There’s an old adage in movie-making, one that transcends place, language and budget: never work with animals or children. It’s a rule that Ka Sing-fung has cheerfully ignored through his career as a writer and director. “I worked with eight,” he says with a chuckle. “In many ways kids are much more natural, more real, than adult actors. There’s a purity to their reactions that’s nicely unfiltered.”
Ka is relaxing on a plush sofa in a K11 Artus hotel suite overlooking the harbour. He’s dressed in stylish greyscale, and he shakes hands, a rarity in a Covid world. There are about two weeks to go until his first film, Lost Love (流水落花), is released after closing last year’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and earning star Sammi Cheng Sau-man acclaim as Best Actress from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society at the beginning of 2023. The film is about a woman grieving the death of her son by fostering children in her Yuen Long village home. It comes from Create Hong Kong’s sixth First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI) class, and is an exemplar of the kind of low-key social drama the local industry is increasingly comprised of. And, like Oliver Chan’s Still Human, it is anchored by an enduring local star.
Born in Suzhou and relocated to Hong Kong as an infant, Ka came to filmmaking the long way. While a chemistry major at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, he minored in literature, which is where he was bitten by the creative bug. “In my second year I realised I wasn’t interested in chemistry. I loved reading, and I loved writing, and decided I should try that.”
Between school years, he worked as a part-time editor and writer at a magazine before landing gigs at Ming Pao Weekly, a.m post, and starting his own blog. He did that until 2017, when he committed to filmmaking full time by establishing Fixer Production Unit, a small studio making short films, music videos and commercials, which still pay the bills. His taste for cinema started in childhood and really blossomed during university, and though he enjoys an action blockbuster as much as the next viewer, Ka points to seeing Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, a childhood portrait about brothers raised in different cities by separated parents, in 2011 as being an epiphany.
“It was about these kids leaving home to find a miracle, and I found it so touching, so unique, and so real,” he says. “It was the one that made me think, ‘Oh, films can be like this?’ It’s not Kore-eda’s most well known film but I found it one of his most moving.”
Ka admits the jump from chemistry to journalism was quite a leap, but the jump from journalism to filmmaking wasn’t quite as drastic – to a point. It is another form of storytelling, but the creativity allowed in cinema makes all the difference. “I enjoy filmmaking more than being just a journalist. I still really enjoy listening to real people telling me a real story. But taking that extra step of creating something new from a little of this and a little of that is exciting.”
Like Jun Li, Jevons Au and Lam Sum, Ka started his career with the Fresh Wave short film festival, during which he produced two of his half-dozen shorts: A Bird Goes By and Gai Dan Chai, both in 2019. Even as a novice, he was focused on features, and after being selected for Fresh Wave was confident he was well on the way. “I thought, ‘If I can make a short, I can make a feature.’ I thought they were similar,” he recalls. Now having done both, was he right? “No!” he states firmly, but with a laugh. “The fundamentals are the same but I had to constantly remind myself that technically it was completely different.”
Ka is largely an autodidact, and Fresh Wave taught him some hard lessons. “I learnt by practice and by watching a lot of films. I thought A Bird Goes By was brilliant,” he laughs. “And I lost every single prize I was up for at Fresh Wave. When the names were read I was thinking, ‘Not me?’ Then I watched the films that won and started to understand what a film was. About mine, I was all, ‘Well that’s all wrong.’ And I went ahead and asked the jury for criticism. That started to teach me language. Obviously I still have room to improve; to find my own pure cinema language.”
His unique language is officially born in Lost Love, which took nearly two years to complete from script to cinema – over a year of writing, six months of pre-production development, just over three weeks of shooting, and then post-production. Ka was awarded an FFFI grant in 2020 and considers himself lucky that the shifting perspectives in Hong Kong production (thanks to new censor rules and the National Security Law putting filmmakers on alert), his application for funding and his preferred themes happened to align.“I have an interest in family.”
