I know Pang Ho-cheung. Not well enough to grab dinner, but back in 2001, when he was still Edmond Pang, one of his earliest short films — Summer Exercise — screened at an independent festival I worked for. By the time I ran into him again at a Hong Kong International Film Festival screening not much later, he had dropped the English name. “If it’s good enough for Wong Kar-wai it’s good enough for me,” he quipped at the time. Flash forward 15 years and he has transformed again, this time into one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable, popular and respected filmmakers in an industry that desperately needs more character and more successes.
On the afternoon of the world premiere HKIFF screening of his latest film, Love Off the Cuff, the 43-year-old Pang is looking relaxed and remarkably youthful, with impeccably faux-hawked hair, fashionably tattered jeans, and an enormous Starbucks coffee in hand. He is the ultimate hyphenate: a writer (Johnnie To turned his novel Fulltime Killer into a feature film starring Andy Lau in 2001), an actor (he’s taken small parts in his own films in and will be in Jimmy Wan’s upcoming comedy The Hell Bank Heist), a director (Aberdeen, Isabella, Vulgaria), and a producer with his and producing partner and wife Subi Liang at Making Film Productions (Dog Days in China, Apprentice from Singapore, a handful of American features, Lazy Hazy Crazy here at home).
Pang is engaging and easy going, and brutally blunt at times. He’s been called “Kafkaesque,” to which he says, “Of course I am. Why not? Absolutely, I’m Kafkaesque! I admire Kafka, but I’m not sure I would call him an influence. Kafka didn’t really deal with relationships as much as I do, or at least as much as I hope I do.” He has been held up as a model of Hong Kong-ness, staying true to the city’s essence in the face of shrinking market share and the overwhelming demands of China.
The Hong Kong native is one of the industry’s most prolific filmmakers and seems not to have taken a breather since his feature debut in 2001, You Shoot, I Shoot. Nonetheless, he’s uncomfortable with the perception that he represents Hong Kong.“Sometimes I’m confused,” he says. “I’ve been called a Hong Kong director, but I would never say I represent Hong Kong. The industry has many, many styles. What is Hong Kong? John Woo? Ann Hui? Tsui Hark? You can’t say one style is an exemplar. I just want to make films that are ‘Pang Ho-cheung’ films. People say Woody Allen is quintessentially New York. But he’s made films in Europe and he’s still Woody Allen. It’s not just about New York, not just about the place.” He’d much rather be known as an innovator and a bit of a maverick than anything else. “I want to turn the process upside down and find a new way to tell a story.”
Regardless of Pang’s feelings, Hong Kong has certainly has an impact on contemporary filmmakers. It may not have affected Pang’s choice in material, which has created an incredibly diverse body of work, but it is influencing what he makes, with who and with how much money. The biggest change in Pang’s work since his debut has come in finances: budgets are higher, costs of shooting in Hong Kong are higher, and audience demands have changed radically, ultimately influencing box office returns.
“Audiences don’t want small-budget, story-driven films anymore, they want action and CGI,” he says. Put that together with investors that see China’s huge (though possibly stagnating) market and the filmmaking landscape is far trickier for an artist like Pang to navigate. Co-producing with deep-pocketed Chinese producers has as many perks as drawbacks. “You can’t count on one funder anymore, and of course co-productions give me more resources to help realise my imagination. Hong Kong has its three categories for movies, three ratings. So there’s more room to make different types of films — they can be horror, they can be bloody, whatever. But the Mainland doesn’t have these categories, so standards are set for children, and anything the government doesn’t want children to see is off limits. This doesn’t work for Hong Kong. You can’t go that way anymore.”
Pang has made a name for himself precisely by “going that way.” He satirised Hong Kong’s real estate woes in 2010’s Dream Home, which tracked a young woman’s murderous and gory quest to buy her first flat. The quick and dirty Category III sex farces of the 1980s were at the heart of 2012’s Vulgaria, about a respected film producer forced by money woes into making an adult film for a triad boss. Aberdeen (2014) is a sensitive drama about a family at the crossroads of modernity and tradition. And Hong Kong’s own Before Trilogy — Love in a Puff, Love in the Buff and Love off the Cuff — tracks the ever-evolving relationship between two intensely recognisable Hong Kong stars, Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung.
Given the broad canvas Pang works on, China’s specific rules must make funding hard, even for a brand name like his. “Of course,” he declares. “Even before you finish a script — at the idea stage — you need to determine if it will pass the Chinese censors or not. And you can guess, like with Dream Home. I knew early on [it] wouldn’t pass, so I needed to find independent investors who would understand that. It’s ridiculous. And with that topic I wanted to make it more terrifying and violent. So it wound up being a low-budget film that would never open in China.”
He’s fine with that, and willing to make his films his way and hope for the best. Having tackled romance, drama, horror, and comedy Pang’s ready to take a crack at something new. “I would love to make an action movie, but I’ve never had the chance,” he says. “But after this one, things may have changed. In Cuff, I used some CG and had some action scenes,” he says.
A few years ago, Pang signed with renowned Los Angeles talent agency CAA. “They constantly gave me English scripts, which I thought were all terrible,” he says with a baffled roll of the eyes. “They were all about some American policeman who came to Asia to work with the Hong Kong police. Or it was gangster movies, or it was set in Chinatown. Just rubbish. I didn’t want that to be my English film debut. The idea is ‘Hong Kong directors do action.’ So I held out for something that was ‘me’.”
That project turned out to be a science fiction drama based on a short story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. It seems to have all the elements ideal for a Pang film: absurdity, a touch of surrealism and meditations on how we relate to each other. “The story is called Lieland,” he explains. “It’s about a guy who is a perpetual liar. Every time he says something untruthful it manifests in reality.”
Before all of that, though, Pang has to usher Love Off the Cuff into theatres; it opens April 27. Did he plan on emulating Richard Linklater when he made Love in a Puff in a scant 15 days in 2010? (Linklater, who directed Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Boyhood, among many other films, is known for quick, low-cost productions that avoid big studios.) “Never,” he replies. “I never thought about it. When I made Love in a Puff, it was after Dream Home and I was bit miserable. I wanted to make something happy.”
The romance about seemingly mismatched office drones Jimmy and Cherie meeting for a smoke break around a garbage bin (it’s set after Hong Kong banned smoking indoors in 2007), was phenomenally popular. “It was a very independent project, and I was going to play the Shawn Yue character myself,” says Pang. “But I fell in love with these two characters, and Shawn, Miriam Yeung and I became good friends. I wanted to bring them to cinemas a second time. After that I thought ‘Never again,’ because I hate repeating myself. Then five years went by and I still hadn’t shaken them. They were like an ex-girlfriend who I kept remembering and searching for on the internet,” he says with a laugh. He also returned to the story because audiences responded to Jimmy and Cherie’s authenticity, and to the characters’ imperfections, foibles and relatable problems. They also responded to the film’s hip wordplay and scabrous humour. Pang won’t rule out another film in the series. “Right now I can tell you this is the end – but after the second one I said the same thing,” he says.
Despite the quick stop in Hollywood and Hong Kong’s troubled industry, Pang isn’t going anywhere any time soon. He doesn’t have answers that will fix it, but he doesn’t believe all is lost. “Some people say co-productions will save Hong Kong films, but I don’t think that’s the only way,” he says. “I miss the uniquely Hong Kong part of the cinema, like ghost movies and soft-core Cat III movies. I hope someone can keep that alive. Not that that’s all there is to the industry, but I don’t know how to save it.” He pauses to consider the problem. “The best we can do is work hard for ourselves and hope big budgets don’t become the norm.”