Why Hong Kong’s Most Controversial LGBTQ+ Filmmaker is Retiring

Considering the content of his films, it would be fair to expect writer-director Danny Cheng Wan-cheung, better known as Scud, to be moody and obstinate, always ready for an argument – the picture of a tortured artist sulking in the corner. Instead, he sits quietly reading phone messages and sipping a cool coffee drink in House by Kubrick, ahead of a screening of Bodyshop at MOViE MOViE in Taikoo, looking every bit the IT pro he no longer is. 

Even his name is relatively prosaic. Scud comes from the Cantonese term wan4 coeng4 (雲翔), referring to clouds that flit, or scud, across the sky. It’s an apt moniker. He doesn’t take up space or draw attention to himself just because he can. But for the 15 or so years of his filmmaking career—which is coming to an end sooner rather than later—he’s gotten plenty.

“My films do push boundaries, but that was never really my intention,” he says, acknowledging his reputation for an abundance of nudity, explicit sexuality, drug use and death in a body of work that has earned him accolades from LGBTQ+ arts organisations, as well as at film festival screenings around the world, including Taipei, Torino, Chicago, São Paulo, and Kyoto. One thing is certain: Scud has never been interested in playing it safe, and does admit he was always going to defy the standards of successful, acceptable filmmaking. 

“There was no plan to confront my audiences. My audiences hate me, actually, because I tend towards tragic endings. I’ve been accused of that quite often,” he says with a knowing chuckle. He thinks he’s become more fluent as a filmmaker since he got his start in 2006, noting a piece of advice he took from former Fortissimo Films distributor Michael Werner about how films need to leave audiences with some hope. “I think Apostles is hopeful,” he says.

Apostles is one of a twin set of films completed this year, along with Bodyshop. It is screening at this year’s Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where Scud is the spotlight filmmaker. Also on the programme are 2009’s Permanent Residence, which has often been mistaken for autobiographical, and 2010’s Amphetamine, Scud’s international breakout and Berlinale Teddy Award nominee. Those two films went a long way to define Scud’s work in the public mind as fixated on beautiful, naked, young gay men taking a lot of drugs and having a lot of sex. He’s regularly been accused of putting style over substance. He scoffs at the idea. “I think I put in too much substance,” he says firmly, but not with any bitterness.

And that ability to fearlessly forge ahead in the face of praise as well as criticism is what has allowed Scud to stick to his vision. There’s a limit to how much he cares what anyone thinks. Since his first film, City Without Baseball (2008), about a group of young men who are doubly ostracised—as gay men and as baseball players in a city without a baseball culture—he has demonstrated a keen interest in the banal as much as what he believes will define his legacy: death and the afterlife. The former mostly stems from his commitment to demystify gay life and take the shock out of nudity. “I grew up watching European films and to me that was just normal. They kind of defined my basic concept of cinema.”

Indeed, Scud’s films and the characters that populate them frequently recall work by directors he considers his biggest influences as an autodidact: Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975’s notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), Pedro Almódovar (Pain and Glory) and Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover). He’ll also concede a degree of defiance for Hong Kong’s conservative norms. “As a rule, nudity disappeared from Asian cinema in the 1970s – for men and women. I got into a controversy because of all the nudity in the locker room scenes [in Baseball]. I mean, come on! Who’s going to take a bath with their clothes on?” 

The defiance eventually became more entrenched, with his male stars spending most of their time on screen naked just because he could. Oddly, there was no criticism levelled at his second effort, Permanent Residence. “I actually find clothes a distraction from what the character wants to say. Most will say the nudity is a distraction, but we were all born this way. If you find it distracting I don’t know what to tell you.” He pauses and considers the exploration of death that often runs through his films. “And ghosts should be naked. Ghosts with clothes are very strange.”

Born in Guangzhou, Scud relocated to Hong Kong with his family when he was 14. After finishing school, he wound up working in the then-burgeoning information technology and software development industry. He was good at it, spending 22 years in IT and establishing his own firm. But at around 40 he realised he was on the wrong track.

“I decided to move to Australia. We were approaching the so-called dead end of 1997 so I was determined to migrate.” On his way back to Sydney in 2002 to renew a visa, he realised he had to come to some sort of decision about the rest of his life. “I was unhappy. I was struggling with depression. I was kind of lost. One day I was sitting on the beach reading and I had an epiphany. I realised I was fulfilling everyone else’s dreams. I love literature. I love music. I love the creative side of everything, even IT. My circle of friends was predominantly artists.” So he dumped IT and decided to become a filmmaker – just like that. “I just watched so many films, and whenever I watched a great work by directors I loved I thought maybe I could do that, and inspire other people.”

He took a few film classes in Sydney to get a handle on the basics, but fell back on Almódovar and Greenaway and taught himself the rest. “[Art] is not something you can learn in school,” he reasons. “Four years won’t teach you how to write a great poem. You’re a poet or you’re not.” He packed up and came home to Hong Kong, where he founded Artwalker, his own production house, and got to work on Baseball in 2006.

