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Interview: the directors of Trivisa on their award-winning film

Winner of five awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, we speak to Jevons Au, Frank Hui and Vicky Wong about their 1997-set triad thriller

Calvin Sit

If you didnt catch it last year, don’t be fooled by the trailer. Sanskrit for the ‘three poisons’ – ignorance, attachment and hatred – that cause suffering in Buddhist teachings, Trivisa may look like a typical crime-thriller action flick, but it is in fact a deep character study inspired by three of the most nefarious criminals of the 1990s: the AK-47-wielding Yip Kai-foon (AKA Teeth Dog), tycoon kidnapper and socialite Cheung Tze-keung (who famously nabbed Li Ka-shing’s eldest son, Victor Li) and the elusive, murderous robber Kwai Ping-hung, who at one stage had a $2 million bounty on his head.

Revered director Johnnie To (who counts Quentin Tarantino among his fans) had once heard a rumour that these crime lords were joining forces to plot the heist of the century. Intrigued by this idea, he handpicked three former winners of the Fresh Wave Short Film Festival – a competition that he initiated in 2005 to support emerging local film talent – to develop three storylines based on the rumour into a feature film. He designated Kwai to Frank Hui Hok-man (Best Film award winner at Fresh Wave for Wasted in 2005), Yip to Jevons Au Man-kit (Best Film award winner for Merry X’mas in 2006) and Cheung to Vicky Wong Wai-kit (Cinematography award winner for The Decisive Moment in 2010). Each of the directors was left to interpret their respective fugitives and turn them into new characters as part of a cohesive, trilinear narrative.

Critics have hailed the film as a triumph, an encouraging sign that new, talented directors are ready to revitalise Hong Kong’s film industry. They have also noted the timely relevance of Trivisa’s societal reflection on how Hong Kong’s light dimmed during the handover in the face of a domineering Mainland. This is a sentiment that’s sure to hit harder for local audiences, especially in light of the overwhelmingly positive response to recent socio-political satire film 10 Years and its nightmarish prophecy of Hong Kong losing its cultural identity because of an unrelenting, intrusive Chinese Communist Party.

Ultimately though, the connective thread between the two films is quite tenuous. Where 10 Years purposefully conjures up a futuristic dystopian society, Trivisa’s conflict and insight manifests organically through characters suffering a fatalistic, slightly dark humoured, existential crisis as a result of change. (though it’s worth noting that director Au was involved in both films, having worked on Trivisa before 10 Years.)

If nothing else, Trivisa represents a shift away from the many duds that have plagued Hong Kong’s film industry over the past few years. We speak to the three directors about how they managed to tie their stories together, link them to Buddhist teachings, and of their experiences being mentored by To and director Yau Nai-hoi, who acted as producers on the film.

What was it like working together, and with directors Johnnie To and Yau Nai-hoi?
Wong:
In the beginning we weren’t certain that we were going to combine the stories.
Au:  Our main objective was to focus on our own individual storylines. After we finished filming we still didn’t know that it would be edited into one cohesive film. We actually thought about telling each story one after another, but at the end it seemed to work best when the narrative was intercut.
Wong: The whole process was really about feeling things out as we went along. Each of us was left to interpret the topic To gave us. But the real challenge was to make sure that our characters would have enough personality so that the audience could believe that they would even want to collaborate with each other. If these crooks were so great, why would they choose to seek each other out instead of committing their own crimes?
Hui: As we were filming, Yau and To gave us a lot of advice on how to make sure we could connect each others’ characters through plausible scenarios and dialogue. Since we were shooting separately, there were logistical elements that needed to be accounted for, so the story doesn’t have strange gaps.

Was it difficult trying to put a film together in this manner?
Au: Normally, we work independently with one script that’s the foundation for the film. This time, the most interesting part of the process was how we had to accommodate each other. We couldn’t change something in our own film without thinking how it would affect the other stories.

Were Buddhist teachings always going to be part of the theme of this film?
Wong: The film’s relationship with Buddhism didn’t come about until we actually finished the script and were halfway through filming. It was Yau who noticed a connective thread between our stories that relates to the Buddhist teachings of the ‘three poisons’. We then thought about how this philosophy could be better incorporated into our films.

Would it be fair to say that this film isn’t actually a crime thriller?
Wong:
 At the beginning, [Johnnie] To’s intention was for us to develop an engrossing character drama. Obviously there is going to be action since the film revolves around cops and robbers, but it’s not the focal point. In fact, even during the action scenes, you’ll notice the purpose is to give insight into the character more than the actual thrill of the moment.
Au:  When we first presented the idea that the three criminals would actually get together to commit a big heist, To hinted his disapproval. That’s when we realised what the focus of the film should be.

Were you hoping this film would send some kind of social message since it’s set during the handover?
Wong: I suppose if you changed the occupation of the three leads the story would still make sense.
Au: It wasn’t our original intent, but the fact is these characters existed during that time period. I think the social message came out organically. We didn’t have to force it because it was already part of the backdrop of the story.

We also felt that film was a commentary about how Hong Kong’s film industry needs to stop living in the past and evolve. Would that be a fair observation?
Hui:
Let me put it this way – when we approached this film, we weren’t thinking that the story needed to be constrained by any particular type of genre. This film is character-based, not genre-based. That way, we were able to capture a more unique story.
Wong: [Johnnie] To taught us that if you can develop a character with enough dimension and depth, the story will naturally appear and have life. But you’re right, you can’t only rely on past filmmaking formulas.


Did all of you have to agree that the criminals would all ultimately fail?
Wong: We went back to the basic themes of telling a fable. If you’re a bad person and you do bad things, you won’t have a happy ending. You’ll ultimately meet your doom either physically or spiritually. That is your destiny.
Au: I was thinking about the desire that drives my character Yik Kwok-foon. Can people actually control desires that begin to torment them?

Did the film come out the way you envisioned?
Hui: There are lots of regrets still. As a creative person, if you don’t have a deadline, you would just keeping working on the same project.

Did the three of you discuss who had the best film?
Hui: 
Not to sound diplomatic, but I think we all put a great effort forward, especially when it came to casting. I don’t think you’ll notice any miscast characters.
Wong: We chose a lot of actors that were much more present during the 90s. You’ll notice faces you haven’t seen in a while, so you get this nostalgic type of feeling that matches that time period.

The movie leaves audiences with a big ‘What if?’. What if these criminals had worked together and pulled off the greatest heist Hong Kong has ever seen?
Hui: We’re glad it left you with that question. I think it’s better to give that space to the audience to wonder about.
Au: It’s like wondering what would have happened if the handover never happened...

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