Ask writer, director, producer and sometimes actor Fruit Chan how he feels about being the godfather of Hong Kong independent cinema and a role model for budding filmmakers, and his eyebrows shoot way, way up. His only response is to point at himself and let out an incredulous, “Me?” He then waves a dismissive hand, as if he truly can’t believe such lunacy.
But it’s true. After 18 feature films and more than 30 years in the business, Chan is widely credited with kick-starting Hong Kong’s indie movement in the mid-1990s and re-energising a filmmaking community that was bracing for the financial and commercial fallout of the 1997 handover. Sitting in the Louis Koo Cinema at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Chan is energetic and witty, irreverent and unafraid of making a smart-mouthed joke, in either Cantonese or English. He’s exactly like his films. He has no trouble cracking jokes in two languages.
“I’m not one to analyse myself, but I can’t change my personality,” he says. “If I had to say there was a through-line [in my films] it might be that in my ghost stories, my love stories, or my dramas my personality is there, no matter the subject matter. I am interested in looking at society and the way we live.” He pauses for a moment, and the squint of his eyes gives away the grin that’s obviously spreading under his surgical mask. “Humorously.”
Ask Chan, now 62, why he got into filmmaking and where the seeds of his march to indie king come from, and he begins with another guffaw. “This is a long story.” Always a fan of movies in general, Chan’s earliest influences included Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, whose push back on the studios and explorations of contemporary society in the 1960s mirrors Chan’s. His tastes eventually broadened in part thanks to the low-key Film Culture Centre, which promotes film culture and education. Chan pinpoints this as the moment his cinema career truly started.
“In the early 1980s, I started out by hanging out at the Film Culture Centre (FCC) on Portland Street,” he says. “I just loved movies. They had a lot of good programmes, and I took a few classes there on the basics. After that, I started working at TVB with director Terry Tong. Those days were great.” He notes that there weren’t many other places where an aspiring filmmaker could learn the craft, echoing other directors such as Ann Hui and producer Amy Chin.
Workshops at the HKAC followed, but it was interning at the FCC (now located in To Kwa Wan) from 1979 to 1980 that really nurtured Chan. “I did some work for them and I took classes for free. Sure – you could say I was interning,” he declares with a characteristic chuckle, before getting real. “Aiyah, it was a working holiday, lah!” He’s still a consultant for the FCC.
Chan kicked around, organising screenings and festivals, before finally getting to work on actual productions in the late 1980s. “I worked 10 years before making my first film. I was a production manager, assistant production manager, second assistant director, first assistant director. It was 1990 before I made my first movie. I started working as…” he pauses, stumbling for a second over the English name for his first real job: script supervisor. Unsurprisingly, he finds the fancy title as amusing as the idea of interning. “Script supervisor! Every name is a boss name. Something big. Supervisor! I was a small potato,” he scoffs with a hearty laugh this time. “Such a Hollywood thing to do.”
Nonetheless, Chan paid his dues on films for Shu Kei (A Queer Story, 1997), Sammo Hung (Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, 1985) and Tony Au (Au Revoir, Mon Amour, 1991). When the opportunity arose to direct Finale in Blood by writers Chan Hing-ka (The Mermaid) and Cheung Siu-han he took it, regardless of the material. “I wanted to try directing but I had no idea what to do and ghost films were really popular at the time. It was offered to me but it was more a love story than a ghost story, and that’s not really my thing.”
It may not have been his thing, but it put him on the road toward the singular style and tone that captures Hong Kong society—the black humour, unvarnished realism, and clear-eyed picture of working class life—that now identify his films as undeniably Chan, even if he can’t pinpoint precisely how he cultivated that style. His splashy global debut came in 1997 with Made in Hong Kong, the ultra-low budget crime drama made with film stock scraps collected from other productions on a rumoured budget of under HK$500,000 (equivalent to about $690,000 today), a figure that falls well below Create Hong Kong’s First Feature Film Initiative grant of HK$5 million.
The film starred emerging actor Sam Lee, who would become Robert De Niro to Chan’s Martin Scorsese. It went on to win three Hong Kong Film Awards, two Golden Horse Awards, a FIPRESCI Prize and accolades from Busan, Gijón, Locarno and Nantes film festivals for its guerrilla aesthetic and unvarnished portrait of urban life in the margins, which stood in direct opposition of the glitzy neo-noir action films and heightened fantasy that Hong Kong was best known for at the time. Chan was one in a new generation filmmakers emerging in Asia looking to take advantage of new digital technology and production partnerships, like the late Kim Ki-duk (Pietà) in South Korea and Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (2019 Oscar nominee and Cannes’ Palme d’Or Shoplifters) and turn their lenses inwards. Made in Hong Kong was the shot in the arm the local industry needed at the time, and Chan was the maverick director it needed to shake things up. Following the excess of the 1980s, shrinking budgets and new market dynamics were demanding filmmakers get creative, and embrace new stories to tell.
