Underrated Director Cheang Pou-soi: In His Own Words

Writer, director and producer Cheang Pou-soi is probably the most important and influential filmmaker you’ve never heard of. Born in Macau, Cheang relocated to Hong Kong at 11 years old, and came to filmmaking the hard way. He’s unconnected, self-taught and a jack of all (film) trades. He broke into the industry over 30 years ago, working as a production assistant on Wong Pak-tse and Tin Chun’s His Way, Her Way, Their Ways, a now-forgotten 1991 Category III comedy about mainland and Hong Kong cops working together to bust a sex trafficking ring. But after that came a string of assistant director (AD) gigs on B quickies for Stanley Siu Wing, Lai Hok-man and Raymond Lui, which led to a job as assistant to the legendary Ringo Lam Ling-tung – whose City on Fire (1987) Quentin Tarantino famously lifted from for his 1992 breakout Reservoir Dogs

After that, Cheang was off to the races, working with Wilson Yip Wai-shun, Johnnie To Kei-fung, Andrew Lau Wai-keung, Yau Nai-hoi, Wai Ka-fai, Wong Jing and Joe Ma Wai-ho among others. Since making an impression with Diamond Hill in 2000, Cheang has directed Gordon Lam Ka-tung, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, Shawn Yue Man-lok, Edison Chen Koon-hei, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Fish Liew, Gigi Leung Wing-kei, Gong Li, Tony Jaa, Simon Yam Tat-wah, Louis Koo Tin-lok, Zhang Jin, Richie Jen Xian-qi, Shu Qi, Karena Lam Ka-yan and Francis Ng Chun-yu. As a start.

So how has Cheang flown so far under the radar for so long? As Filmmaker in Focus at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) as well as the director of the 47th edition’s opening film, that’s about to change. First, though, we sat down with Cheang and asked him to reflect on his career, his influences, and where Hong Kong cinema might be heading in the future. Here’s what he had to say about some of the many films he has worked on through his long career.

Victim (1999), directed by Ringo Lam

Cheang was AD on this thriller about a cop investigating the kidnapping and torture of a computer programmer. The genre mash-up combined supernatural horror and Lam’s signature crime drama, and was one Lam’s last full Hong Kong feature before his death in 2018.

 I learnt a lot from Ringo. When I was in school, I watched his films — Prison on Fire, School on Fire, all those — and it was the first time I felt a connection to movies as part of my life. I lived in Mongkok and City of Fire was shot there, so I also remember watching Chow Yun-fat jumping onto the street from a car park and that being close to my house. It’s one of those moments that sticks in youth. Someone on the screen was right there. At the time I had no idea I’d work in cinema. But then I got a job as Ringo’s assistant on The Adventurers in 1995. The first time I met him I was so surprised that someone so calm, so open, and just lovely could make such angry movies. I found his movies very angry. The biggest takeaway from working with Ringo was to put time into planning and directing your crew. All of them. He made sure everyone was on the same track and could get into his story, his mind… his vision. He really taught me what I needed to do as a director.

Diamond Hill (2000, screening March 30) 

Tonally reminiscent of early Fruit Chan, Cheang’s hard-to-find first major feature revolves around siblings separated by adoption and reconnecting years later in what could be his most overtly emotional film, even though it defies easy classification. Even in 2000, the seeds of Cheang’s fascination with finding grace amid urban rot, corruption and loss have been planted.

The origins of the film were quite simple. I wanted to start with a pure love story. And to understand what this is, it has to involve the central couple overcoming obstacles, like Romeo and Juliet. And something that could be a really big obstacle would be something in a brother-sister relationship; something from the blood. So I started there. My love for the city played a part. At the time, Diamond Hill was a slum. Back then, the most expensive new estate development in the city was above Hollywood Plaza, so I was wondering where this “diamond” was. So the two ideas worked together. Where’s the diamond of this couple’s love in the ugliness?

Dog Bite Dog (2006, screening April 5) 

The first film to bring Cheang international attention was this brutal actioner about a cop played on the trail of an assassin in a surprisingly poetic game of cat and mouse. Dog Bite Dog is the flowering of Cheang’s focus on corruption and its impact and the evolution of his distinct grim style. The film starred indie favourite Sam Lee (Made in Hong Kong) and divisive pop star and tabloid regular Edison Chen. i’m livin’ it director Wong Hing-fan worked as AD on the film, his second with Cheang after Home Sweet Home.

The movie right before this was Home Sweet Home, which I don’t think was terribly successful. I had a lot of problems creatively working on it, and that was affecting how I got funding. Dog Bite Dog was funded by a company from Japan (ArtPort), and they weren’t concerned with box office receipts; they were interested in home video. There was no pressure to have a hit. I was angry about Home Sweet Home and it lit a fire under me, so I focused on making a classic B movie. I also tried to focus on what I wanted, not what audiences wanted. It only took 20 days to shoot – including filming in Thailand. It was very pure. 

