Stanley KwanFemale-Oriented Films in Hong Kong
Date: 18 September 2021
Location: Helsinki (Bio Rex), Hong Kong (Salon Films Production House)
Guest: Stanley Kwan
Moderator: Katri Tenhola (Film Programmer, National Audiovisual Institute, Finland)
Partners: Helsinki International Film Festival
Asian Film Awards Academy and Helsinki International Film Festival – Love & Anarchy collaborated for the first time to present renowned Hong Kong director, Stanley Kwan in AFAA’s year-round initiative, the Masterclass Series.
Stanley Kwan began his career in the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980’s among other internationally acclaimed directors, such as Wong Kar-Wai and Sammo Hung. He specializes in dramas that focus on women, their feelings and social status in a changing society. Additionally, he has also explored sexuality and homophobia in his films. Love & Anarchy’s Stanley Kwan retrospective showcases three of Kwan’s films: Rouge (1987), Center Stage (1992) and Lan Yu (2001).
Kwan’s storytelling explores contemporary sentiments of identity and history with nuanced depictions of sexuality. In the masterclass, Kwan took us on a deep dive into his career and behind stories of his films. He shared his creative journey, his artistic pursuits, and his special feelings to characters in his films.
The completed interview in the Masterclass
Katri Tenhola: Hello everybody, welcome to follow this masterclass lecture with Stanley Kwan, here in Bio Rex with all who are here with us, and also you who are following us via zoom. My name is Katri Tenhola, I am hosting this event. We have Mr. Stanley Kwan who is with us from Hong Kong. So, hello Mr. Kwan, how are you doing?
Stanley Kwan: Hello, I’m fine, I’m good. I am Stanley Kwan, I want to say hello, and this is a good chance for me to meet you guys and talk to you.
KT: It’s wonderful to have you here, thank you. We are going to begin by talking a little bit about your career as filmmaker and then we will proceed on discussing about your films. So little bit more, three of them: Rough, Center Stage and Lan Yu will be screened here in Helsinki International Film Festival. We will talk many about those and we will watch some short clips about those films. After that, there will be a Q&A session and you who are here in Bio Rex can ask questions, there will be a microphone going around, you can ask questions for Mr. Kwan. Also, you who are watching this via stream can also send the questions, you can also send them already now if you want to. And then in the Q&A section, we will pick up the questions and ask many of them as we have time for. Let’s begin. I want to begin by asking about your career and how is it started. Your first film was Women, it was made in 1985. Before that you worked in a television broadcasting company. How did your career start, and how would you say that working for television affected your start of your career and has it affected your way of make films in general?
SK: I worked as a script supervisor and production assistant in TVB for 3-4 years, which was not a short period. I think I was very lucky that I met the directors of the new wave in the 80s such as Ann Hui, Patrick Tam and Yim Ho. Later they all left TVB and started work in film industry. They invited me to be their assistant director. In the early 80s, in 1981, 1982, 1983, I continuously worked as assistant directors for them. Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Alex Cheung, Allen Fong, are the famous first wave of new wave directors. Later when I became the director, I won’t consider myself of the first wave director. I would say I’m the third wave, but the second wave and third wave were not always being discussed. So, I think I started my work at TVB, and worked as assistant director in the new wave are my fruitful experience before becoming a director.
KT: Okay, you said you consider yourself like being part of the second or third wave film directors in Hong Kong. How would you describe how did the cinema change? What was new in the way you and other third directors made films? What is difference from that was done before?
SK: I think the difference with the first wave is that people had more expectations on the new directors. That is why, the film types directed by Ann Hui, Patrick Tam and Allen Fong are very different. HK’s film industry is business-oriented. That’s why in the second or third wave, it might return to the tradition industry and produced their required film types. Many people said, HK is the eastern Hollywood. So you can imagine, you could try some new ideas but you must make profits for production companies.
KT: Many of the films from HK that are familiar to the Western public like masculine atmosphere, masculine stamina, and masculine leading roles, such as Jackie Chan’s kung fu films. On the other hand, you have been sometime refer us women filmmaker or you are portraying women in many of your films. First of all, do you like these action films? Do you like watching wuxia films? On the other hand, do you think that gender in your films matter?
