When you see director Lee Cheuk-pan sitting in the lounge of the Harbour Plaza in North Point, it would be easy to mistake him for just another business professional in town for work, or maybe a schoolteacher living in the area waiting for relatives. But get him talking and he reveals himself for the artist he actually is. Gearing up for the screening and eventual release of his debut feature, G Affairs, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Lee couldn’t sound less corporate even if he tried. “I’m interested in identity politics, and how there’s no one way of looking at someone,” he says. “[In the film] I wanted to raise the question of how to look at people, at each other – not answer it.”
33-year-old Lee is one in the emerging crop of young filmmakers taking advantage of Create Hong Kong’s five-year-old First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI), designed to nurture local talent as the film industry continues to bleed its skilled, experienced directors to China and its generous budgets, which Lee admits to being tempted by too. “As a filmmaker of course I am,” he says with a chuckle. “Any filmmaker wants access to as many resources, as big a budget and all the possibilities as they can get.”
One of the things that sets Lee apart from his peers is his lack of fear with regards to China’s perceived smothering of the industry here, either by limiting funding to content agreeable to Beijing or by chasing local investors away when they find out their film won’t be released on the mainland because of content the censors find disagreeable. And for that matter, Lee has an even rarer optimistic streak. “Personally I’m not against making films with China, but the subject matter of this film in particular is what it is,” he says. By mainland standards, G Affairs is full of unsavoury material: underage sex, corrupt police, social friction. It was worth keeping it a purely local production. “By changing it I would be making a different movie; it would be a different project,” he says. “But I would love to make a film in China.”
Lee got his start in the industry in 2005 after completing a film training course offered through the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, followed by a series of jobs as assistant director to veteran producers and filmmakers such as Daniel Lam (Shock Wave), Herman Yau (The Sleep Curse) and Wilson Yip (Ip Man). He also worked as an online commercial director. He admits to not being able to pinpoint what lured him to filmmaking, other than the sneaky influence of directors like Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Danny Boyle. His first love was actually graphics.
“I was really into comic books and graphic novels when I was younger – I just wasn’t very good at it,” he laughs. “When I was in school digital cameras really started to take off, so just with friends we started experimenting and making short films together. But I honestly couldn’t tell you what made me make that first film. I find I can really connect to certain images sometimes. I’m totally fascinated by geometric shapes.” Series like Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga Hunter x Hunter and Ma Wing-shing’s wuxia manhua Fung Wan (Wind and Cloud) — adapted into the film The Storm Riders by Andrew Lau — stuck with him.
That explains a lot about the visuals of G Affairs, a drama pivoting on the star student at a Catholic school, Yu Ting; her corrupt policeman father Lung; and two outsider friends, budding cellist Tai and the autistic, easily manipulated Don. The film is a bleak look at the state of Hong Kong society right now — its increasing apathy, focus on material wealth and underlying hypocrisies — and Lee and long-time collaborator, cinematographer Karl Tam, frame many of their shots with non-traditional angles and contrasting geometries. It enhances the central characters’ disconnection and disassociation, and many compositions have a graphic novel feel to them.
Lee admits to encountering a fair bit of good fortune during G Affairs’ development process, first after writer Kurt Chiang wrote a third draft that appealed to funders more (the story involves a corpse with a missing head) that ultimately won financing from FFFI. “We wanted to tell a story that was uniquely Hong Kong, and I wanted to tell a story from a girl’s point of view,” he says. “It’s totally fictional but we touch on a lot of real life situations that affect society now. It’s a chronicle of Hong Kong society right now and people’s value systems. Whether it’s bleak, or hopeless, pessimistic or optimistic, is really up to the individual viewer and how they perceive it.”
The cash from FFFI helped with casting. Chinese indie queen Huang Lu, who starred in Blind Mountain by Li Yang (2007) and Ho Wi-ding’s Cities of Last Things (2018) agreed to play a disaffected mainland prostitute (earning a Hong Kong Film Awards nomination for her performance), and actor-producer Chapman To, a regular in Pang Ho-cheung’s films and a familiar face in high-profile holiday fluff (Golden Chicken), who oversees hits (Infernal Affairs) and emerging filmmakers’ work, agreed to take on the corrupt cop part. Lee credits Chiang’s script with attracting both.
“The characters in the movie are multi-faceted, and they have dark sides and secrets,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of depth to them so it was easy to attract actors to the project. Having guaranteed government funding helped, and Chapman To is a huge supporter of local cinema. With Huang Lu, one of my producers had worked with her before, and she told her about it. When I heard her name come up I knew she’d be great, but we approached so many actresses for the role, who all rejected it after initially agreeing because of the content, I didn’t want to get too excited until it was official.”
The end result is one of the year’s clearest voices, and a critical (if subjective) look at bullying, the Hong Kong tendency to look down its nose at mainland residents, identity and the widening gap between the privileged and non-privileged classes, something Lee thinks everyone everywhere can relate to. And — spoiler alert — The film’s ambiguous ending deserves mention, too. Hanna Chan’s Yu Ting and Lam Sen’s Tai leaping off a building literally into thin air, though Lee doesn’t see it that way.
“The way I see the ending is more abstract,” he says. “I see the kids as two droplets of water jumping into the ocean. You can’t say they disappear because they’re the same thing. They merge together. Hong Kong has been a port for a long time, with people coming and going every day. And when they come in they bring something with them, and when they leave sometimes they take things away. Hong Kong has always had a fluid identity. There’s this adversarial perception of the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland right now, but I don’t see it that way.” For Lee, Hong Kong is the water droplets that are part of the China ocean, not separate from it, and certainly not about to get drowned by it.
Regardless of how small the filmmaking community is, or might get still, Lee isn’t giving up on Hong Kong’s cinematic voice any time soon. “I feel like I’ve just started a new phase of my professional life. It’s too soon to talk about quitting,” he says, confident in Hong Kong’s ability to keep producing art anyway. “Even with the decline in the industry, the number of productions shrinking and everyone talking about how the industry here is dying, the role of a director is always needed – somewhere. It’s too soon to give up on the Hong Kong industry.”
The Hong Kong International Film Festival runs from 18 March to 1 April 2019. Click here for more information.
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