Cheung King-wai is arguably Hong Kong’s most accomplished documentary filmmaker. His 2009 film KJ won the Golden Horse Award for Best Documentary, Best Editing and Best Sound Effects – an unprecedented trio for a documentary at the prestigious Taiwanese film awards – and stayed in Hong Kong cinemas for eight months, also a record for a documentary. Despite directing two other documentaries – All’s Right With the World and One Nation, Two Cities – Cheung has never entirely restricted himself to non-fiction, having worked on the script for Ann Hui’s award-winning The Way We Are.
But now Cheung is taking the reins himself and releasing his first fictional feature film. Based on true events, Somewhere Beyond the Mist tells the tale of a pregnant policewoman assigned to investigate the case of a teenage girl who murdered her parents. We talk to the director to learn why this story and why switch from the genre that has brought him so much acclaim...
Interview with Cheung King-wai
It’s four years since the First Feature Film Initiative awarded you funding. Is there a reason it’s taken so long to ready Somewhere Beyond the Mist? Did you encounter any difficulties?
I don’t like to use the word ‘difficulty’ for making films. Only if you have no artistic standards will you not encounter any difficulties. Making films is a privilege. I have that privilege and I’m very happy to have that chance.
And sometimes you need to wait. I had the instinct to make this story a movie when I first heard it on the news in 2001. But there’s a process. With inspiration, you can feel it strike like lightening, but you need time to let things settle, to feel what's going on, why you're interested in this, what in it is related to your life experiences. It’s like dropping dirt into water: you need to wait until it’s settled before you can see clearly what’s there.
Why the switch from documentaries to a work of fiction?
Of course, on the surface the two types of film are different but I would say there’s not that much of a gap. To me, there’s no difference. Many people think filmmaking is a ladder: you make short films first, then documentaries, then fiction. Then you make big-budget Hollywood films. That’s stereotyping creativity. Creativity is wanting to make something new, to make something from your heart.
What exactly appealed to you about the crime this film is based on?
I was in New York at the time the crime took place and the way they reported it was very interesting. They kept saying Chinese people don’t disrespect their parents. And the way she murdered her parents, strangling them, is really puzzling. In New York there are a lot of guns and knives, so why use this very ancient and direct way to murder? Half of the film is very much philosophical. I kept thinking about what Confucius said: men are born good, so how could it happen?
Was it hard to find someone to cast as the young murderer?
Not at all. I was so lucky. We cast the first one who auditioned, Rachel Leung. I gave her a long monologue from Oedipus Rex and she recited it in a very powerful manner. But when Oedipus gives that monologue, he has discovered his tragic fate and he’s scared. I asked her to recite it again with that emotion. She waited and thought about it. At the end [of the second time] – there are many people in the room – everyone was quiet and then her tears came. She gave two completely different performances. She has huge range. It could have been very difficult but I got very lucky.
Are there any differences between making documentaries and commercial films?
Technically yes, there’s a difference, but ultimately, they are all small things. Whether you’re using a pen or a pencil, blue ink or red ink to write, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I want to project something onto the screen and effectively convey what I want to say.
A lot of hardcore documentarians, they might think my documentaries are not serious enough, not social enough. I’m a filmmaker, they are social activists. They don’t want to call me a documentarian? It doesn’t matter. I just make my films. As long as you come to buy a ticket so I can continue to make films, that’s the issue. It’s not about being commercial, it’s about surviving.
The biggest box office in Chinese cinema, Wolf Warrior 2, earned $5.9 billion. For a corporation, that’s not big money. That’s nothing. Li Ka-shing just sold a property [The Centre] for $40 billion. If you love money, you shouldn’t make films. Getting the opportunity to make your next film is always very difficult and challenging.
The government’s First Feature Film Initiative helped fund Somewhere Beyond the Mist. Is it a good thing that the government gets involved with the local film industry in this way?
That’s a difficult question and I can’t say anything for sure. Hong Kong at this moment, I think it’s the right thing to do. In Taiwan, they started to subsidise filmmakers way before Hou Hsiao-hsien and other new directors. Back then, when Hong Kong was thriving, we laughed at the Taiwanese and said ‘you’re killing your own business’. But now you can see that Taiwanese cinema is very strong. For some in the film industry, they don’t like subsidies. They feel that a director should be tested by the commercial environment. If you’re not tested, you’re not a professional director.
Somewhere Beyond the Mist premiers next week at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. General release date still to be confirmed.