Hong Kong’s Neon Shines On in Anastasia Tsang’s Film Debut

Seated in distributor Edkos screening lounge, director Anastasia Tsang Hin-ling is animated when she talks, to the degree that it looks like she’s actively trying to keep her hands still; her bottled effusiveness is almost French. But when the subject of the release date for her first feature, A Light Never Goes Out, comes up, she laughs a bit nervously. It’s the week prior to the release of fellow newbie Ka Sing-fung’s Lost Love, and she starts shaking her head before the question is even finished. “It is a bit misleading, because we’re doing some previews. We don’t want to be anywhere near that. We need to spread out,” she says.

By “spreading out,” she means leaving lots of room on cineplex screens for all the local films that suddenly seem to be flooding them. The recent success of Jack Ng Wai-lun’s A Guilty Conscience and Ho Cheuk-tin’s The Sparring Partner are proof that Hong Kong audiences are responding to local fare that speaks to them. They like their Avengers, too, but the combined HK$160 million those Hong Kong films made is a good sign for the industry.

And Tsang’s film speaks to Hongkongers. Her debut, funded by the First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI), is about a widow trying to fulfil what she believes is her husband’s last wish to repair a broken neon sign, made the rounds in 2022 closing the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, and screening at Tokyo International Film Festival, Taipei Golden Horse, and this year at International Film Festival Rotterdam, and though it has to pried out of her, Tsang admits early feedback has been good – if surprising. 

“So far audiences seem quite emotional,” she says. “A lot of people have told me they cried and cried. I honestly didn’t expect that kind of reaction. There are touching points, but I didn’t expect the extent of the reaction. Some of it for the relationships in the story, some of it for nostalgic reasons.”

Tsui Wah’s neon sign being removed

The easy, unfussy flair Tsang displays when speaking is indeed French-influenced. Born and raised in Hong Kong — she grew up in the New Territories — Tsang studied French in high school and struck out for Paris as soon as she possibly could after graduation, studying politics at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (better known as Sciences Po) in order to immerse herself in the language. Tsang considers herself a cinephile; her “a-ha!” moment was Ridley Scott’s influential science fiction film Blade Runner. “I didn’t see it in initial release, I saw it in university. But when I did I was totally stunned. I thought it was a masterpiece about existence and humanity, with the most amazing visuals I’d ever seen.”

Tsang’s time in Paris really opened her eyes. Being immersed in a new film culture, with easy access to a diverse range of cinema work was her first film school. While she was a student she helped out with student organised film nights and minor festivals but at the time, “I never thought I’d make a career in filmmaking. I was under the impression it demanded inborn genius. I thought no, that’s not quite me. So I was content to be a film lover and work alongside film – in television and film distribution.”

Which is what she did when she got home, until an opportunity to make a short film arose. After that all bets were off. Tsang quit her job and set out to find a way into film production. She studied film at the Sorbonne long distance from Hong Kong while honing her skills on shorts like the transgender-focused Marriage Sans Frontières (2011) and Marryland (2015), and co-writing Malaysian director Jy Teng’s Cantonese-language family road trip comedy A Journey of Happiness (2019).

Director Anastasia Tsang, 2023 – Photo by Onn Sek for Zolima CityMag

Not long after that came the idea and screenplay for A Light Never Goes Out. The death of her grandmother was a catalyst in Tsang’s decision to explore loss, something she’s keen on (“Stories about death are some that I’m attracted to, though I can’t tell you why,” she says with a chuckle), helped along by the fact that many of her female relatives were facing the issue at the time. “But I thought that may not be complete in itself. I needed more layers and I wanted to have a more direct connection to Hong Kong itself. So I went looking for a visual motif that would represent the city.”
That’s where the lights of the film came into play.
Neon has been on Hongkongers’ minds since many of the signs were deemed illegal by the government and started coming down around 2015. Neon signs are the beating heart of an ongoing exhibition at M+ and, for decades, were the city’s visual calling card and an intrinsic part of its identity. “I considered a lot of symbols, but none gave me the inspiration of neon. So I started the research and I became quite enchanted by the craft.”