Chan became the poster boy for a second New Wave—after the first one in the 1980s—by blending the accessible mainstream sensibilities of commercial filmmaking with the more thoughtful, observational and frugal ones of the art house scene. “I wanted to combine the two forms together, because normally they never meet,” he says. He wanted his films to “look mainstream without being mainstream, and arthouse without being arthouse.” It’s a strategy that has worked, for the most part. Chan’s filmography toggles between his own Nicety Independent production house and the traditional studios. The conscience of the former has bled into the latter, and the polish—and occasional star power—of the latter has done likewise. His credits also bob and weave around crime, horror (Dumplings, 2004) and drama (The Abortionist, 2019), often blending them together, as in the case of sci-fi mystery The Midnight After (2014), action-fantasy The Invincible Dragon (2019) and last year’s property market horror-comedy Coffin Homes.
Chan followed Made in Hong Kong with The Longest Summer (1998) and Little Cheung (1999), since dubbed the 1997 Trilogy – all explorations of urban desperation and disconnection. For a long time thereafter, Chan was held up as Hong Kong’s Ken Loach, a chronicler of the disenfranchised, despite his efforts not to be stylistically or thematically pigeonholed. “When I was working as an [assistant director] I worked with so many different directors, and I love movies, so the question of style is difficult,” he says. “When someone asks who a personal influence is, I can’t say. I steal a little from this guy and a little from that guy. I mix it all together and it becomes mine. So I truly don’t know how to answer. And at this point I don’t really concentrate on any single style.”
Most filmmakers would take advantage of early indie success to transition into bigger budgeted films. Instead, Chan took a 10-year sabbatical from features starting in 2003, making commercials and the occasional short, like a segment in the SARS pick-me-up 1:99, to reset and reconsider his work. He also followed in the footsteps of Ringo Lam and John Woo to try his hand in Hollywood, directing the horror thriller Don’t Look Up (2009). Chan was irked by the slow decision making, layers of management and the bane of every filmmaker: studio notes.
“It was a low budget film that was somewhere between a real independent and a union film,” he says. “The budget was only US$5 million, which is low for the US. But the hardest part was following their system. I’ll admit I was curious, and now I can say I tried. I don’t regret it, but never again.” He almost throws his arms up remembering the frustration.
When he returned to features around 2013, it was with added cheekiness in his content, pithier observations of Hong Kong life, and more mature filmmaking. Opinions vary, but Three Husbands (2018), the final part of his so-called Prostitute Trilogy (which included 2000’s Durian Durian and Hollywood Hong Kong in 2001) distills the elements that make Chan so distinctive. It is one of his strongest films to date. The allegorical story stars Chloe Maayan as a mainland woman with a hyperactive libido caught in a three-way relationship with three men, and is part goofball sex comedy, part multi-level satire that filters its subject through the lens of prostitution.
Challenging as it is, Three Husbands demonstrates Chan’s maverick production attitude and art house willingness to explore thorny subjects. It’s that thinking that has made Chan a reliable advocate for young filmmakers. In the coming years, Chan says he would ideally be directing one of his own films and producing two for emerging filmmakers, as he did with Oliver Chan on her hit debut Still Human (2018), which includes a supporting performance by Chan regular Sam Lee.
“Everything is so expensive here, so I want to try and help and support them in whatever way I can,” he says. “There are more opportunities now, but too many [young directors] are looking for shortcuts and a lot don’t have the life experience they need to be filmmakers. Investors are the biggest concern and a film with a young director, without any old people like me working with them, makes [funding] even harder.” Chan’s name on the production pitch makes the process easier. “At least I hope it does,” he says with a shrug.
All of this has made Chan the perfect contributor to the HKAC’s New Waves New Shores programme. The series of screenings and seminars returns this year, following its first collaboration with Cannes in 2019, and with the Busan International Film Festival serving as a platform for amplifying new filmmaking voices and connecting emerging filmmakers with channels overseas. Chan will be chipping in with a screenwriting masterclass and post-screening Q&As after his divisive Public Toilet (2002), his first digital film, which is about a man seeking his roots in the world’s restrooms, as well as Dumplings, which is about a woman desperate to hold on to her youth, beauty and husband at grim cost.
Dumplings is notable for its assured atmospherics, and could be in the running for the crown as Chan’s best film based on its critical acclaim. But press him to identify his favourite child and ironically he circles back to the film he’s tried hardest not to repeat. “Made in Hong Kong,” he says after a few seconds’ thought. “I used a very original idea, I wrote it, and after its success I got kind of typecast as ‘that kind’ of [social issues] director. Twenty years ago mainstream, commercial films were really popular, and when this was a hit I was extremely proud it swam against the tide.”
New Waves New Shores runs through January 16, 2022
Public Toilet screens December 29, 2021. Dumplings screens January 15, 2022.
Full programme details are available at hkac.org.hk.