SK: Surely, I think it’s closed related to my gender. Also, I observed much from my mother. My father passed away when I was 14, so my mum took up all the responsibilities. She is very tough. She grew up 5 children including me. Another interesting point is, my dad passed away when I was 14, I am the eldest child. My mum is a conservative Chinese woman. She thought that as daddy passed away, the eldest son shall take over daddy’s role. To some extent, I shall take care my siblings. She thought I need to take up some daddy’s responsibilities. However at the time I understood my sexual orientation. I was quite clear about that in teens. That’s why I mentioned earlier, I had to act a daddy’s role in a traditional family, because my daddy passed away early, while I understood my sexual orientation. The complication became very interesting.
KT: Definitely, your film Rouge, we are going to see actually after this masterclass, reflects (among other things) the change of the city of HK over 50 decades. Youhave been working in HK for many decades. Can you tell us how the city has changed from a viewpoint of a director? What is the difference to work there today compared to the time when your career started?
SK: I think when I was shooting Rough, or even my second film Love Unto Waste, it was already after 1984. After the initial agreement confirmed in 1984, there was the first HK mass immigration wave. There were many confusions among HK people. “Shall I stay or leave?” No matter in economics or daily life, shall we forget the good things in HK, or shall we stay in HK. People struggled a lot. That was the 1980s, it happened after the initial agreements. So, when you talked about Rouge, it was a good opportunity, or even me would unconsciously be nostalgic for the colors and smells in the 30s. It provides us with many possibilities and imaginations of the interesting things in 30s in 1986-87. So, Rouge is just one of those. If you are aware, the HK films in the middle 80s or after, not only Stanley Kwan who filmed some nostalgic HK local films.
KT: Okay. We continued talking about Rough. It is a film that happens in two timelines, in1930’s and the again in 1980s. It’s also kind of a ghost story, not the horror film kind of a way. The main actress is Anita Mui who is really famous Chinese actress and also a Cantonese pop singer. She is playing the title role in Rouge, the courtesan living in 1930s. There is Leslie Cheung who is playing Mr. Chan, who is also other main character in the 1930s section of the film. Could you tell us a little bit how it was to work with these two huge pop stars and film stars?
SK: Rough was filmed in 1987. At that time in HK, Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung were super stars in movies and singing in the 80s. Especially Leslie Cheung. After Rough, Anita Mui showed her acting talents to more people apart from singing, she had strong abilities. There’s an interesting thing. For example, when we adapted Lilian Lee’s original piece, we didn’t mention how pretty Fleur was. We used another way to show it. Through different outlook, male outlook, female outlook, with heavy makeup, with light makeup or without any makeup. This was exactly people obsessed with Anita Mui. She has many faces. So, I think our adapted script had make Anita Mui… She thought why the director could dissolve her variety of styles being as a singer into multi-layered. Let’s not only talk about Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Alex Man and Emily Chu were also in the film in the 80s. Let’s talk about Alex Man first. Yes, I saw some questions. There were two time zones in the films. The 30s were colorful, delightful, and plentiful. The 80s were dull and lifeless. Many things were flat including the colors and Alex Man’s acting. The interesting thing was, Alex Man was always shown as a hero-like character; however, his acting was so flat in Rough.
KT: That’s really interesting. As you said you enjoy to diving into the colorful past of HK, I really like the way the film has been divided and different kind of ways of depicting. As you said, the 30s is really colorful, it almost like a slow dance somehow the editing is a little bit slower. The 80s is more greige, the editing of rhythm is also faster. I would like to demonstrate that by looking at the films. We will watch the clips 1 & 2. These are both from the beginning of the film, so it’s a kind of introducing the different decades in the film. Let’s go.
KT: Those was two different clips. I really like the way, they are love stories but they are really different. Other one is really mundane, like smelly feet and the other one is really romantic, a romantic encounter. They are different, but they are still some kind of almost like symmetry in the scene. I found the camera is following the person inside the building. Things happening in the staircase, watching the stair from the doorway or from the window. Could you tell us how did you come up with this idea to depicting these different eras with this style? Was it clear for you from the beginning that you wanted to do it like that?
