In Her New Documentary “Winter Chants,” Jessey Tsang Goes Home

It takes about five minutes to realise why filmmaker Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan has made a career of documenting life in Ho Chung Village. Seated under the awning of the village’s de facto town square — a small public space that features in Tsang’s latest documentary, Winter Chants — not a minute goes by without someone passing by offering a greeting, or Tsang hopping up to say hello to a local walking past the river. It’s a vivid reminder that the community bond and small town vibe so omnipresent in the film was not performative. This is par for the course in Ho Chung, so when Tsang sees one of her subjects from the film peeking out her door just down the street, she doesn’t think twice about inviting her to sit down.

Winter Chants (冬未來) is the latest in Tsang’s ever expanding chronicle of life in Ho Chung, about 10 minutes by minibus from Sai Kung’s town centre. More specifically, it chronicles the year the village spent preparing to mount the Taoist Tai Ping Ching Chiu Festival. Held once every decade, the festival is an intimate event for the community, by the community, and Tsang wanted to investigate how its place might be changing as the years go by. The festival already provided the backdrop for her first doc about Ho Chung, Flowing Stories in 2014, but this time around it’s the star.

“Other local villages do this [festival] as well. This one is ours,” she explains, waving, yet again, to another passerby. “Some do the festival every 60 years, they do the Bun Festival in Cheung Chau every year. As a matter of fact, a Cheung Chau villager saw [the movie] twice, and said she was very moved by the purity of it. That one is touristy; it’s an event listed by the Tourism Board. She commented on how local and private this one was, and that she missed that part.”

A graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the master’s programme in creative media at City University, Tsang is a native of Ho Chung, and while she no longer lives there — she’s relocated to another village in Tai Po — her family still does, and she visits often. The village has never really left her, and it shows in her work. Tsang was very much at the crest of the wave of Hong Kong filmmakers turning inward for their storytelling and drilling down on what’s around them, before the First Feature Film Initiative (FFFI) supported the work of Wong Chun (Mad World) Oliver Chan Siu-kuen (Still Human) and Nick Cheuk Yik-him (Time Still Turns The Pages).

“Before [my second film] Big Blue Lake, I was working on my master’s and my graduation project was an interactive web-based hour about Ho Chung,” says Tsang. “I was collecting different sounds and images and so I was more intentional in what I was looking at in the space. I think I’m a filmmaker because of this village; it’s my mung6 gung1 cong2 (夢工廠) – my ‘dream factory.’ I’ve spent nearly 40 years in this village and seen the mise-en-scène change. Movies are about time and space changing, about lives, and bonding, and I learnt more about humanity in this village than anywhere.”

Tsang’s first feature film in 2008 was a narrative, Lovers on the Road, about a couple that relocates to Beijing and the woman (Joman Chiang, Napping Kid, Distinction) who feels disconnected from her home because of it. Next up came Big Blue Lake (in 2011), her first set in Ho Chung. The languid drama about a woman (Leila Tong Ling) coming home after running off the UK to become an actor is a familiar story about the prodigal child returning to a home radically different from the one they left. On top of it, her mother (Amy Chum) is in the early stages of dementia. But the way Tsang and cinematographer Jam Yau Chung-yip capture Ho Chung suggests that deeper connection Tsang referred to, and a bittersweet view of the material.

After that Tsang dove into straight documentary with Flowing Stories, the second in what she considers her Ho Chung trilogy, but the first doc among the three. Flowing is set against the 2011 edition of Tai Ping Ching Chiu, and adds details about the village’s 500-year history as it mirrors the life of the central 80-year-old matriarch, the flight of residents to Europe in the 1950s and 60s, the loss of tradition to modernity and the legacy of what is essentially Ho Chung diaspora. If it seems as if Tsang cultivated an interest in concepts of memory, home, family, disconnection and reconnection, it’s because she did – though she’ll argue the point. “I’ve always thought my films are about love.”

By this point, Tsang has dragged local residents (and interview subjects) Lesley, a native of Sheffield, and Shenzhen transplant Ka-kit over to the table. Lesley has been living in the village on-and-off since 1968 with her Ho Chung-born husband. Ka-kit moved to Ho Chung with his dad and twin brother when he was five. It was important to Tsang to include someone from Ka-kit’s generation — he’s 27 — and in fact he is a returning face: he also featured in Flowing Stories. For him, “People think this village is really old, but there are lots of young people here,” he says. “I wanted people to know it’s not dying. And I have no interest in living around such huge crowds.”

Winter Chants begins just before the Covid outbreak in 2020, as the entirety of Ho Chung Village was readying for the five-day festival meant to be a time for villagers and the family scattered across the globe to come back together to pray for peace and harmony; Che Kung Temple, at the end of the road leading into the village is central to the festival. Based on the lunar calendar the festival usually happens sometime between January 1 and the lunar new year, to maximise the chance for everyone to come home. There is an added poignancy to Winter Chants thanks to the pandemic preventing so many from taking part. 

Tsang found it challenging as well, frequently scrapping plans during the course of the year-long shoot with cinematographer Mike Mak Chi-kwan and a skeleton crew. When shooting was done, Tsang and Paris-based editor Mary Stephen carved out a story that had two narrative tracks following the festival’s planning, as well as Lesley reconciling with the fact her family — which counts 23 members — would not be making the trip, Ka-kit and his brother trying to mount the festival with few funds, village chief Cheung trying to find those funds, and a Filipina domestic worker unable to get home. 

The end result is at once a paean to a vanishing tradition and a testament to the bonds of community – and of Hongkongers’ never-say-die attitude. There’s a melancholy to Winter Chants because of what couldn’t happen, but joy that the festival, in some form, went on at all. “This is about a community that’s grown up and grown apart but has somehow stayed together. I think the film does show the community love, and togetherness,” Lesley chimes in. The next Tai Ping Ching Chiu Festival in Ho Chung is in 2031.

Tsang tried again her hand at narrative in 2019 with The Lady Improper, a story about a woman claiming her sexuality for the first time in her life. But she went back to interrogating the idea of home and belonging in 2022 when she contributed the VR experience Chroma 11 to the Venice International Film Festival. Part of the Venice Immersive programme, Chroma 11 expanded on Tsang’s short doc about the final days between Singaporean dancer Aaron Khek Ah-hock and his Malaysian partner Ix Wong Thien-pau. It reunites the couple in the afterlife using VR tech, and it was the first Hong Kong VR film project ever selected for the festival. 

Tsang is returning to narrative for her next film, but she’s not straying too far from her preferred themes of family and belonging. Tentatively titled Chifan, the 2021 Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) project is loosely based on a Ho Chung villager who lives in Belgium. In Tsang’s film, a Chinese woman born in Antwerp finds herself suddenly relegated to outsider status when the pandemic strikes. She is currently working on Chifan’s development (“There’s a long way to go,” she says) when she’s not teaching directing to MFA students twice a week at Baptist University and caring for her year-old daughter. The immediate future involves ushering Winter Chants into theatres. After premiering at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2023, and screenings at Vancouver and DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in Goyang, South Korea, Tsang is ready for the hometown crowd to see her bittersweet love letter to Ho Chung. 

“I thought Flowing Stories would be more popular while we were shooting this, but surprisingly Winter Chants is the favourite,” she comments of the response she’s had so far. “I think after the pandemic and so much drama recently people are appreciating the idea of a reunion at home, in Hong Kong. I’m glad we did it now, in this moment, and I hope it can be a platform for those missing home, friends and family.”

Winter Chants opens March 14

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