“We had this fight – and I don’t do fights. What I’ve been discovering about myself is that I don’t like conflict. The way I deal with these things is by freezing him out. I didn’t speak with him for three days prior to my departure. Being in a relationship makes me think about myself more. Paradoxically.”
That’s independent director Simon Chung explaining his current relationship conundrum with a self-aware, genuine laugh. “Now that we’re recording I want to talk about this,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
Seated amid the clatter and chatter of the TWG teahouse in IFC Mall, Chung is loose, relaxed — contented almost — as he waxes philosophical about romance, fidelity and filmmaking, peppering the conversation with a running commentary on uncomfortable cinema venues. But that boyfriend keeps coming up. “When you’re with another person you discover other parts of yourself,” he says. “You think about what love is supposed to be. What should you expect? Should you have expectations? When people have relationship issues it almost always has to do with expectations that are not being met.”Expectations are a running theme for Chung this month. Living part time in Chiang Mai since June of last year, the Hong Kong native is back in town for the debut of his fourth feature, I Miss You When I See You, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and to do some research on his next film. A graduate of the film programme at York University in Toronto, Chung kicked off his feature film career in 2005 with Innocent. It was this coming-of-age tale about 17-year-old Eric, an emigrant to Canada dealing with culture clash as well as his burgeoning gay sexuality, that in many ways put Chung on a path he’s still travelling to this day.
“No one asks Steven Spielberg if he’s actually an archaeologist – or about making a straight movie,” says Chung with a sardonic chuckle at the requisite question about making films as one of Hong Kong’s few out LGBT artists. He says it’s exactly the same as making any film in Hong Kong: difficult, expensive, with no one to give you any money for it. “I want to talk about that,” he barks, while conceding a bit of complicity over the situation.
“People often want to interpret my films as autobiographical because most are about young men who are gay,” he says. He has admitted there are parallels between his life and Eric’s. “But when you’re writing you start off with an inspiration and then it goes off into a different direction. In a way I ask for it by making movies about gay people and about sexuality. The funny thing about writing is that in the process you’re always moving away from autobiography. You don’t want a character that’s exactly the same as you. So you’re immediately moving away from yourself so that the person becomes a real character.”
Innocent was followed by End of Love in 2009, a drama about a young man navigating duty, gay identity and morality in the wake of his mother’s death, and 2012’s Speechless, wherein the main character’s silent trauma unfolds in flashback as he forges a bond with a male nurse. I Miss You When I See You pivots on Kevin’s (emerging filmmaker Jun Li, whose feature debut Trans is coming soon) return to Hong Kong after treating his depression at a halfway house in Melbourne, and reconnection with Jamie (Bryant Mak), who finds himself re-examining his lingering feelings for Kevin. Anchored by two naturalistic performances, I Miss You puts two aspects of life Hongkongers would rather not confront under the spotlight.
Chung certainly isn’t voiceless, and at 50, his days of questioning his identity are behind him. But his latest film does incorporate a few autobiographical elements. He left a loved one behind before relocating for school, and a friend who suffered depression, as Chung himself did, was the inspiration for Kevin. The similarities, however, end there. “I always try to understand it by writing about it,” he says. “Depression is such a hard subject to represent in cinema. It either looks completely normal or you’re lying in bed. How do you represent that? That became the main challenge.” I Miss You When I See You is Chung’s strongest film, but it was also a long time coming, and one the local industry didn’t seem interested in making. The single screening at HKIFF sold out, no thanks to the festival, whose lack of support was baffling, particularly considering I Miss You was one of only two new Hong Kong films in this year’s line-up. After an initial Arts Development Council grant in 2012, funding dried up. Depression — when it is not treated with the vaguely comic touch of Silver Linings Playbook or the melodrama of Mad World — is not a topic that appeals to funders seeking returns, and LGBT content eliminates mainland China as a market from the starting gate. Pitches at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum were also a bust because the material was “wrong.” “The first question people ask is, ‘Will it get distribution in China?’ No. ‘Will it show on airlines?’ No.”
That bodes poorly for Chung, but also for filmmaking in Hong Kong in general. The combination of pricey real estate, increasingly skittish exhibitors and funders over subject matter, and dollar-focused arts councils add up to a slowly dying industry that’s producing fewer and fewer films by Hongkongers for Hongkongers. “I think [production and distribution] is getting harder, even for films like Andrew Fung’s Concerto of the Bully,” says Chung. “That was nominated for a couple of Hong Kong Film Awards but the release was so brief it was almost meaningless. I just wish the film funders would realise that.” The gap between funding and audience demand has been the subject of discussion since Derek Chiu’s No.1 Chung Ying Street won the Grand Prix at the Osaka Asian Film Festival, despite having been rejected by the Film Development Fund (FDF) because of the subject matter. Chiu’s film examines the still-sensitive 1967 riots that killed 50 people. The FDF’s argument? The film had no commercial value. That’s the wrong metric, according to Chung. ”I have maintained, for several years, they should never be concerned about the commercial possibilities of a film,” he says. “Look at the FDF films that have been successes — Mad World, Berlin Crystal Bear-winner Echoes of the Rainbow, Adam Wong’s film The Way We Dance. They’re all art films.”
The indie scene’s lifeboat, ironically, is its own scrappy ingenuity, embodied by entities like independent promoter-exhibitor Ying E Chi, which Chung co-founded in 1997 and chaired until last year. Filmmakers themselves are often mounting unconventional community screenings, a strategy that has proven successful, starting with Ten Years, Connie Lo’s Vanished Archives (a documentary spin on Chung Ying Street) and Ray Yeung’s gay romance Front Cover. Ying E Chi had hits with Nora Lam’s Lost in the Fumes, about localist activist and thwarted legislator Edward Leung, and Chan Tze Woon’s Yellowing, about the anonymous kids behind the headlines of the Umbrella Revolution, in 2016.
“The income from those screenings is sizeable, and a good income for the filmmakers,” says Chung. “The shows have all been full. I think there’s more separation between independent and commercial filmmaking now, and it’s getting harder and harder to bridge that gap.” It’s even harder for gay voices to be heard, though there are exceptions. “Foreign gay films can get screenings, but local ones can’t. And I don’t know why.”
In light of what Chung sees as the dire state of the industry in Hong Kong, is he going to keep making films? “Yes,” comes the immediate reply, rooted in a mature, damn-the-torpedoes attitude. “When you get to certain age you don’t really have any expectations about your career anymore, so it makes you more free to do what you like. I know I don’t want to be a commercial director. I could never be a commercial director, so I’m not going to waste my time pursuing that path.”
And the industry doldrums haven’t killed Chung’s love of the process. Production on I Miss You was the most enjoyable of his decade-plus making films. Modern lightweight, light sensitive camera equipment keeps him nimble, and re-centres Chung as a director. “I could focus on the actors and setting the scene. A good example is a dinner scene, which was written as several different segments, but is now one continuous take. The whole set-up allowed us to do that, and I think I want to explore this method more,” he says, finishing off his cup of tea before adding one caveat. “But I think my next film is going to be nothing about myself.”
I Miss You When I See You is not scheduled yet in Hong Kong. It will be screened at the Seattle Film Festival in June 2018