Ray Yeung is that most unique of Hong Kong filmmakers: it’s his full-time job. True, he freelances as a script editor, and works for the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF) as a programmer and writer for four months each year. But when he’s not doing either of those cinematic things, he’s working on a film. On a balmy November afternoon, he is steeling himself for the Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, where his third feature film, Suk Suk, is in the running for five prizes, including best film.
But things could have been very different for Yeung. He is a trained lawyer who practised for two years. “I didn’t want to [study law]. I only did it because my parents wanted me to. You know how it is. You can imagine,” he recalls with a laugh. How did they respond when he finally threw in the legal towel to make movies? “There’s a whole drama there and I’m afraid there was nothing new. I got a very typical reaction. No matter how many awards I win it will never be as good as a doctor or a lawyer for Chinese parents.”
Yeung looks remarkably relaxed on the balcony of the Fringe Club in Central, even when the sound of commotion suddenly emerges from the street when a few dozen black-clad protesters sprint up Lower Albert Road. He gets up and leans over to take a look at the now-everyday event, seemingly taking the shifts in Hong Kong’s social landscape in stride.
If he has jitters about the awards he doesn’t show it. (Suk Suk ended up leaving Taipei empty-handed.) Jumping nimbly from subject to subject, he laments the disappearance of outspoken celebrities like actress Karen Mok (Shaolin Soccer), who were quick to throw their weight behind the right cause, but he is heartened by the recent crop of publicly funded first-time filmmakers, citing Oliver Chan’s Still Human and Derek Yee’s Somewhere Beyond the Mist as examples. He says mainstream cinema doesn’t cater to Hong Kong anymore. “The low budget indies are much more interesting, and certainly they’re more in tune with what’s going on in Hong Kong, and the social issues, the environment, the language. Those big budget movies are very much attached to the glamorous 1980s and 90s era and they seem dated for it.”
Yeung debates the relative “gayness” of Rocketman versus Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury’s rock star sex appeal and the supremacy of American filmmaker Toddy Haynes’ stealth David Bowie/Iggy Pop glam rock drama Velvet Goldmine, which brings up Yeung’s influences as a director. Ang Lee’s breakout 1993 family dramedy The Wedding Banquet, about a marriage of convenience that gets out of control when the gay groom’s parents show up for a visit, was among the earliest. Yeung remembers thinking, “I could make this. It was a story I really related to. Ang Lee was an influence because he was able to tell this relatable story about an Asian family in the West and find an audience.”
Other includes the visuals of Wong Kar-wai, the stylised films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s innovative storytelling, and trailblazing out Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (Lan Yu, Rouge). And of course, Todd Haynes, whom Yeung respects for the way he reimagines structure—his film Goldmine was modelled on Citizen Kane—while tackling themes of identity and sexuality.
Born and bred in Hong Kong, Yeung went to university in London where he earned that law degree and eventually took up a post as a solicitor. But it never really shook the filmmaking bug, a passion that just got stronger as he got older and started to read different cultures, particularly in the UK. Representation was important to Yeung long before it became trendy in Hollywood when it was sparked by movements like Oscars So White and Me Too.
“Part of the drive was political. I was born and raised here so an Asian man as the romantic hero was not unusual – or impossible,” he explains. But once he arrived in the UK for law school, the lack of Asian faces on screens was glaring, and it cemented his drive to make movies that spoke to more than just straight white men. “And of course LGBT representation was low, particularly in Asia,” he says. He quit the law firm and started working in television as early training before coming home to work in advertising in 1996.
While Yeung was cutting his teeth in the ad world, he found time to re-establish the briefly defunct HKLGFF in 2000. Originally founded in 1989, the festival shuttered in 1997 owing to a lack of funding, programming issues and a general sense of uncertainty related to the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from Britain to China. “I didn’t want the world to think Hong Kong had changed that much under China,” he says. “We didn’t want that image. And then we worried that maybe as time went by it would be harder to restart it.” HKLGFF is now Asia’s longest-running LGBT film festival.
