Moon Shot: A Feature Debut Captures the Life of a Hunanese Migrant to Hong Kong

In putting together her first feature film, novelist, screenwriter and director Sasha Chuk Tsz-yin counted legendary production designer William Chang Suk-ping and French modern classical composer Dominique Charpentier among her crew. The film was produced by Hong Kong New Wave titan Stanley Kwan (Rouge) and emerging filmmaker Jun Li (Tracey, Drifting)

Shot in 15 days, not including a short Covid break that stretched production to two months, Fly Me to the Moon (但願人長久) met with a great deal of good fortune on its road to the screen. In various stages of production it won a string of funding awards, five at the 2023 Hong Kong–Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) project market, including a completion grant and inclusion on a trade trip to Cannes, in addition to its First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI) funding.

After its world premiere at last October’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Fly Me to the Moon went on to scoop up a pair of nominations at the 60th Golden Horse Awards, for Best New Performer (for co-star, Yoyo Tse Wing-yan) and Adapted Screenplay, as well as a FIPRESCI Prize. Even those among us who may be under the impression the film is yet another navel-gazing, molasses-slow, bleak drama about how awful living in Hong Kong is would have to admit the advance word is impressive. It’s also deserved, and the film is far from bleak. It’s simply honest in its portrayal of loneliness, feeling like an outsider and the bonds — and stresses — of family. 

Sitting in a board room at Golden Scene’s office, Chuk recalls how Stanley Kwan told her to use Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 drama Tokyo Story as a reference. “Tokyo Story is one of the most touching films ever made,” she says. “Whether or not you’re Japanese, if you have a family you connect with it. It’s universal. Stanley reminded me of that a lot: don’t make a film that only connects to Hong Kong people, that’s so insular only Hongkongers get it. A story can absolutely be personal, but the final film should be universal.”

Chuk never set out to be a filmmaker. After studying Chinese literature and sociology at the University of Hong Kong (where she met Li), she worked for an insurance firm to pay the bills. She published Moon, a semi-autobiographical novel, in 2018. “It wasn’t my aim to become an author,” she says. “I wrote, but didn’t feel the need to publish everything.” Plans to adapt the story for cinema sprung from the combination of a melancholy song Chuk heard one day, and the reading patterns of Hongkongers, whom she doesn’t see as the voracious readers Chinese and Taiwanese are. Chuk wasn’t confident the story would gain traction in book form, so when friends suggested making five-minute mini-films for YouTube that could serve as ads for the books, she jumped into the format, having already made a short film in 2014 as something of an experiment: Dear Maggie. The song she heard, made her think of someone returning to their hometown. “It moved me,” she says. “The idea didn’t fit in the book, but it did fit in a script.”

Dear Maggie didn’t really go anywhere, but it taught Chuk a great deal about filmmaking, and helped her find her biggest influences. Authors Eileen Chang Ai-ling and Pai Hsien-yung had long been literary guides, but Chuk added actor-screenwriters Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and Greta Gerwig (Barbie), and directors Yasujirō Ozu, Jia Zhangke (Still Life) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River) to her list of inspirations.

Dear Maggie also led her back to Li when he was working on his Fresh Wave film, Liu Yang He, in 2017. “He wanted to make a film about a female sex worker, so he wanted a female co-scriptwriter. Everyone I know now was connected by Jun.” He clued her into funding sources and various arts collectives and steered her through her earliest steps in the industry. “He was a huge help that way, and provided me with a peer group,” says Chuk. It all came in handy when she made The Dropout of Her, a short about a lonely, bookish student and her detention teacher, in 2019, starring Tse and Time Still Turns The Page’s Lo Chun-yip. But it was 2021’s Plain Sailing that proved to be a dry run for Fly Me to the Moon. The short about a Hong Kong woman colliding with a Japanese man in Kaohsiung, brought Chuk into cinematographer Ho Yuk-fai’s sphere. 

That combination of personal and universal brings Fly Me to the Moon in line with a slew of recent releases from Hong Kong, all of which are singular to the city but covered subjects familiar to people anywhere: depression, suicide, displacement, emigration, immigration, press freedom, abuse, addiction and living right on the poverty line: In Broad Daylight, The Narrow Road, Drifting, Time Still Turns The Pages and Mad Fate are just a few.

