ha’s hotpot restaurant but added a disapproving mother for Branch and a grandmother who hoped Cherry would find a nice husband. 

“When I was writing the script, I was hoping to take this as an opportunity to discuss the issues that occur when a woman is brought up in an incomplete family,” she explains. “How would that affect their concepts of self-recognition, relationships with families and also relationships with the opposite gender?”

It could be argued that Branch is coded as queer, which is fine with Mak, but she hopes that viewers will see her more as a complex, layered woman. It was also important for Mak that the dynamic between Branch and her mother not be rooted in sexuality. “I tried to put the focus on the conflicts between her and her mother [on] something that could have happened to any of us, no matter what our gender or sexuality might be.” The friction stems from Branch’s non-traditional career—at which she is successful—along with her aimlessness and her resistance to doing what’s expected of her. 

“The movie includes women from the 70s, 80s and 90s, each looking for their own value in existence,” says Mak, who was also careful to ensure Cherry was not just a stereotypical millennial. She didn’t want to downplay a real life and real obligations Cherry might have beyond social media, which films often do. “That’s why I tried to bring out the message of this generation’s willingness to take up responsibilities, to take care of their family and be responsible people. That’s why I tried to explore the many sides of the women from different generations.”

There’s no word on what Mak is planning next, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see her stepping into the role of mentor; she has already produced Mad World for up-and-comer Wong Chun, and the cinematic tide of socially conscious, intimate storytelling is increasingly mainstream. “The work put out by our new directors puts more focus on social issues, which was not a very common subject in the past,” she says. 

Mad World was a modest hit, as was this year’s Still Human, which proves to Mak that mass audiences will embrace smaller, more personal films. “I think Hong Kong is a place that is full of variety, and the people have a pretty high level of tolerance and/or acceptance,” she says. That shaped her as a person and an artist, and it will shape the film industry going forward. 

She points to a saying in Cantonese: hau2 ngaang6 sam1 jyun5 (口硬心軟, “Firm in speech but soft at heart”) which she thinks describes many people in Hong Kong. “When it comes to the film industry, I see Hong Kong film workers [with] the same personality,” she says. “They might not love to talk about how they embrace the industry or cheer each other up all the time, [but] how their behaviour and attitude towards the work shows their commitment to it.” She pauses for a moment. “I need to say, Hong Kong people are lovely.”

Fagara opens in general release on 12 September 2019.

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