It’s early January and the world hasn’t yet collapsed into a mess of toilet tissue hoarding and social distancing. Writer-director Norris Wong Yee-lam is relaxing in the café area of a trendy members’ club, mask-free, riffing on the legacy of Newsweek magazine’s notorious 1986 cover story citing Harvard and Yale research that stated that “white, college-educated women” over 40 were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than get married. With women single by choice still a minority in Hong Kong, and many feeling family and societal pressure to get hitched, the 32-year-old Hong Kong native lets loose with a laugh when asked if she’s married. “No, I’m single,” she declares.
Wong has been pondering the question of marriage for some time, and so her new film, My Prince Edward, couldn’t be more timely. “I just watched [Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of] Little Women,” she says. “The editor in the film told Jo how to end her book: to get the women married. That’s almost exactly what [my] producers told me,” she says with an eye-roll, which is joined by a hearty groan from a representative of film distributor Golden Scene, who is sitting in on the interview. And while Wong doesn’t think of her film as expressly feminist or particularly universal, the issues of agency, self-determination, expectation and happiness will ring true for many Hongkongers of the female persuasion. Wong is speaking for herself, but accidentally winds up speaking for many. The film “is very personal,” she says, “because I’m not the kind of writer that can just create stuff out of thin air.”
Wong starts the conversation with reserve, pausing to think about each answer. It’s easy to understand why she might feel off balance; My Prince Edward is her first feature. But it’s not long before she loosens up. Wong studied filmmaking at Hong Kong Baptist University after finishing her first degree in biology. When she earned an MFA in 2012, she started experimenting with short films, including From Here to There (2012), about two men, inseparable as teens, reconnecting with each other after a rift that kept them apart for a decade.
But it’s her Hong Kong FreshWave International Short Film Festival best screenplay winner, Fall (2013)—which took her to Udine’s Far East Film Festival (FEFF)—that could be considered the spiritual ancestor of My Prince Edward. In it, a young woman Michelle decides to get out of an unhappy romantic relationship through a self-help programme that only demonstrates how societal and media messages compel women to value themselves based on their status as single or married. She honed her skills as an assistant writer on Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood, and as assistant director on Yang Zhengfan’s documentary Where Are You Going (2016)—shot in 13 long takes—and Down There (2018).
Despite the success she found with shorts, Wong still considers herself more of a writer than a director. Being a director was “not a must” for her, she says, but My Prince Edward was too personal to leave in someone else’s hands. Still, she admits she wasn’t sure about how to go about actually making a feature. Wong credits her cinematographer, relative newcomer Alfred Pong, and production designer Billy Li (who worked on Wong Hing Fan’s i’m livin’ it) with helping the film come together artistically.
As a filmmaker, Wong says she is still a work in progress. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” she jokes. She does have influences to help guide her, however, among them the Coen Brothers, Ang Lee, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Anomalisa). Wong appreciates the Coens and Kaufman for their abilities to create complete, multi-dimensional characters that resonate in reality, and Lee because, “His artistic choices are very consistent, regardless of the film type – horror, sci-fi, drama.”
Authenticity is a big part of My Prince Edward, which Wong cops to being vaguely autobiographical. “Edward is my ex-boyfriend in many ways,” she says of actor Chu Pak-hong’s cluelessly controlling wedding photographer and a character that makes up one side of the film’s central love triangle. The second side is a young man from mainland China, to whom Fong, the third side and main character, is married. Those sound like the ingredients in a wacky rom-com but the film couldn’t be farther from that if it tried.
“When I sent the script to my producers, one of their criticisms was that the two men were not decent enough,” says Wong. “They worried the audience wouldn’t empathise with either of them, and that they wouldn’t like Fong for staying with Edward for so long and being used by the Chinese man. I didn’t really care, because real people are not perfect. And it was important to make them human.”
