Philip Yung - May We Chat

Even though Philip Yung is currently conquering Asia with Port of Call, he still managed to free up a little time to talk about his previous film: Mei Gaau Siu Nui [May We Chat]. If you ever wondered why Hong Kong produces so few contemporary dramas, why Hong Kong actresses are a bit more prudish compared to their Western counterparts and how the film ties in with Hong Kong classic Lonely Fifteen, be sure to read on.

Philip Yung on May We Chat

Niels Matthijs: Hong Kong is known for producing quality genre films (thrillers, martial arts, comedy), but that seems to come at the expense of other genres. How difficult is it to get a film made about Hong Kong's contemporary youngster and the problems they deal with?

Philip Yung: In fact, the Hong Kong mainstream market is dominated by genre films, with almost no room for arthouse films and real literary film. Apart from Fruit Chan, Ann Hui, Herman Yau and a couple of new directors, almost no one is willing to shoot realistic movies. And once a new director matures, he tends to work on more commercial films, so personally I think that shooting social, realistic drama is a modern filmmaker's mission.

I have directed three films so far: "Glamorous Youth", "May We Chat" and "Port of Call", all of them grounded in reality, while my next film will be adapted from a true story in China. Of course, I'm not ruling out shooting commercial films in the future, but I hope I'll still be able to use my observational skills to direct films with strong social relevance.

For me, the hardest thing is to persevere. Because such films are classified as non-commercial films in Hong Kong, it is very difficult to find investors. In Hong Kong the independent film market is immature, it is not easy to keep on making this kind of movie at low cost in the long run. I also think it's important that I keep in check with the community, so every day I insist on reading the newspaper, listening to current affairs programs, having more contact with people. Just because I know that many Hong Kong directors, once they become a director, start living in a dominantly commercial world, almost completely isolating themselves from society.

May We Chat receiving a Cat III [18+] rating probably didn't make things easier. It prevents the film from being seen by younger viewers while hardcore Cat III fans may not be too interested in watching a drama. I suppose the mainland Chinese market is out of the question too. Did you consider censoring certain scenes in order to lower the rating?

This is a good question. In fact, it's really a big mistake I made. First of all, "May We Chat" received a Cat III rating, but I initially intended to target a younger audience, 15-17 year olds in particular. I hoped this film would be considered, recognized and reflected upon by young people, but in order to make the film more realistic and make the audience feel the sense of crisis, I had to include some violent and sexual scenes. As a result the film was classified as Cat III, preventing young people from watching it. The film's box office was also influenced by this. Now that the film has come out, I feel that the result is bold, rare and spectacular, but we lost a lot of viewers in the process.

Secondly, the film mixes commercial elements with element of social realism, so as a result the film didn't bring satisfaction and pleasure to either the commercial film fans and the fans of social dramas. If you look at this film as a social drama, the screenplay of this movie is too sloppy and quite cliché. I simply didn't have enough time to write the script. In fact, I didn't even have enough time for the research and the information-gathering process. So when the film came out, it was not completely as I wanted it to be. However, the content discussed in the film was what I had in mind and what I was concerned about. I solved all of these issues in my third movie, "Port of Call". The screenplay was carefully planned out, as I usually write my own script and that is where I tend to focus on.

And if "May We Chat" should've deleted certain scenes to enter the Chinese market? Releasing it over there was out of scope from the beginning. "May We Chat" started out as a low-budget film, the entire cost of production was only about 500,000 dollars. Initially the reason that I was willing to shoot this movie was because it was an unrestricted, pure Hong Kong Film and that I was allowed to use new actors. But even "Port of Call", which has a big star and Christopher Doyle's participation, is not a big budget movie. Generally when I make a movie, I tend not to consider the movie's final rating; I just want to shoot the way I see fit in order to express my ideas.

What is holding back films like May We Chat? Is it that local audiences aren't interested in a drama like this? And what about the international market, many of the challenges the characters face are universal, are youth cultures outside of Asia so different that they cannot relate?

Actually, "May We Chat" is also unpopular in the Hong Kong commercial market, the box office is a failure and it did not get any awards. As for overseas, foreign audiences didn't seem to pay too much attention to it. But at certain film festivals, some viewers did see it as a real Hong Kong film and a special piece of work. For example, after Korean director Kim Ki-duk saw it, he liked it and he said the film reminded him of his own film "Samaritan Girl". Of course I know that "May We Chat" can't be compared to "Samaritan Girl", but it made me understand that the movie might make some foreign viewers curious about Hong Kong's social culture. I felt this was very significant for me as a director as well as for the characteristics of my film.