Fly Me to the Moon spans 20 years in the life of Hunan transplant Yuen — played by Chloe Hui Ho-yi, Golden Horse winner Tse, and Chuk herself — through snapshots of her life. First, in 1997 when she arrives in Hong Kong as a child with her family, then as a teenager in 2007, and finally in 2017 as an adult working in the travel industry. The family struggles to make ends meet, with their mother (Carmen Zhou) working in a restaurant and dad Lam Kok-man (Taiwanese actor Wu Kang-ren, Abang Adik) doing odd jobs that mostly support his drug addiction. Things get harder when Yuen’s younger sister, Kuet (Skylar Pang, Natalie Hsu En-yi, and Angela Yuen Lai-lam, The Narrow Road), arrives. But it provides a kind of emotional safety net for the sisters, and a portrait in contrast, with Yuen continuing to struggle with her outsider’s identity and Kuet trying desperately to bury it.

The film mirrors many aspects of Chuk’s life. Like the protagonist, she also moved to Hong Kong from Hunan at six, and so its exploration of displacement and isolation is authentic in its specificity but has the universal recognisability Kwan told Chuk to find in her work. “Being an outsider is a big part of my life; I still feel the same now. When I go out with my mom we speak to each other in Hunan dialect and people will give me a funny look – especially in the last few years when everyone has been more sensitive to languages other than Cantonese,” says Chuk. “And I feel like an outsider in Hunan too. I’ve been here since I was a child, so when I go back to Hunan I’m ‘the girl from Hong Kong.’”

Chuk and her first-time feature cinematographers, Ho and Chan Hok-lun, have made what is one of the most purely visual films to come out of Hong Kong in many years. It’s not stylish in the Wong Kar-wai sense, but in its narrative. “When I first met Ho we didn’t really get along,” says Chuk. “We really clicked on Plain Sailing. He read the script and found it very literary. He said he didn’t really get it at first. So I gave him the book, and after he read it I think he found a way to trust me. I had never made a film. I didn’t go to film school. Filmmaking was something I did on my days off. After reading the book I think Ho saw something in what I was trying to say.” 

Chuk, Ho and Chan went the extra step of storyboarding every shot (“I’m a huge fan of comics, which I think gave me a respect for storyboarding,” says Chuk) and in following that process they came to realise the long takes they initially wanted to utilise were not just logistical nightmares, but wrong for the story.

Kwan agreed to come on board as a producer when Chuk cold-called him (she got his phone number from Li) and put his name on her FFFI application. She credits the veterans with furthering her film education. Kwan and Chang recommended watching films from as many parts of the world as she could, to understand there’s more to cinema than Hollywood structures and emotional beats. “Eventually I learnt there was no one kind of film,” she says. “European cinema, for example, is so different from what I had been watching. I learnt language wasn’t about dialogue in cinema.”

Fly Me to the Moon is dense with visual storytelling. The cramped flat the family lives in is a character of its own, signalling shifts in the family dynamic as Lam spirals into addiction. When the sisters link hands at school its meaning is distinct from when they do it at home. Empty rooms and silent embraces tell us all we need to know about what happened to Lam’s junkie friend and Yuen’s decision about a guy she’s seeing in Tokyo. She looks glaringly urbane in the alleys of her hometown. Chuk resists words if she doesn’t need them, fully embracing the concept of “show, don’t tell.” She admits some critics have said the film was needlessly opaque, but its gentle rhythms and understated emotions are best expressed with pictures. “I want the audience to excavate their own meaning rather than state everything clearly,” she says.

Though fears of generous government funding equating with interference in artistic content hover over the film sector, Chuk is philosophical about it, and sees the FFFI as doing more good than harm. She argues it frees filmmakers up to explore, thematically or structurally, at their pace. “FFFI funding puts no burden of box office performance on films, so filmmakers feel free to do whatever they like,” she says. “You can hire whoever you like, shoot however you like. There’s no pressure to make sure X or Y actor is in your film. And you can give other creatives their first jobs. If we only get one chance, most of us are taking a big swing.”

 

Fly Me to the Moon opens on April 11, 2024.

Go back to top button