The phone rings just as Jevons Au is about to launch into his origins as a filmmaker. He glances down and reaches for the device. Other calls were muted, but this time he offers a subtle nod in gratitude to all in the room who wave off the so-called disturbance, indicating answering is no problem. “Yeah, I need to, because that’s my wife.”
Call done and dusted, Au once again turns his attention to the conversation in distributor Golden Scene’s Tsim Sha Tsui office. He has just finished editing his new film, Distinction. As a writer, director and Baptist University instructor, Au has made a name for himself over the course of his 15-year career for being an outspoken critic of Hong Kong and the forces guiding it; he is one of the city’s few seemingly fearless advocates at a time when the very essence of what Hong Kong is is in flux. “Perhaps that’s the nature of Hong Kong, its destiny,” he ponders aloud.
Born, raised and educated in Hong Kong, Au studied filmmaking at the Academy for Performing Arts’ School of Film and Television under renowned critic Shu Kei. But he fell into filmmaking rather than answered a calling. “As a kid I never once thought I’d work in the film industry. I thought I might be a soccer player,” recalls Au with a laugh. He had a complicated, imperfect family life growing up, raised by his grandmother, with no real parental figures. High school skewed towards business and a life in accounting or banking. “I didn’t want my life to focus on numbers,” he says. “When I was 17, a classmate made a short film and he asked if I would work on the crew. I found that interesting.”
His unconventional — and stigmatised — background manifests in Au’s almost inherent thoughtfulness. He understands being the odd one out and he carries that understanding quite obviously. “I was quite emotional at the time but I couldn’t write, I couldn’t draw. I didn’t know much about arts and culture,” he recalls. But finishing his friend’s short gave him the confidence to go further. “It was also the ideal way for me to discover more about myself. I could use filmmaking as a tool to self-analyse and figure out my emotions.” Thus began Au’s journey to status as Hong Kong’s most empathetic director.
After graduating from the APA in 2004, Au freelanced for a while and made his own shorts, one of which memorialised his beloved grandmother, who passed away in 2003. He finally made his way to TVB, Hong Kong’s market leading television network. Though still harbouring aspirations to filmmaking, the pick-up writing and research on period dramas proved valuable for a number of reasons.
“I had no network,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I figured if I wanted to work in drama I should try TVB. At least I’d learn about storytelling and the process. But I was still very passionate, and concerned with the details. I had the research team checking on the carpeting of 1920s Shanghai.” Things changed when he got a job with director Johnnie To’s production company, Milkyway Image. “I had to change my mindset,” he recalls. “They were detail-oriented. Everything in the script had to have a reason. That was a great experience.”
Au worked as a writer alongside To’s right hand man, Wai Ka-fai (Running on Karma, Drug War), eventually participating in To’s Fresh Wave talent incubator programme. His 2007 short Merry X’mas cemented Au’s defining focus on Hong Kong society and how we relate to each other. The story pivots on a little girl on a mission to collect enough rubbish to fund the Christmas gift giving she perceives as so important.
In many ways Distinction could be considered Au’s feature debut; his most prominent feature work until now has been as a writer on Milkyway’s 2011 Louis Koo rom-com Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and as a contributor in anthologies. His breakout came in 2015 with “Dialect” in the hot button indie Ten Years. As one of the five shorts to contemplate what Hong Kong would look like a decade down the road (spoiler: it doesn’t fare well), “Dialect” focused on a cab driver struggling to make a living as someone who speaks only the local language. The man is punished for his use of Cantonese (a dialect according to Beijing) and shuffled off to work less lucrative parts of the city.
“I started writing in Cantonese, and by 2007, 2008 a lot of filmmakers were working on Chinese co-productions,” says Au. The global financial crisis pushed even more Hong Kong filmmakers towards the China market. “More and more directors went to work on Chinese projects or co-productions,” which were often in Mandarin, he says. Au chose to stay in Hong Kong, but when Ten Years opened, he told the South China Morning Post he felt like his film’s central cabbie, and worried about his livelihood in an increasingly mainland China-focused industry. Still, the shaky ground for local independent cinema beats the alternative and the rigid rules of placating mainland censors. “I just want some interaction and a place for creativity … I like the creative freedom of independent filmmaking. I like writing what I want to.”
Au followed Ten Years with the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Award-winning Trivisa. The film had gone into production years before, but when it was finally released in 2016, the one-two punch branded Au a rising star. Co-directed by Vicky Wong and Frank Hui (also Fresh Wave alumni) Trivisa was a thinly veiled allegory for Hong Kong’s post-handover struggles, with fury, greed and delusion, the three poisons of Buddhist dogma referenced by the title. It was a stylish, existential crime thriller about three thugs at the end of their heyday.
Au’s latest film, Distinction, is neither neo-noir allegory nor provocative speculation, but rather an old-fashioned social drama. The modest story follows a teacher (Jo Koo) at a school for special needs as she navigates all manner of roadblocks to mounting a musical for her students – among them Tse Ka-long, a non-professional who ended up as the surprise star of the film.
The film’s narrow focus and likely modest returns would have made it nearly impossible to fund if not for the AR Charitable Foundation. Administered by the Wu Foundation, ARCF is designed to have an impact beyond traditional chequebook philanthropy through cinema. The roots of Distinction stem from some research for another short and a chance meeting with a special needs school principal, who showed Au a DVD of a show similar to the one in the final film. “It was really touching. I could see how difficult it was to do for everyone, and how rewarding,” Au says. “Hongkongers are not really concerned about this kind of thing. There’s no spotlight on this kind of school and the people in them.”
The plight of the learning disabled in Hong Kong may be the impetus, but it wasn’t Au’s only target in the end. “I [wasn’t] trying to make a film only about mentally disabled children. I [was] making a film about school kids.” Also prominent in the narrative is Zoey (Jennifer Yu) a privileged girl from a so-called “normal” school who is pressed into working on the play for crucial, impressive extracurricular credit.
“I wanted it to be about the education system in Hong Kong,” says Au. “I wanted to show its impact on all children. The reason I’m still passionate about making films is that I’m still trying to have an impact.” He hopes the film raises questions about why Hong Kong is so competitive, why the stigma of special needs persists, and why so many students commit suicide – all without demonising parents who truly believe they’re making the best choices for their children. He wants Distinction to be critical without being alienating. “I think this is the first time I’ve made such a positive film,” he says.
Au will find out in late June if audiences find it positive (it is, but it’s also heartbreaking and infuriating). In the meantime, he’s tossing around ideas for his next film, possibly something that could take him to Europe or North America. Whatever it is, it needs to be meaningful to Au, and give him an opportunity to have some kind of influence. “We all have our own place in society. No matter how tough things get, if everyone takes their share of responsibility and doesn’t give up, that’s how we’ll overcome obstacles,” he concludes, with a thoughtfulness that is clearly typical. “The parents of the kids [in Distinction] aren’t special. They do what they need to every single day. And when we talk about Hong Kong it’s the same thing.” Spoken like a true optimist.
Distinction makes its world premiere at the Taipei Film Festival on June 29, 2018, and premieres in Hong Kong at the second Hong Kong Kids International Film Festival on July 28. General release in Hong Kong is slated for September.