Most people wanted me to switch the characters for Edison and Sam around, and make Edison the cop. I told him frankly he wasn’t “Hong Kong people.” Audiences saw him as a kind of outsider; he grew up in Canada and his Cantonese wasn’t that good. So I used that and put it in the assassin character, and convinced him to give me a more physical performance. He wasn’t confident he could pull it off, but ultimately it proved he could act.

When I make a film I don’t think about style, or aesthetics. I’ve worked with a lot of stylish filmmakers and one thing I learnt was that story should never follow style; style should be in service of the story. If you try to force a movie into a certain style you’ll actually wind up destroying it. Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai both have very unique styles. I can’t copy their techniques – for various reasons. When I worked with them at Milkyway Image, Johnnie told me, or reminded me, never ever, to make a movie for anyone other than myself, and never try and emulate anyone.

The Monkey King (2014–2018) 

An adventure trilogy based on the Chinese legend Journey to the West, and Cheang’s first foray into big budget, visual effects-heavy filmmaking in China. The Monkey King series, which starred Aaron Kwok, Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat, Feng Shaofeng, and Gong Li, has been Cheang’s biggest box office success to date, collectively earning nearly US$500 million worldwide.

I love making films; I love being a director. But it’s also a career – a job. When I was approached to direct The Monkey King I was surprised they thought of me. It was a big production, my first time working in China, for the Chinese market, and a complicated production because of the 3D, the CGI, the special make-up. I’d never done anything like that before and it was a good opportunity to work with those technologies. And maybe, while I’m at it, I can make a different Monkey King. It was really fucking painful.

I didn’t have a lot of power [over] the first film, and there were so many problems. It wasn’t a great experience creatively but technically it was. And the box office was phenomenal. I did the second so that I could address the issues of the first one – to do better make-up, get a better handle on the effects. And the crew had a better rapport the second time around. I think we did it right that time.  By the time the third one finished, I was done with this journey. I was ready to come back to Hong Kong to make Limbo.

Limbo (2021, screening April 8) 

Arguably Cheang’s bleakest, most ambitious film, about a veteran cop seeking revenge at the same time he and his young partner (played by Ang Lee’s son Mason) look for a serial killer. The film recalls Dog Bite Dog thematically and stands out for its symbolic, garbage strewn production design by Kenneth Mak Kwok-keung and gorgeous, evocative cinematography by Cheng Siu-keung.

I wasn’t having a good time writing the script, so when I got back [to Hong Kong] I called Au Kin-yee (Running on Karma) to help. We relocated (best selling Chinese crime writer) Lei Mi’s story from western China to Hong Kong and swapped the main characters. In the novel it’s the younger cop. There’s an age difference in our version I wanted to play with. Everyone talks about the garbage that fills the frames. That’s my memory of Sham Shui Po when I was young. Me and Ken wondered if we could make a different Hong Kong. Not a realistic one, but an allegorical one. Ironically I’ve been complimented for making a film that was so Hong Kong.

It was shot in colour. We were almost done editing, and we were working and working, and I don’t know how to explain it but I just felt something was missing. So I asked the editor (David Richardson) to try a quick conversion to black and white. And that was it. I wondered if it was me but he said yes. My producer Wilson (Yip) fought it at first but then watched it and agreed. In the end I think it works because actors were obscured by the background, and became indistinguishable from the filth. That’s the feeling I needed.

i’m livin’ it (2019), Cyber Heist (2023), both by Wong Hing-fan; The Sunny Side of the Street by Ray Lau (2023)

By 2020 Cheang had come full circle, from Johnnie To apprentice to a mentor in his own right, producing emerging directors.

A mini-Johnie? Oh, no! Not even close! But yes, I do try and produce. I got a lot of help when I was young, and now I have the trust of investors. If adding my name and expertise to a younger filmmaker’s project helps get them made I’ll do it. New directors are crucial to the industry here. There isn’t a lot of production happening in Hong Kong right now, but if you have directors, you’ll keep the industry alive. It’s on us to foster emerging filmmakers; they need opportunity.

Mad Fate (2023, screening March 30 and 31)

Starring Cheang’s favourite leading man, Gordon Lam, as a fortune teller trying to change several people’s fates in a complex and grisly murder mystery about faith, destiny and mental health. Cut from the same cloth as Dog Bite Dog and Limbo. It’s also Cheang’s return to working under To’s Milkyway banner.

Writer (Yau) Nai-hoi came up with this idea about 10 years ago, and I really wanted to work with him. It was kind of an experiment. Normally I like to start with a genre so I know what rules to follow: action movie, ghost movie, comedy. But I couldn’t do that with this. Each scene was different and so I felt a bit rudderless. But I trusted his script. On the last day of shooting he claimed to know the genre: it was an inspirational movie. We all argued over the last shot quite a bit. Johnnie insisted we needed it. I shot it twice. It’s about changing your life – the sun is bright but the road is dark. You need that darkness to get to the light. The whole thing is about choice and fate. So we think of it as inspirational. As hopeful.

For full details of the Soi Cheang: Filmmaker in Focus programme, as well as the HKIFF line-up and ticketing information, check hkiff.org.hk.

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