At first blush My Prince Edward looks like dozens of romantic dramedies that came before it. But Wong’s astute script sets it apart from many of its peers. Stephy Tang stars as Cheung Lei-fong, or simply Fong, a thirty-something working in a boutique in Prince Edward district’s Golden Plaza, famed for its discount wedding supplies. She’s been dating Edward for seven years, and he’s ready to get married – making a show of it by staging a very public proposal one day at work. That prompts a personal crisis in Fong, stemming from the fact that Edward’s mother (Nina Paw) is demanding and overbearing, and from the fact that she’s still married to a mainland Chinese man, Yang Shuwei (Jin Kaijie). The marriage is a sham that put him on course for Hong Kong residency and got her enough cash to move out of her own domineering mother’s home years before.
Given the state of the world for women, My Prince Edward slots in nicely as the third part of an unofficial Asian trilogy. It pairs well with Kearen Pang’s 2017 Hong Kong film 29+1, about a professional woman on the cusp of 30 whose life is given new direction when she encounters the legacy of another woman who marched to the beat of her own drum—regardless of the consequences—and Korean filmmaker Kim Do-Young’s controversial 2019 drama, Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, which details the constricting casual and lifelong sexism the central character lives with.
Key to the film’s success—and contrary to her producers’ fears—is Wong’s dedication to shading both Edward and Shuwei enough to make them recognisable and believable, and resistance to narrative traps viewers have come to expect. The film avoids easy villainy; Edward is possessive—he texts way too much, demanding to know where Fong is—but he’s not malicious. Shuwei, for his part, has no ulterior motives; he’s simply a man living under a repressive regime that he’d like to escape. How each man represents his geography is up to individual viewers. In other words, they’re human. In that way My Prince Edward recalls John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which focused on a woman forced to choose between a life with a charming Italian immigrant in New York or a life with a traditional Irishman at home. Both films steer clear of tired stereotypes: Edward is not a cold, distant Hongkonger and Shuwei isn’t a scheming mainlander the way Crowley’s leading men are not physically abusive (the Italian) or alcoholic (the Irishman). As a result there’s plenty of room for the female lead to shine – and connect.
“My intention wasn’t to be very specific, but our budget forced us to bring the film to a more intimate level,” says Wong. The result is a film that speaks to women from Hong Kong to Havana, from rich to poor, young to old, and which stands as the latest in a string of broadly appealing films funded by Create Hong Kong’s First Feature Film Initiative. Wong says the relatively small HK$2 million budget gave her “a chance to really express myself and realise my observations. It forced more creativity.”
The other key is lead actor Tang, who since her 2000 debut has bounced from indie dramas (Cheung King-wai’s Somewhere Beyond the Mist) to glossy big-ticket action films (David Lam’s L Storm) with aplomb, proving herself to be one of Hong Kong’s most engaging actors. In her hands, Fong is feckless and infuriating, passive and active, and brings many of Hong Kong women’s frustrations to vivid life. She makes Fong’s most modest triumphs monumental. Buying a coffee table in China – when Edward had earlier rejected Fong’s personal contributions to their home -at the film’s conclusion is worthy of a tiny cheer. Because of that Tang was Wong’s first choice. “I needed a Hong Kong actress born in the 80s and there isn’t much choice,” she says. “But more than anything she’s relatable and natural on screen. When we were shooting in Prince Edward no one looked twice.”
My Prince Edward will feature at the (now online) 22nd FEFF in June after picking up awards for best new director from the Hong Kong Director’s Guild in January and the Hong Kong Film Awards in May (Eman Lam, who also co-stars as Fong’s best chum Yee, won for best score), and a best film nomination at the prestigious Osaka Asian Film Festival in March – before the world shut down.
Wong points out how audiences have, so far, been split on what turned into an ambiguous ending for Fong. “In the character arc, Fong has to grow up and leave Edward,” she says. “I’m not sure she would in real life.” On the page, the story had a more clear conclusion that, due to performance and editing, realised itself in an entirely different way on the screen.
Indeed, opinions around the table vary. For now, Wong is at work on her sophomore effort, possibly a film about Hongkongers living in Japan. But no matter the subject it will be close to her heart. “I watch action movies. I watch comedies. But I’m not interested in making those films,” she shrugs. Hometown audiences get to decide on what Fong chooses for themselves when the film opens this summer.
My Prince Edward opens June 11.