Filmmaker Nick Cheuk Confronts Suicide in Hong Kong

The events that inspired Time Still Turns the Pages (年少日記) happened more than a decade ago, but it’s clear that filmmaker Nick Cheuk Yick-him, still feels their weight. At a glance, the film is about the scourge of juvenile suicide in Hong Kong, but scratch the surface and there’s a lot more going on. The film is also about academic pressures put on kids in Hong Kong, parental expectations and the often misguided notions of what’s best for a child’s education, and the impact of lingering trauma on those left behind. It’s dense, heavy material, especially for a first film, but Cheuk wanted to make sure he got it done; he was on a deadline of sorts.

Cheuk’s Ploom vaporiser is nearby, but he doesn’t actually use it that often. There’s a lunch box sitting at his elbow he doesn’t touch. He carefully recounts his time as a student at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, almost as if he’s still piecing it together. In his second year, in 2009, a classmate and good friend committed suicide. Cheuk refers to himself as a “pretty emotional person,” and it shows. He tears up frequently while telling the story, though he’s clearly determined to make his friend’s death mean something. 

“The night before he left I saw him,” he says. “He was sitting and writing in a corner of a classroom. I said ‘Hi, what are you doing? What are you working on?’ He was pretty nervous and covered up whatever it was. He said it was his own story. He was a good writer, the best of all of us in the class, so I thought nothing of it. We were all sure he’d be a screenwriter. So I just brushed it off, said good luck, and see you soon.” 

Cheuk consistently uses the words “leave” and “left” to describe his friend’s passing. The morning he died, Cheuk got a message that the friend had left a letter for him. He read it before returning it to the police. “He said, ‘Okay, Nick, please keep this story for me for 10 years. After 10 years you can tell somebody else.’ But he didn’t explain why it had to be 10 years. And he didn’t tell me who I should tell.” He pauses for a moment. “He loved movies.”

So did Cheuk for that matter, who took a turn towards filmmaking after first taking an interest in photography while at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He cites Hong Kong director Vincci Cheuk (no relation), Japanese director Shunji Iwai, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and trailblazers Jean-Luc Godard and Charlie Chaplin as influences. Another is Gus Van Sant, particularly after Cheuk saw Good Will Hunting in secondary school. That became the film that inspired him to study cinema. 

“‘It’s not your fault.’ That moment really hit me,” he says, referring to the iconic scene in which Matt Damon’s character reveals a childhood trauma to the therapist played by Robin Williams. “I cried so much, and it made me wonder why it moved me so much. The combination of music, performance, story… oh,” blurts Cheuk, throwing his hands up in admiration. Cinema, and filmmaking, became a balm to him at a time when, like one of the characters in Time Still Turns the Pages, he discovered he wasn’t a great student. 

By contrast, film school was a revelation. “I found this new world for me,” he says. “I found myself much more engaged and useful than before. There was no more criticism and focus on marks. When I studied film there was so much to explore. Is the director honest with themself? How do we mark an aesthetic or a film language? It was like studying literature. There was no wrong answer, and I loved the idea of expressing myself.”

Cheuk started kicking around the industry after graduating from CityU, co-writing Wilson Yip Wai-shun’s Paradox and Alan Lo Wai-Lun’s Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight (both 2017), as well as over a dozen of his own, unproduced scripts. Cheuk’s calming baritone belies his slight physicality, and despite the sombre conversation, Cheuk himself isn’t dour. He has an obvious nervous energy about an upcoming post-screening Q&A — audiences have been overwhelmingly positive so far — and he’s quick to joke about his future prospects. “The first thing I learnt after starting work in the industry is that I will be very, very poor,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s okay. I need some way to express my feelings.” 

Cheuk didn’t open his friend’s letter again until 2019. Looking at it with fresh eyes, he realised it was written as a script, and that his friend had been struggling with depression, something Cheuk himself has dealt with on and off for years. That’s when he got to work on Time Still Turns the Pages in a studio space a few storeys above production house MM2’s office in Kowloon Bay. By then he’d connected with producer Derek Yee — who also helped shepherd Lawrence Kan’s In Broad Daylight to screens — who was pushing him to meet Create HK’s First Feature Film Initiative application deadline.

