Vincent Chui

Vincent Chui nous est apparu comme un homme très timide, presque trop modeste au vu de son Leaving in Sorrow.
S’il y a une chose qu’il défend en tout cas, c’est bien son choix de la caméra numérique pour mener à bien son projet. Lisez par vous-même...

Sancho : The first thing that surprised me about Leaving in Sorrow, being a digital movie, was the scope of its storyline. It’s very unusual to see a digital film that focuses on so many characters, in so many different places - it must have been really hard to make. Why did you chose such a difficult story, for such a project ?

Vincent Chui : First, I never take digital video as a cheap option or alternative for a film, because it has its own aesthetics, and it’s also got so many possibilities. I must admit that I was inspired by Lars Von Trier, the Dogma 95 films like The Idiots. Tthey just look so real and powerful to me - I believe that you can shoot almost anything in this way, it only depends on the director’s choices.

This is the story that I always wanted to shoot. And I believe in the style of Dogma 95 - that’s why I opted for digital video camera with Leaving in Sorrow.

I didn’t mean to say that digital video was "cheap", it’s just that most people do not chose to tackle this kind of issue in video. The one difference with Dogma 95 I think, is that you managed to have real actors - some of them are very well known Hong Kong actors - and you even managed to get a cameo by Francis Ng. Do you think it would have been a different film if you had made it with another camera ?

First, of course it’s not a cheap option - but it’s still much cheaper than film. I spent about 500.000 HK$ - that’s about 60.000 Euros, more or less. But you can tell if I wanted to finish Leaving in Sorrow in 35mm, it would have cost at least three or four times this amount.

Secondly, I shot the film using hand-held camera work - what I like about DV is actually more mental than technical. Maybe I sacrificed some things, like the resolution of the image. However, when shooting with two hand-held cameras, it’s so easy to...

Let me give you example : the almost last scene in the film, at the Starbuck’s in Beijing. All I had to do, in order to shoot this scene was buy some coffee and get my actors to sit next to the window, and then shoot it with two cameras. But if I had wanted to shoot it on film, I would have had to deal with Starbuck’s, and then it would have taken maybe three hours to set up the lights, and rehearse again and again. Using DV, I was able to do it this way [snaps his fingers].

Furthermore, it’s very realistic to me - and to the actors, too. They don’t have to worry about the angle of the camera, the movement - all they have to do is to act. Sometimes I just gave them the situation of a specific scene, rather then direct them, tell them what to do. So there was a lot of improvisation, and it was a very, very good experience.

It’s true that we have the impression that the characters are very much real. One of the advantages that you shot in digital camera, I think, is that we - as viewers - have had the opportunity to see Hong Kong, for one, in a way we had almost never seen it before. We always see the Harbor, we always see the same neighborhoods... yet you managed to show Hong Kong as a city that we really didn’t know. The other point is that the hand-held approach kind of gives a feeling of urgency, like the characters are trying to hold the situation together, but they can’t - Hong Kong is just breaking apart. Is this really what you were going for, this impression that Hong Kong was going away, that people were letting it go away ?

Well... I never thought of that ! [laughs] You know, I used to study film - and I used to discriminate DV too. This is actually the first time I shot anything on digital video. And I feel like a spoiled director : I shot like 90 hours of footage. So, when we got to the editing table, our principle was to never look back on what we had already thrown away. My two editors, managed to make these 90 hours worth of footage fit into 90 minutes.

I guess the pacing - I like the pacing of the film pretty much - is just like the pace of the Hong Kong people. You probably know that Hong Kong is one of the fastest places in the world. I really enjoyed recreating that felling of speed.

One thing I wanted to ask about Hong Kong... In the speech the preacher gives in the end, you get this feeling that he’s realizing that people just haven’t been trying, they’ve been running away. And it made me think of Derek Chiu’s Frugal Game, with Miriam Yeung. There’s this conclusion in the end - which I had never heard before in a Hong Kong film, where people think of themselves as Hong Kong people, and they decide to stay and fight for it and say "We’re Hong Kong people, we can do anything". And that’s something I pretty much found again in the preacher’s speech. Do you have the feeling that Hong Kong people, today, have themselves realized that they can go forward, and not be afraid of China, England or being in between ?

[seems puzzled] Maybe ! [laughs] To say the truth... As a director, I usually don’t think that much in details. I just find something interesting or touching, and try to put it all together.