SK: In the original novel, it focuses more on a female ghost from the 30s came to the 80s in HK to find her lover. That’s why we… Fleur (Anita Mui) and Master Twelve (Leslie Cheung) didn’t appear much in the original novel. Eventually we received the support from the company, we were free to adapt script. The scriptwriter and I both thought it’s a love story more than a horror film. That’s why we added many more scenes on the 30s. Also we chose to make the whole film full of the atmosphere of the 30s from the first minute. Because the scriptwriter and I thought that the 20 minutes, including the colors had brought us the feelings and the smell, including the love story between Fleur and Master Twelve, which made us memorize. The strong feeling when Fleur’s spirit appeared in the 80s, comparing to the faded relationships between Yuen Ting and Ah Chor. There’s a great contrast. So, I think the company was happy to see the big changes made on Rouge’s original pieces. Another interesting thing is the art. We spent much time to search for stuff in the 30s. The newspaper and magazines. They were not colorful. The photos recording the life brothels in the 30s were black and white. However the word descriptions in the magazines and newspapers gave us much room for imaginations that it could be very colorful. In the beginning, Anita used a red paper to put on her lips. The background was white with red flowers. The impression was like a wallpaper. The wallpaper was like the book wrapper in childhood. You may not know about it. We used it at our childhood. Because we would keep the book in good condition and pass it to our siblings. So we used a feminine and colorful wrapper in Fleur’s room design as real wallpaper in the scenery. This is an example. For example, we read many words from research and understood that there were many bright colors. The creations of the colors were also interesting. The production designer and I has paid huge efforts into it. I think the representation of the colorful 30s comparing to the doleful 80s. Pan Lai had put in great efforts. Pan Lai is a production designer I worked well with. We worked together for Rough, Full Moon in New York and Center Stage, which we will talk about later. And Eileen Chang’s adapted script, Red Rose White Rose is also his design work.
KT: Yes, you can continue diving into the past in the film Center Stage, it will also see in the festival. We will move on now. It’s kind of a biopic, a film about the Chinese silent film era actress, Ruan Lingyu. It’s not a traditional biography, it is really elaborated and constructed. It has many layers. Those who haven’t seen the film, I will shortly be telling the consistent of the re-edit scenes of Ruan Lingyu’s life in the silent era. Then there are film clips from her old films like archive material and there also like a documentary layer where actors of this film are talking about their impressions of Ruan Lingyu. How come did you come to make a film of Ruan Lingyu? She is of course a famous actress but not probably so much well-known for the Finnish public. Could you tell a little bit about her, is she an actress you will always like? How come you ended up making a film about her?
SK: The production of Center Stage was because of the success of Rouge. The company hoped Anita and I could work again. At that time, I has watched so many silent films of Ruan Lingyu in HK film center. Especially the one called Goddess. At first, I also thought of working again with Anita as a silent film actress in the 30s. Showing her love relationship and her actress life, which was a traditional romantic film. The most interesting is I spent 1.5 to 2 years in Shanghai and Beijing doing much research, interviewing production crews who worked in the 30s. What they said about Ruan were out of the papers or the films we found about her. Many incidents surprisingly happened in Ruan’s life. As I had to film Ruan Lingyu, I think we shall identify more layers on this character. Also, I interviewed many respectful film production crews of the 30s in Shanghai during my stay in 1-2 years, reminded me that no matter it’s a silent film or a sound film, the golden era of film production in China was in the 30s and 40s in Shanghai. Therefore, all these innovated my ideas of filming Ruan in a different way instead of filing a traditional drama. It was still Anita. Anita’s background made me think of Ruan’s. They both were grown up in poor families. Could audience feel like Anita and Ruan were having conversations in some scenes in my film? Later Anita decided not to go to China to do the filming production due to personal reasons. She gave up to this role. At that time the script was not a traditional one. It didn’t have to be an actress who’s alike with Ruan or the background to be alike her. Maggie Cheung’s appearance and personalities didn’t like Ruan which made it more interesting. It’s interesting that when filming, there were some love affairs gossips on Maggie Cheung, during some interview she answered, “I don’t care”. She showed that attitude of a female in the 30s, how they face difficulties, just as the role she acted as Ruan Lingyu. At the time, Maggie as the role player or I as the director should be in and out of the role freely but not doubt in it telling myself I am Ruan. In and out of the role shall make both Maggie and I and eve the actors acting the 90s impressed by the delighted 1930s Shanghai film industry. Some said in the 1980s and 1990s is the golden era of the Hong Kong film industry. A Hong Kong production group in this generation to review the golden era of the 30s. Two golden era appeared in it. There’s a scene that Maggie, Chin Han, Carina Lau, they were wearing the cloths of 1930s. They had to take a group photo in front of Lianhua. When the scene was trackback and freeze and changed to a black and white photo, we saw the brightest 1990s actors in this photo.
KT: We will see the clips of Center Stage. This depicts quite well the layers and structures of the film. So, let’s watch the clips.