I think that when making a movie a director shouldn't need to be afraid that a foreign audience might not fully grasp it. If foreign audiences can't truly understand a movie, it might make them more curious, hence the movie becomes more culturally significant. This is also the reason why contemporary Japanese and European films have their special cultural value; and why the majority of the Chinese, Korean and Indian movie, even if they look good, lack personality and individuality, as they have always been imitating commercial Hollywood movies.

Hong Kong cinema is a rather male-oriented business, yet May We Chat features three female leads and just a handful male secondary parts. Was it a conscious decision to break away from the standard, or did it come about more organically.

I like shooting female-orientated films. When I'm dealing with male characters, I tend to make them relatively weak and gloomy, something I also did in my screenplay of "Rigor Mortis". The female part on the other hand show strength and dignity. I do not know why though.

A film like this benefits from young, often unknown faces. It lends the film credibility and youthful vigor, on the other hand it's probably not that easy to work with novice actors. Did you do anything special to make them feel more at ease?

I like using new actors, because they have a more natural side to them. I keep trying to mix new actors with veteran actors, so they will influence each other. Professional actors end up looking more natural and young actors can learn some acting skills. So far, I think it has worked well, although it has been more time-consuming. In "Port of Call" I liked the actors' performance and they went on to win a number of international awards. As for "May We Chat", the three first-time actresses weren't bad at all, but the film itself had very little response so not many people paid attention to them.

Rainky Wai stated that she used a body double. These days nudity isn't frowned upon that much, although it seems that Hong Kong can still be quite prudish when it comes to showing skin. Was the decision for a body double made in order to protect Wai's future career?

This is also a good question. Chinese actors are generally more conservative; there are still a lot of so-called code of ethics. An actor's nudity is not really accepted by the Chinese community. Many actors are also singers and advertising stars. They need to earn money and well-paid opportunities for Hong Kong professional film actors are limited. That's why they lack a strong professional awareness, they do not understand that their body is part of the performance.

I think that Tang Wei and Qin Hailu are pioneers as Chinese actresses, they have good performing sense and no one disrespects them. Unfortunately that didn't change the trend, as their cases remain stand alone examples. In my case, as a director, the need for nudity depends on the requirements of the script. In "May We Chat", Rainky Wai's role does not require her real body to be exposed. I do believe that in the violent scene, where she counter-attacks her client, her character needed to be fully naked, but a body double would do the job.

You write your own films, you direct them and if I heard correctly you even edited your latest film. How important is it for you to have this much control over the final product?

"Port of Call" is the latest film where I both directed and participated in the editing process, together with William Chang and Liao Qingsong. I am grateful that I had a lot of control over the editing, as I also wrote the script. Compared to "May We Chat", "Port of Call" feels more like my personal, individual piece of work, so I insisted on sticking to my principles to express my ideas in this film. Obviously, my producer and film company understood this, so the audience felt that this movie was a bit more special, unlike all the typical commercial films. I believe that because of this, "Port of Call" received a number of awards and nominations. Unfortunately, because it's not a commercial movie, the Hong Kong box office was just average.

I feel that it is important for a director to have editing control, but it is not absolutely essential, as the final editing decisions are generally made by the film company. As long as the director can participate, particularly during the rough cut, that should enable the director to achieve his goals. With regards to smaller changes afterwards, it is best for the film company and director to decide together under mutual respect. Generally speaking there will be some controversy, but that's just part of the process.

May We Chat is a film that handles contemporary youth problems, but how representative is the film of modern-day Hong Kong youth. Are these types of stories common or is the film more a drama about excesses that exist?

The plot of "May We Chat" was too dramatic, which made the film less realistic. In this sense, "May We Chat" is actually worse than my very first film, "Glamorous Youth". It's because I kind of wanted to make the film to go towards the commercial side, but also because time was limited. I used a melodramatic way to tell the story as to make it easier for the viewer to follow the plot. There were conflicts and dramatic effects I added, which were a bit like Hong Kong TV series.

However, I took quite a few realistic elements from Hong Kong's everyday life. For example, the social life of young people and the way they deal with each other through mobile communication tools, the concept of love and the way young people in Hong Kong are conscious of their body, the way some young people get entangled in the sex industry and the problems they face when dealing with their parents' generation. Also their dignity; the dignity of the three young girls, their friendship, their commitment and way of expressing it; all these elements were very realistic in the movie. I think many young people in Hong Kong are seemingly frivolous and superficial, but their true personalities and the way they pursue happiness is actually very precious.