That’s clear. Ka will go so far as to argue that most stories, if not all, are essentially family stories. “Games of Thrones is a family saga,” he says. “They’ve just tossed in some armour and set it in a warring, Middle Ages-type place.” Bird was about a man coming to understand his dementia-afflicted father by searching for him when he goes missing, and Gai saw a little girl tagging along with her dad on his delivery route and making a discovery about her family. And in keeping with the theme, Lost Love is more than just a film about families: it’s a family business, so to speak. Ka’s wife, writer Lo Kim-fei, collaborated on the screenplay, and his eight-year-old daughter has a cameo and also provided the handwritten text for the film’s key art.
Lost Love follows Chan Tin-mei (Cheng) and her husband Ho Bun (Alan Luk Chun-kwong, G Affairs) over 13 years as the couple fosters a string of children, following the death of their own son at just three years old. The scars of one troubled child after another cast Mei and Bun’s relationship in a new light and put it under a different kind of pressure. The story becomes one of who’s saving whom?
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Ka got his funding thanks to Cheng’s star power (FFFI grants are for HK$8 million, or just over US$1 million) but, ironically, her name recognition didn’t help. Though Ka wrote the film with Cheng in mind, he wasn’t prepared to pitch her if he didn’t have a guaranteed budget. Once he did, it only took a couple of days for Cheng to say yes.
“Tin-mei is very tough on the outside and hides a vulnerable core, and I get that feeling from Sammi. No other actress in Hong Kong gives me that vibe,” says Ka. “My producer was always asking what I was going to do if [Cheng] said no. She wanted a second choice but I just wouldn’t consider it. I had blind faith she’d say yes.”
Despite a fairly diverse filmography, Cheng is still best known for romances like Yesterday Once More, but in recent years has pushed back on her cutesy image with performances in films like Fagara and now Lost Love. When asked the reason Cheng gave for agreeing to headline the relatively low-budget debut film, Ka notes it was because she didn’t see herself in the character. “It’s a departure from her image, how she sees herself, and from what audiences see,” he says. And anyone looking for tabloid fodder about Cheng being a diva will have to wait too. “She was terrific. She’s a star, and a bit of me was expecting her to be a star. [But] she was really cooperative and collaborative.”
Ka calls Lost Love a static road trip, or a road movie in reverse, in which Mei stays put while the people she encounters are on the move. The story starts with Mei and Bun still mourning the loss of their son to illness, and Mei resisting any suggestion of “trying again.” She fosters differently abled children, some with behaviour problems, others in temporary government care, and each contributes to her healing. The film has a picaresque structure thanks to the rotating cast of kids, which allows Mei to run the emotional gamut from frustrated to protective and everything in between, and allows us to watch her come back to her centre year by year.
Ka’s minimalist, emerging language (“A house, a river, a tree, three people. That’s it,” as he puts it) keeps the focus on the shifting family dynamic in hazy, warm images captured by DOP Danny Szeto Yat-lui (Beyond the Dream). “I wanted to zero in on just these people and not have the space be a distraction,” he says, citing the intimate spaces of Tsai Ming-liang’s psychosexual drama Vive L’Amour, Kim Ki-duk’s lifetime-spanning Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring, Michael Haneke’s family tragedy The Seventh Continent and (again) Kore-eda’s Still Walking, about a family memorialising its eldest son, as informing Lost Love.
Another easy conclusion to jump to is that Ka has experience with fostering, or that he covered the issue during his years as a journalist. Adoption is still almost a taboo subject in Hong Kong, and fostering flies even more under the radar. The story was, indeed, inspired by one member of Ka’s family: his mother-in-law. She’s never been part of the official foster system, but has spent extended periods of time over the years caring for relatives’ children.
“But this is a film, not a documentary. It’s not reporting,” he stresses. “I didn’t want to dive deep into the fostering system in Hong Kong. It’s a metaphor about life.” Ka is aware Lost Love could be a jumping-off point for discussion of a marginalised social issue, and that some audiences will see it as about foster parenting. “I’m fine with that,” he says. “If that’s what the media want to talk about, great. Bringing attention to the foster care system is a good thing,” he finishes. “People will always take what they want from a film. And that’s okay.”
Lost Love opens on March 2, 2023