Needless to say, he did, and then pulled triple duty as writer, director and co-editor on Time Still Turns the Pages. The story pivots on Eli and his younger brother Alan (Sean Wong Tsz-lok and Curtis Ho Pak-lim), and their stressful childhood with their father, successful barrister Cheng Ji-hung (Ronald Cheng Chung-kei, Chilli Laugh Story, Elisa’s Day). Eli is sweet-natured and curious, though not academically inclined. But he’s a great writer, as evidenced in an evocative diary he keeps. Alan is a straight-A student and a budding pianist. Eli inspires little beyond contempt from Ji-hung, and gets only the barest minimum of support from the boys’ mother, Heidi (Rosa Maria Velasco, Everyphone Everywhere). Their young lives are recalled by a now grown Mr. Cheng (one of Cheuk’s old classmates, Lo Chun-yip, No.1 Chung Ying Street), a middle school teacher, when he finds what could potentially be a suicide note in one of his classrooms. 

“I’ll admit I wasn’t sure the subject of suicide was something that was right to make a film about. What if we inspire copycats?” says Cheuk. “But you can’t over-report news of suicide. It’s something we all need to talk about and know about. I started writing in 2015, stopped for all these reasons, and started again, and in between the stats didn’t change.” According to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, suicide among children under 15 hit an all-time high in 2021, with 1.7 cases per 100,000 people. “One of the solutions we’re all looking for is discussion. And if somebody points a finger at me, [saying] that I shouldn’t do this, well, at least you’re talking about it.”

But Time Still Turns the Pages has more on its mind. It would have been easy to make Eli and Alan’s parents into monsters, but Cheuk’s more nuanced spin makes them resonate far more for their flaws. It helps that popular actor Cheng, best known for being approachable and funny, plays Ji-hung. His presence is immediately disarming.

“If an actor can handle comedy they can do drama. It is the most difficult form, and there are a million examples: Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Bryan Cranston and I really loved Steve Carell’s performance in Foxcatcher,” notes Cheuk of his choice to cast Cheng. “I wondered who the Hong Kong version of that was. I’ve been watching Ronald Cheng since I was a boy and I looked forward to his performances in drama. We didn’t have a lot of money but he and his agent were keen to get involved.”

Hanna Chan Hon-na (Far Far Away) has a small part as the grown-up Cheng’s fiancée, whom he loses when she reveals her pregnancy and he is unable to reconcile the possibility of becoming like his father. Finally there’s a second act twist, for lack of a better word, that’s less a dramatic ploy than a way for Cheuk to demand we reconsider our own attitudes towards suicide, depression and what we think we know. 

Cheng is conscious of his own trauma, and he’s a vulnerable figure who’s nonetheless trying to be a better man and better teacher. His willingness to make himself available to his students is worth any mild scorn. Helping one is better than inaction. Cheuk weaves these seemingly disconnected threads together into a larger tapestry that ultimately suggests a deeper connection to each other. It’s a delicate balance, but one he pulls off with an assured, sensitive hand.

“I asked myself a lot of questions, specifically if I was the right person to tell this story,” he says. The intensely personal nature of the story helped. “I was afraid to tell anybody that I was depressed, that I wanted to kill myself. I was afraid to be labelled a maniac, or weak, or a loser or whatever. Depression can affect anyone, at any point in life. And I actually want to tell people that there’s no shame in being depressed. I was really depressed recently. It’s like a flu or something. You’ll recover but you’ll never know when it will hit you again. I wish I could go back and tell him that.” He adds some advice he would have given to his friend: “Don’t think that you’re alone.”

It took 19 days to shoot Time Still Turns the Pages, which turned out to be good for Cheuk, who was grateful for lively discussions and a supportive crew that let him focus on just getting the film done. Winning an award wasn’t on his mind, though as one of the strongest local films this year, it’s likely to be a contender for the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2024. It’s already up for five Golden Horse Awards, including best film, new director and supporting actor for young Wong.

“Cinema is the only connection left between me and my friend,” says Cheuk. “I thank him every day for that energy and that love of cinema he left me. This gave me a chance to really express a lot of feelings and actually get better. I’m ready to move on to the next stage. There are a lot of genres I want to explore – maybe action, science fiction, or comedy.” He chuckles. “If I get to make a second film it’s going to be a comedy.”

Time Still Turns the Pages opens November 16.
Stills and trailer, courtesy of MM2

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, there is help for you. Contact the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong’s 24-hour hotline at 2389 2222 (Cantonese) or 2389 2223 (English). 

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