How difficult is it to write and a direct a film about a generation that isn't really your own. I'm more or less the same age as you and while I'm young enough to know about the technology young people use in their everyday life, I'm too old to truly understand what it means to live with and through it every day. Where did you find inspiration for that?

I did some research and gathered information with my other screenwriter Lou Shiu-Wa (who is also the screenwriter of "The Way We Are"). Although we couldn't do much, we had discussions and we observed a lot, after which we felt we had a better understanding of how today's youngsters behave. In fact, I have always paid special attention to Hong Kong's society, as it's very likely to become a subject in my movies. Some of the elements in the script were chosen by me, and I only choose elements that are credible and I have a good understanding of. I also like to get inspiration from real stories; I feel that the most important thing is to create characters based on the character's intention, motive and psychological condition. All these combined make the character look realistic.

Hong Kong people like to use "Whatsapp" and "We Chat" to communicate; I believe that nowadays you can see something similar happening in all modern cities around the world. Even though I could only observe the situation, I felt this was a common phenomenon in Hong Kong. Some people simply never met another group of people, yet they managed to become friends. This kind of relationship is very different from my childhood's situation. It's a bit like a pen pals; but it is also more like hiding yourself in a place where you feel it is safe to communicate with the outside world; which I find really absurd.

Many people see the film as a critique on the "social" life youngster lead online, but the way I see it the WeChat app actually brings the different characters closer together, acting more as a social bridge rather than a negative influence on their lives. Do you welcome these different visions people have on your film?

Actually, I would both criticize and affirm, but this is just an objective expression. I thought that the movie would work best if it had an objective perspective, but you could still find some subjective angles. The ideal is to question, to ask, leaving enough room for thought. Don't go in with too many principles and justifications.

May We Chat is not your typical Hong Kong movie, while watching I was more reminded of Taiwanese cinema and the way they shoot/handle drama films. How did you figure out the style to shoot this film, when there are so few local references?

It's very strange, a lot of people say that my films are like Taiwanese films. People said that about my very first film "Glamorous Youth"; and also about my latest film "Port of Call". A lot of people say my films don't feel like Hong Kong films. I don't know why, probably because I have worked as a film critic before, which made me unwilling to use the typical Hong Kong way of shooting films. Of course, I still feel that I haven't done enough for my films and they were not mature enough.

Now that we're talking references: the scene that stood out for me (both visually as well as thematically) was the rape scene. I was oddly reminded of Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong (the narrow hallways, the butcher character). How did that scene come to be?

That was a real case; sex workers in Hong Kong have been exploited like this, with the client pulling off the condom during the act. I feel that Hong Kong sex workers do not receive adequate protection, so I added this particular scene in order to express how a sex worker would feel about the cold and dark side of society and how she would strike back. I like the movie "Hollywood Hong Kong", although I think sometimes Fruit Chan was too deliberate in making it, but the intensity of the performance was very strong and it did lift the spirit.

I do think the scene in "May We Chat" where the fat client is killed is far too intense, but maybe that's just because other scenes look relatively mild. So compared to the rest the intense scene seems a little over the top. However, I really liked that scene, the storyboard and the shooting are very vivid, detailed and accurate and I liked the location and the choreography, as well as the performances of Rainky Wai and the fat guy.

While I think that particular scene is one of the centerpieces of the film, it feels like a very divisive moment that is sure to put off a part of your audience. Do you think of the audience while writing/directing a film, or do you always put the film first?

I would always put the film first, but I also think it could stimulate the audience. I feel that pleasing or conforming to the wishes of the audience is not the only way to make the audience "participate" in a movie, the occasional vagueness and confusion can make the audience ponder and could make them synchronize with the director.

May We Chat is linked to David Lai's Lonely Fifteen. Both leads of Lonely Fifteen return and reprise their former roles. There's an obvious thematically connection between both films, but why Lonely Fifteen? Was there a special reason for choosing that film?

I like the movie "Lonely Fifteen". It has realistic elements, but it is in fact an idol movie. I'd say it might be the last Hong Kong New Wave film, a bit strange maybe, but very special. The box office was good and I have fond childhood memories of it, so "May We Chat" is my tribute to Hong Kong films.

I've been thinking about other Hong Kong films that put the lives of young people front and center and all I could come up with is Heiward Mak's Winds of September. Do you have any recommendations for Hong Kong films that deal with similar themes?

Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong's "Spacked Out", Carol Lai Miu-Suet's "Glass Tears" and Kenneth Bi's "Girl$" are all very good. And finally, I hope you get the opportunity to see my latest movie "Port of Call". Thank you.