Hong Kong cinema has produced world-renowned female actors like Maggie Cheung and a number of ass-kicking female martial artists too. Yet behind the camera, the local film industry remains a male dominated world. With the notable exception of Ann Hui, when you think of big name Hong Kong directors you think of the likes of Wong Kar-wai, Johnnie To, Runje Shaw, Tsui Hark, John Woo or maybe Wong Jing or Ringo Lam. Sometimes it feels like women are there to be seen but not necessarily heard from.
That’s why the directorial debut by Tam Wai-ching is a cause for celebration. Five years on from her lauded short film The Little One, an award-winner at the 2012 edition of local film competition Fresh Wave, she’s stepping up to the plate with her first full-length work, In Your Dreams. We talk with Tam to learn more about her journey and what it’s like to be a woman in the Hong Kong film industry...
Interview with Tam Wai-ching
What made you want to make films? What inspired you?
I used to write novels when I was really young and I like to explore different artistic expressions. I didn’t actually come into contact with movies until quite late on. When I was studying at City University, my teacher happened to be [director] Patrick Tam. His classes taught me that film can have a deeper meaning as the director that’s entirely different from what you see on screen as a member of the audience. I developed a greater understanding of film during those years studying. It was Tam who persuaded me film could be a great artistic medium.
Did your past as a novelist influence In Your Dreams?
I started writing when I was 13 or 14 and I’ve published novels before. But it was at university that Patrick Tam made me realise that films and novels are two very different entities. When making a film, you need to convert all your imaginings, all the metaphors you use in a novel into a visual medium. Everything has to be presented in visual form. That’s very important, so I had to get used to that process. I was very lucky to have met Patrick and to have such a great mentor.
Both The Little One and In Your Dreams focus on domestic difficulties and tough times at school – is there a reason for this?
Yes, they both involve school but The Little One is heavier. I think In Your Dreams is more youthful and more romantic. They both feature recurring symbols. In The Little One, I used two plants, one dying, one lush, to represent the brother and sister. In Your Dreams – I used high heels and water and a swimming pool. The reason I made In Your Dreams was that I love [Polish director] Jerzy Skolimoski’s Deep End. It was that which inspired me to direct a movie about adolescence with a budding romance between a young boy and a more mature woman.
What was the biggest challenge moving from a short student film to a professional feature length film?
Making a short film was a fun experience. A feature film is a tough and painful experience. When I first submitted the script to the First Feature Film Initiative, the script wasn’t meant for the competition; it was a rather personal piece of work. Not to mention, there were landscape shots and filming requirements in the script that didn’t fall within the competition’s allocated budget [of $30.25 million]. Like, renting a swimming pool costs around $70,000 per day but the pool is the essence of the movie, so I couldn’t cut those scenes later on. I faced a lot challenges during production trying to balance the budget.
Did you not expect to win the competition then?
No, not at all. I got a call from my school saying they were looking for students to take part in the competition. I had this script lying about, so I just submitted it without thinking much. The interview, you know, there’s a whole panel of people and it’s quite intimidating. I had heard others saying the questioning could make you cry! I didn’t experience that but there were questions I couldn’t answer since my script was still in its early draft and I didn’t quite have the ending. Mainly, would the teacher and student actually have a sexual relationship? The judges asked me about that and I hadn’t decided thenn. So at the end, I was like whatever. “I’ll just try again next year.” I had no idea I would win.
Did you feel any pressure making this film?
Not really. Because of the lack of authority and investors involved in this project, we were able to decide what type of film we wanted to make. It’s not like my film can make it to Mainland; I never even considered the Mainland market. Without those sorts of considerations, I was able to film something I like and enjoy.
What was it like working with Carina Lau? Was it difficult being in charge of someone so experienced compared to yourself?
I expected to have a lot of fights with her! I’ve worked in the industry for three or four years, as a scriptwriter, working with big names like Sean Lau and Nick Cheung, and I’ve found actresses to be the most troublesome. But throughout the production, Carina Lau was an incredible professional. She once said something to me out of the blue during a break. She came over and said, “Director, you have to make sure you make a great film. All actors are pawns in your chess game. A lot of French actresses who head to Hollywood don’t star in great films. How well an actor is filmed and portrayed relies on the director.” It really showed how much she respects the director and the crew. I thought, as the only real star in the film, she would have a lot of demands but she was thoroughly professional. I didn’t have to worry about working with her at all.
With the notable exception of Ann Hui, the big name directors in Hong Kong are almost exclusively male. Have you experienced any challenges getting to this stage as a female director?
I think a lot of the reasons there aren’t many women at the top are down to culture. In Chinese traditional culture, family values are deeply inscribed in women. In this industry, there are definitely women who enjoy films but would they be willing to put their career before their family? It’s difficult for women in film, especially physically. They can’t operate heavy lighting equipment as well as men, for instance. But something else to consider is that, comparatively, there are quite a lot of female scriptwriters. Having said that, Hong Kong cinema always makes a lot of action films, so directors are more likely to prefer male scriptwriters on many projects. That’s also a factor.