In the film, Mei-heung (actor-director Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, 20:30:40, Murmur of the Hearts) mourns the recent loss of her neon signmaker husband Bill (Simon Yam Tat-wah, Septet) by trying to complete his last, unfinished project. She enlists the help of the apprentice she didn’t know he had, the depressed and aimless Leo (Henick Chou), despite apprehension from her daughter Rainbow (Cecilia Choi, Drifting). The film is heavy with a sense of passing, not just of Bill, but of Mei-heung’s core identity as a wife and mother, the relationship between Mei-heung and Rainbow, who’s making plans to move to Australia with her fiancé, and of the craft that Bill committed his life to. As a metaphor for fading glory or a vanishing moment in time, neon is precisely the double whammy Tsang was looking for.

“I don’t know if it’s the beginning of the end, but I agree it’s another thing we’re losing. It’s old restaurants and shops and craftsmen,” says Tsang. “I think neon is a symbol that reflects the sentiment of losing a lot over the last few years. And I think that’s what audiences are responding to.”

The FFFI’s demand for a completed script before the programme even considers a filmmaker for funding is resulting in first-timers getting major stars to topline their films and have a better chance at box office success: Ka secured Cantopop superstar Sammi Cheng, Oliver Chan won over Anthony Wong for Still Human, and Tsang wound up with an all star cast and crew for her first time out: Chang and Yam were joined by Ben Yuen (Tracey, Suk Suk) as Bill’s former partner Wong, and director of photography Leung Ming-kai (Far Far Away), editor Nose Chan (Suk Suk), and composers Alan Wong and Janet Yung (Mama’s Affair, Keep Rolling).

“I was very lucky to work with that crew, and not just the actors,” Tsang enthuses, admitting she was initially intimidated by Chang’s considerable resume and her position as a trailblazing Asian woman filmmaker. “She knew I was a bit nervous to start. But she made it clear I was the director, she was my actor, and she would respect my choices. Simon did that too, letting me know they were here to help me. They were collaborators. I think this is what makes cinema different from other art forms. It’s not totally personal; it’s not one person’s decision. It’s also not the way I want to work as a director. And at this point in their careers they don’t need money or awards or fame. They’re keen to help perpetuate Hong Kong film. I was grateful to them all.”

Naturally, without any input from actual neon masters, the film would have little to zero impact, and after her research Tsang went looking for veterans to help with the actors and to give the work the respect it deserves. With help from the scant interviews she could find and neon conservation organisations, Tsang finally found her primary neon master advisor: Wu Chi-kai, who agreed to chime in after he read the script. Wu was one of the few to even reply. “This is an old fashioned craft, and the masters are too,” says Tsang. “They don’t need attention or cameras in their faces.”

In what might be an emerging trend, Tsang is toying with the idea of venturing into the future rather than nostalgia for her next film. Lost Love’s Ka cited an interest in sci-fi too – all this on the heels of another local hit, last summer’s Warriors of Future (HK$82 million). “I’d like to try something closer to science fiction, about distinguishing consciousness, what that means and how it affects us,” she reasons, before pondering Hong Kong’s sudden sci-fi trend. “I’m not sure what’s causing it. For [Warriors star and producer] Louis Koo, it’s part of his vision to find a way forward for Hong Kong cinema. For too long it depended on cops and robbers and action. As an important industry figure he’s looking for a new way, a new genre, Hong Kong can do and audiences, everywhere, can embrace. That’s a fantastic thing for the industry. 

“For me it’s personal,” she continues. “It goes back to university and I have a keen interest in AI and things like that. Black Mirror is now; the future is happening before our eyes. It’s not far away. Im curious about the human future.” No surprise: she loves Jean-Luc Godard and his sci-fi style touchstone Alphaville. “He’s still innovative and avant garde,” she says. That said, Tsang is careful not to let style get in the way of substance. “Technology and style should serve the story, not the other way around.”

A Light Never Goes Out is an elegy of sorts, and Tsang admits many viewers are going to see it as being about sadness, the past and what we lose, but she’s not convinced it really is. In fact, it has a kind of happy ending: Mei-heung gets a much needed catharsis, she helps someone who needs it, she honours Bill’s legacy and Leo finds new purpose. Like neon itself, which is becoming an artistic format rather than a commercial one, the main characters are transformed. 

“When we talk about the past it’s about how we live now. When we talk about loss, yes it’s sad, but we forget that we have the power to create again – from what we’ve lost,” Tsang finishes. “Is this the end of Bill? Is it the end neon? Is it the end of that thing we love? No, we can transform it into something new and let it continue.” She pauses. “The film is less about loss as about transformation, and I hope people are energised and encouraged by it, not just saddened.”

A Light Never Goes Out opens April 13.

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