He made a splash almost immediately with LGBTQ+ audiences for being a rare, raw voice in Hong Kong that was honest about the way gay men related to each other and the thorny path to coming out. He also resonated with film buffs who were amazed by the audaciousness of his filmmaking, and with censors who had no idea what to make of all the full frontal nudity and masturbation. His debut, Baseball, came in under the wire at Category IIB, mostly thanks to the sports angle and subtextual gay themes, but Permanent Residence was launched straight into the Category III rating Scud would become accustomed to.

Despite his work being described as “gay eye-candy” and an “X-rated MTV video” (Amphetamine, in The Hollywood Reporter), it has also been called “a visually stunning paean to open love and pan-sexuality (Utopians, 2015, on Mubi), and “a surprisingly playful meditation on depression” (2013’s Voyage by the Chicago International Film Festival). Scud has a point when he argues he’s loaded his films with too much substance. The themes woven into his work include class disparity within relationships, identity, loneliness and solitude, drug use and abuse, marginalisation and, of course, mortality and death, almost always through an LGBTQ+ lens. 

Amphetamine chronicled the fraught relationship between an affluent out-gay banker and a closeted swim instructor with an increasingly dangerous drug habit. Utopians followed a university student on a philosophical and sexual awakening, and Adonis (2017) tracked a Beijing opera singer’s road from budding theatre actor to sex worker. The outlier is Voyage, which Scud calls his most personal film, which is about a psychiatrist obsessing over some of his patients’ suicides. Regardless of the subject matter, his films line up aesthetically: all present a luminously photographed but heightened reality, underpinned by starkly deconstructed subject matter. His work isn’t for everyone, but Scud’s willingness to be brutally honest has won him a cult following globally.

And yet Scud is getting out of the business. Why now, when the global cultural landscape is shifting drastically, finally embracing more voices from all walks of life and creating more space than ever for LGBTQ+ films? In May, Scud told trade magazine Variety that independent film markets are shrinking to untenable levels, and coupled with the political landscape in Hong Kong, his style of filmmaking has become too risky. On top of that, he says it’s time for new blood. “My timing has always been like that,” he says. “I worked in software in the 1980s, when no one was working in IT and computers were boring. I was often told that were I in the US I’d be hanging with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I don’t know about that, but I did beat the IT bubble. Then I started making LGBT films in Hong Kong when there were few or none, and very few in Asia. I was kind of alone, but now there’s a new generation that doesn’t feel they need to shy away from anything. I’ve done enough.”

But before he hangs up his camera for good, he’ll be completing his 10th feature, tentatively titled Naked Nation, in between offering whatever support he can for the releases of Apostles and Bodyshop this November in Taiwan and the US, and possibly Australia early next year. Apostles is near and dear to his heart, and when pressed he calls it a film only he could make – and a perfect career capper. “It’s utterly, commercially unviable,” he says. “You’ll never make any money from it. It’s as pure and as beautiful as it can be, for me. Death and the afterlife is the main theme of most of my films, and in Apostles I’ve put all my thoughts, fantasies [and] imagination up on the screen. I’m done.”

The film pivots on a scholar who fancies himself a modern day Socrates and the 12 young men he’s lured to his Japanese compound for an academic project exploring the extremes of life, sex and death. The men engage in philosophical debate, but then wind up marching up Fuji, experimenting with BDSM and human sacrifice. Each is an archetype—the vain fashion model, the lonely searching labourer, the artist and so on—and each brings a different point-of-view to the table. Apostles is as non-linear and esoteric as anything Scud’s ever made, and it will be every bit as divisive. One man’s indulgent spitballing is another’s thought-provoking self-examination. Scud is right when he describes it as pure. It’s pure Scud.

Despite the fact he’s giving up filmmaking, Scud will continue experimenting with Naked Nation, which he is shooting on an iPhone (think Sean Baker’s Tangerine or Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane). “It will be about the last two or three years, about lockdown, and how people have been living through this time.” After he finishes his last film, he’ll be embarking on his next venture: writing. “I’ve never tried writing a novel,” he says. “It’s scary and that’s why I want to do it. I’ve been reading a lot lately, actually reading more than watching films. And every time I read a great book I feel like I’ve lived another life. And I wonder if I can do that too? Can I contribute like this?”

Before he heads into the screening Q&A, he tells a story about learning to swim when he was nine years old. His school had a pool, but he didn’t actually learn during the school year. So during the school holidays, he went down to the Pearl River after leaving a note for his family. He figured he’d try to learn, and he reckoned that if he struggled, there would be enough people around to save him. He hopped in the water and went for it. “That was the most defining moment of my life,” he says. “Just diving in.” 

The Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival continues thorough October 1. Click here for details on remaining Scud screenings as well as the rest of the programme.

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