But - yes, at least I think I’m a Hong Kong people. If people ask me, I’m proud to be Chinese, but even on our passports our nationality is "Hong Kong, China". Most of us Hong Kong people think we are unique, we are not just Chinese...

Does that answer your question ? [laughs again]

Was the movie shown in China ?

They have the pirate DVD there. Some people show it "underground" - otherwise they wouldn’t be able to show it in China, because of the subject matter - and I didn’t even get the official papers before I shot the film... So I’m really glad to have the pirate DVD, to be able to reach these people.

You must be the first Hong Kong director ever to say this...

What can I say ? They even have some discussions on the internet about my film - so yes !

Did the actors you worked with, enjoy the opportunity of the freedom offered by the digital format, compared to more the time-consuming process of shooting on traditional film ?

Oh it took time, not only for them but for also for me to understand what we were going to do... [laughs] As I said, I used to shoot on film. So when I got to the locations, I had my whole schedule in my mind - like "shot one - medium shot, shot two - close-up"...

During the first few days, I was very insecure. Consider the Starbuck’s scene once more. For that scene, we arrived in Beijing at about 12 o’clock. On that day, the dusk was at about three o’clock in the afternoon, so we only had three hours to shoot the scene. So I just told the actors about its situation, on the plane. And then we got to the location, and started shooting.

The actors and even the crew members, felt quite comfortable with this kind of improvisation. That’s why I said this is a very good experience - no matter if the film is good or not, to me it’s still a good experience.

Why did you chose these three "heroes" (a Chinese girl, a preacher, a young man studying abroad) ? Is this a specific choice, deriving from your personal experience, or do they represent something in particular ?

I have a very strong Christianity background myself. I forgot, maybe my grand-grandfather was a preacher...
You know, Hong Kong is a very materialized city, where people talk only about money. So if you want to have a character who has to fight for his own ideology, he should be someone special - a preacher would be a very good choice. [laughs]

Secondly, I chose the young man who lives in San Francisco, because I knew a lot of people who went to the States to study in the late 80s or early 90s. And the only reason they went to the States, was because they wanted to leave Hong Kong, and that’s it. No matter what they studied, they wanted to leave Hong Kong - that’s why I created this character.

Finally, the young man and his editor... I’ve been teaching the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts for the last 4 years, and I’ve seen a lot of young men who don’t know much about what happened in 1989 in Beijing. It reminds me of my attitude towards what happened in the mid-70s, with the cultural revolution. So I asked myself : do we need another incident to awaken the younger generation ? That’s why I built part of the movie around this young man, and how he recognizes himself as a Chinese, through a love story.

Another kind of question... Before 1997 it seems there was this general panic in Hong Kong about what was going to happen after the Handover. Did you yourself, have this uncertainty about what you were going to be able to do in the following years ? Do you feel that the situation has changed very much in Hong Kong since then ?

No, to me definitely not. You know, certainty is never a priority for independent filmmaking. [laughs] For someone like my sister, who’s now in her late 30s, with a daughter and a son, probably yes. I guess things have definitely changed for the middle class... A lot of them moved away at that moment...

Now that you’ve seen you can make the movie you want with digital camera, are you going to keep working with that complete freedom in mind, or are you going to try and reach maybe broader audiences, by giving in to film ?

As I said, Leaving in Sorrow is a very good experience, and I enjoyed this kind of filmmaking. My future investor, however - or should I say a potential investor - very likely won’t believe in digital films... So my next film probably will be shot on 35mm.

It’s a bit sad... I hope you can get back to digital again, because it has a feeling of life that is, I think, much harder to create with traditional film than with digital camera... One last question - which is a basic fan question I guess... How did Francis Ng come to be in the film ?

He’s a personal friend of my Production Manager - they started working together long before I started shooting. As I said, I wanted my film to look realistic, so I needed a celebrity to play that part. I picked him and he said yes - and I enjoyed working with him.

Did you know that it would work in favor of your film ? People actually say "Leaving in sorrow - oh, there’s Francis Ng in it". Even though we only see him for 30 seconds or so, people still remember him very clearly...

Yes... but we have promised him that we would never use this for publicity. [smiles]

Thank you, and thank you for your film.

Interview réalisée à Deauville le 16 mars 2003 par l’équipe de SdA.

"If people ask me, I’m proud to be Chinese, but even on our passports our nationality is "Hong Kong, China". Most of us Hong Kong people think we are unique, we are not just Chinese..."
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