KT: This is really like a dense section of the film. A lot of things are happening, there is psychologically lot of things going on. It’s kind of a breaking point in the film and there is also a matter layer. Like you forgot to leave the Maggie’s cover to see her. Can you tell a little bit more about that special scene? How would was to do it? How would was reenact those archived material scene?
SK: Many archive materials used in the scenes in Center Stage were found during the research in the 2 years. She just showed the scenes are in the last 1/3 of the film. There were many interviews in the middle part, including my interview with Maggie and conservations with Carina Lau. The documentary was actually scripted. They connected with some features like Ruan and other characters in 1930s. Let’s go back to the scene they used as an example. Ruan secured the role of a female character Wai Ming, committed suicide due to the rumors. When Maggie was playing the role of Ruan, she’s facing the relationships problems between herself, Tang Jishan and Zhang Damin, with rumors abound. Also, Ruan and Cai Chusheng (Tony Leung) had ambiguous relationships. There’s a scene earlier showing that Ruan would like Cai to bring her travel from Shanghai to HK. All these happened in 1930s. when my camera zooms up and said, “Tony you forgot to remove Maggie’s duvet”. We played a joke with Maggie and Tony. They had rumor at that time too. They just laughed and followed the script.
KT: There’s even more happening in the scene I realized. We will move on to Lan Yu. The third film screen at the festival in from 2001. It’s a love story between two men, set in Beijing in late 80s. Let’s look at the clip. It’s the main character Han Dong giving his scarf to Lan Yu.
KT: Why I wanted to show this clip because of the editing. I think this is interesting in terms of quite like a detail in the editing in this scene when Han Dong is giving his scarf to Lan Yu. Even though this is a short action, it couldn’t be done just like in a one shot. But it chosen to be constructive from many shots. Shot from different angles in a very fast way. Give a feeling like wrapping Lan Yu to the scarf in a way and also creating the bond between two men. But there is also a sense of Han Dong glancing around, like “Did anybody see us?”, because they are gay men and maybe it’s probably not a good idea to show their feeling in public. Could you tell us a little bit about the editing of this film in general? Is this choice did you made? The other interesting editing choice is also the cuts between time. Sometimes, cutting then the time has passed. Is not immediately clear necessarily for the viewer how much time has passed or like what has been happening in between those cuts. The cutting a little bit something else done, just normal melodrama. Could you tell us a little bit about that in the film?
SK: If we used the bus stop scene as an example. I think William Chang made a brilliant editing there. William is the editor of Lan Yu. He understood what the scriptwriter and I described in the beginning of the film. When the film first started, we saw the environment where Han Dong was. Lan Yu showed up and then changed to a hotel room. This relationship was based on a sex trade. He talked about money and living with him. Later one after another happened. He gave him clothes and praised him being beautiful. He thought many vanity things can keep him. Even he was late to have dinner with Lan Yu. He said he could call a car to pick him up. So at the moment at 1/3 of the film, even though Han Dong had good impression of him, it’s different from Lan Yu’s feelings towards Han Dong. He took a muscular man into the room without letting Lan Yu knew. He was still being vanity while talk to the person. So William Chang did a good job on the editing of the scene putting on scarf. There found some details of the relationship. The edited way of putting on scarf was well presented that Han Dong used vanity products to keep him stay. It also showed that Lan Yu was satisfied when Han Dong Putting a scarf on him. This is a very interesting editing.
KT: Also, use of interior in this film is very interesting. I think in other films of yours, many times the scenes happen in one room and in a quite close places, and the camera moves around the characters. They don’t feel necessarily like claustrophobic, more like intimate in a way. Could you tell us a little bit your way of using interiors in the way of depicting of character and relationship between characters?
SK: I think it depends on the characters and also the scripts, to see the required space. It might not be a small space. Using the example of Lan Yu and Han Dong, their relationship was based on physical contact. The location would be a hotel room. Even if it’s suite, it won’t be very big. In Center Stage, when Ruan entered Tong’s villa and there’s no furniture, what was she thinking. Was she feeling relaxed, or she had another feeling? The use of space is closely related to the narration of characters.
KT: Thank you. So now we have time for Q&A. So questions from you who are here. Here will give you a microphone. You can raise up your hand to ask. Also, those who have been watching this via zoom, you can send the questions to the zoom, we will pick up the questions and we will ask them.