While the HKLGFF was finding its footing, Yeung began work on his first feature film, Cut Sleeve Boys, which was released in 2006. A rom-com starring frequent collaborator Chowee Leow, the story pivoted on two gay British-Chinese men’s re-evaluation of their lives following the untimely death of a mutual friend. Despite a minuscule budget and Yeung having formal film training, Boys premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and went on to screen at festivals in Barcelona, Bangkok, London, Los Angeles and at home in Hong Kong.
It was then Yeung finally decided to pursue a master’s degree in filmmaking from Columbia University in 2008. He followed that by making a series of short films: Doggy… Doggy (2009); the quasi-coming-of-age tale Derek & Lucas (2011); stale relationship story Entwine (2012); and Paper Wrap Fire (2015). Yeung’s second feature, the New York-shot Front Cover (2015), showed a director taking considerable creative steps while cleaving closely to subjects near and dear to his heart. In the film, an out fashion stylist is recruited to work with a homophobic Beijing movie star looking to make a splash in the United States. Front Cover astutely observes how culture and sexuality touch on issues of identity in a way that isn’t quite perfect, but nonetheless feels authentic.
It’s that authenticity that underpins Suk Suk, easily Yeung’s most assured and accomplished work to date. The film is set in contemporary Hong Kong and was inspired by a real support network serving the LGBTQ community’s senior set. Suk Suk (“uncle,” a common Cantonese term used for older men) dovetails seamlessly with Yeung’s other work in its exploration of identity, sacrifice and tradition.
Yeung was fortunate to get an early hand from Stanley Kwan, who helped him with casting, itself something of a challenge. Plenty of actors were interested in the film’s awards potential but got cold feet when considering the impact the part could have on their stardom. A few did not show up to auditions and sent their wives instead, for reasons still unfathomable to Yeung. Ultimately Ben Yuen, who won a Golden Horse and a Hong Kong Film Award for his role as a trans woman in Jun Li’s Tracey, and Shaw Brothers veteran Tai Bo took the lead roles.
Ironically, both actors are straight. As Yeung sees it, any actor can play any type of sexuality, and this isn’t an issue of cultural appropriation. But he understands the fury over Scarlett Johansson getting offered a role as a trans man in the Dante Gill crime biopic Rub & Tug; she ended up withdrawing from the film after a backlash from the trans community. After all, trans actors don’t get opportunities to be Avengers. “As a director I don’t want to limit myself with casting, but I understand the argument,” says Yeung. “If you have a big pool of actors who are gay or out it’s another story, but in Hong Kong it’s even harder.”
In the film, widower Hoi (Yuen) and retired cabbie Pak (Tai Bo), are two elderly, closeted gay men who develop a fragile relationship despite wives, grown children and grandchildren they fear will discover their secrets. It ponders when to discard physical memories, like Hoi’s box of photographs and whether they’re worth the potential consequences of keeping them. Suk Suk is gently defiant, sensitive and bittersweet, but never weepy, and both leads turn in moving and empathetic performances. And it had to be a gay couple. “I think it had to be because it’s also very much about the sacrifices Hoi and Pak make in not being themselves,” says Yeung.
He is hoping the film will see a local release in early 2020. It premiered at Busan in October, and he’d like it to hit screens clear of the Christmas, Lunar New Year and so-called Oscar seasons. If he’s really lucky, a Hong Kong Film Award or two will come his way to help the film’s reception.
Yeung has no new film planned yet, but whatever comes next will probably be gay too. Yeung is not a “never say never” type, and he doesn’t rule anything out, but if a story is beyond his wheelhouse it has to be personally affecting.
“There are so many straight people who’ve been making straight films their whole lives and nobody questions it. Why should I change?” he asks with a chuckle and a shrug. “This is my world and it’s full of LGBT people. It’s what I know. It takes three or four years to make a film so I have to really believe in the project in order to do it. And of course you want to do things close to your heart. I’m not a box office guy.”