Q: Good evening Hong Kong time. So lovely to hear your Cantonese long time. I have seen some recent Hong Kong movies like One Second Champion, really rooted (48:27) in the Hong Kong’s soul and way of life. Do you think that there is a future for Cantonese speaking Hong Kong rooted (48:38) cinema, also in the popular sense but more interestingly of course, also art house sense? Thank you.
SK: Recent years I met many young directors. I will be a film producer for a young director’s first storytelling film who received 5 million HKD funding support. I met many young directors they won’t fight for joint collaborated production or more resources or could invite actors. They are not. They want to film stories of Hong Kong. For the Cantonese speaking films, unfortunately I think it will become more rely on the Hong Kong government funding support. You can see all funding now, for example, the First Feature Film Initiative, Scriptwriting Incubation Programme, or even Succession Scheme, means 12 senior directors worked together with young directors. The Government budget 9 million HKD for it. Many people may aware that Cantonese film is facing challenges, not just the money but also the contents, which discouraging many young directors. They may not be able to express everything. I can see there will be more control on the contents.
Q: Hello, nice to see you from HK. I have a question about Center Stage. I saw it yesterday but longer, 155mins. I just wondering that what do you want to emphasize with the new edit?
SK: I think… because I didn’t re-edit the film. This is very valuable director’s version. When I first showed this director’s version of Center Stage in Hong Kong. Audience’s negative reaction was like “What film is it?”. So the company asked us to change it, but then they did not keep the film well. When they first started to repair, they looked for the director’s version of Center Stage. It was found in Film Archive in Sydney, Australia. They send us a copy of the director’s version of Center Stage to us as gift in Sydney Film Festival. So, they used the film (not negatives) Sydney gave us. It changed it from print to negatives. This is the first repair version. The DVD version is a shortened version. We have to accept that this is Center Stage. That’s why I appreciated film festival. They insisted the 4k version must be the director’s version. So, this is not a re-edit version. This is an original version.
Q: First of all, thank you Helsinki International Film Festival for presenting the Stanley Kwan’s masterclass and his film in Finland. As you, Mr. Kwan, used to collaborated with Anita Mui. We would like to hear about you opinion on the film Anita which is based on Anita Mui’s true story. Are you anticipated the film or not?
SK: I didn’t involve in that film Anita played. I didn’t have any connections. I only know that the young filmmaker, director Wong Chun, played my character in the film. He acted as me to have meeting with Anita and Ho in Rouge. Recently the film promotion done by the company and some media including posters and clips had put closely Anita and Rouge together. I didn’t have any connections with the films, but I… as the director of Rouge, so many of you still remember the film and Anita Mui (Fleur). I am very happy.
KT: Are there any more question? Okay, we already talked about Center Stage restoration. The next film we are going to see started at 2:00pm here in Helsinki is Rouge, is also a 4K restoration. Can you tell us a little bit about the restoration project of your films and where are you tempted to make a big change to the film when you were going through them again?
SK: There would need some repairs in colors or the light and shadows. We would do some adjustments on colors to make it looks better. But I won’t say it’s better for the current aesthetic views. I didn’t do any re-editing on the repaired versions of my films. I think if Center Stage is released in 1991 and Lan Yu was released in 2001, it should stop there. Recently there’re some retrospective exhibition of the repaired films in HK. Many people asked my thought about the way I filmed Center Stage in 30 years ago. These 30 years is a marking. If I re-edit the film today, change to a faster rhythm or make others changes, it would not be the Center Stage I filmed 30 years before.
KT: Do we have more questions from the audience?
Q: Hi, thank you so much for the masterclass. I have a very short question. What was your favorite film to make and why?
SK: The one I have the strongest feelings is my second film Love Unto Waste. Many people thought Love Unto Waste was deviant when it first released in 1986-87. It’s because as I mentioned it was a business-oriented film industry in HK. Another interesting thing is the previous production was Women, which was the hits of box office. The following one is Rouge. What did Love Unto Waste mean to me as I filmed when Woman and Rouge before and after this. It’s very personal to me, no matter how many characters were there, no matter how I interpret the script. Don’t forget Love Unto Waste was a disaster in box office.
KT: So, I think our time is coming up. I will wrap this up. Thank you so much for being here with us. Thank you for interesting answers and sharing (58:53) like to the films what we are going to see. As I said, Rouge is going to be here shown at 2pm. And, there are two other films. Thank you again for being here with us.
SK: You’re welcome. This is my honor.
KT: Thank you. Bye
Masterclass Series – Stanley Kwan