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Juno Mak on his new album, being selfish and rebooting Hong Kong action cinema

“I think religion’s a kind of insanity, to be honest. It’s basing your feelings on something that’s not scientific”

Calvin Sit

Singer, scriptwriter, actor and director Juno Mak is back. Fresh off exciting collaborations with Kay Tse and Karen Mok, he’s ready to release his first album in five years, Evil is a Point of View. Douglas Parkes gets serious with Hong Kong’s creative polymath
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With such a disastrous start to his music career, it’s not surprising Juno Mak has come to believe evil is a point of view. When he made his professional debut back in 2002 he was famously lampooned as just another Hong Kong rich kid – his father is the chairman of CCT Telecom – of dubious talent using daddy’s money to make a name for himself. Whether or not it was true, Mak was derided for having the talent of a camel and rumours circulated that cheering fans were in fact hired hands. When both the elder and junior Mak were arrested as part of a 2003 corruption case investigating the rigging of music awards and chart placings, the opprobrium intensified. Eventually, however, the case was withdrawn and Mak was forced to shrug off his supposed wrongdoings and reboot his career.

If there’s any lingering debate about Mak’s early work as a musician, there’s much less controversy about his more recent endeavours. Since ditching his Cantopop sound for something more innovative, he’s gained increasing critical acceptance. When Time Out Hong Kong questioned local indie acts about their favourite songs of 2015 last December, Supper Moment and Chochukmo both picked《誤늘》(Imperfection), Mak’s collaboration with Karen Mok, indicating significant peer credibility. Then there are his accomplishments in cinema – directing the well-received Chinese vampire flick Rigor Mortis and winning best actor awards around the world for his performance in Revenge: A Love Story.

No longer perceived in a critical light, Mak is ready to release his most ambitious music to date. A complex concept album raising questions about the fluidity of right and wrong, Evil is a Point of View demonstrates once again that Mak is one of Hong Kong’s most original artists. 

The new LP is a concept album. What’s the story and who are the characters?
It’s a very complicated story, very Zen. Basically, I wanted to write a love story about a monk and a nun. But the more I thought about it, the more curious I became. I wanted to know what happened to the pair before they became a monk and a nun. The woman, before she became a nun, was an underage prostitute and the monk was an executioner. 

And the title comes from where?
I wanted to explore the definition of evil. It’s easy to typecast someone as a villain or as evil, but what if you were in their shoes? Would you do the same? Are things always so black and white?

Are there any other themes you choose to focus on?
It’s a very pure kind of love story. It’s attached to religion, but I’m not saying religion is bad. 

Any specific religion, or just in general?
All kinds. I’ve seen different people become too involved in belief. I think it’s a kind of insanity, to be honest. Because you base your feelings, your faith, your hope on something that’s not scientific.

Does the story hint religion is a particular source of evil?
No, I think evil comes from humans. I’m neutral to all religions. Having a kind heart, that’s a kind of religion to me. When it comes to the story of this album, it’s about a monk falling in love at the wrong time, in the wrong place and the couple are being punished for it. But who says you as a human has a right to harm another human being because you’re a strong believer in a certain religion? 

When did you start to write the album? Your duet from last year with Kay Tse was titled Rashomon, another story about differing perspectives…
Timeline wise, I started both about the same time. But the story of the two works is extremely different.  

You’ve described your art as ‘nightmare portraits’, which sounds pretty pessimistic. Is there anything that led to that point of view?
I think it has to do with a lot of my personal experiences. I mean, I’ve never been fond of the sun. I’m very allergic to light, which is why I really enjoy making films because I get to play with the lighting. 

Do you work on creative fictions because you want to escape anything? 
What I create is what I feel’s exciting and interesting, that’s why I shifted towards that direction in the first place. I think the importance behind it is, let’s say we’re in a room that’s completely dark and you strike a match. That’s when it’s most powerful. Striking a match on a sunny beach wouldn’t have as much impact. I always have this ‘dark room’ theory in mind. 

Does the album’s title reflect a belief that there are no absolutes in the world?
Definitely. Another thing that inspired this album is that as we grow up, there’re millions of books to tell us that you have to be loving. Love is the most basic emotion among humans, but I’ve never read a book that teaches us how to love.

Have you come to any conclusion about what evil is?
This album isn’t a solution or an answer. I’m just raising a question and I’m sure the audience has their own imagination. Personally, I’ve never really believed in evil. 

Do you believe in good then?
Yes, I believe in good. I don’t think you’re born a serial killer. You must have been through something. It could be something very minor. I don’t want to typecast and talk about the abusive mother who hits you and then you hurt animals and then sooner or later you start to become a serial killer. I never believe in something as stereotypical as that. I think that’s very cliché.

So where are you on the good-to-bad scale?
I’m totally grey-ish.  

Like most people?
Yeah, you could say that. But I admit I can be bad, which is different from many people. I’m a selfish person, I admit that. Being a director, you have to be very demanding regarding dialogue and lighting or even the button on a shirt. You have to be very controlling, kind of a control freak. Generally, though, I’m just neutral to a lot of things. 

You’re working with the streaming platform Moov on the release of this album. Can you tell us what that will offer listeners?
This album is different from other albums in that it relies very heavily on its setting and story. We released three songs at the start, then in the second phrase we released another three songs. In the music industry it’s about singles. Throw one to the radio station, they play it and then you throw another one and they play that too. Releasing three new songs at a time is something I’ve never done before and it’s my first time collaborating this closely with another organisation. Every time I do something I want to explore as much as possible about the project. And for the first three songs, I did some commentary about the story’s background, like who the characters are. I didn’t reveal everything, though. It wouldn’t be fun if I told you the ending.  

What about streaming in general? Are you a fan or more of a physical media vinyl junkie?
I’m kind of old school regarding that matter. I’ve never really enjoyed downloading things. I grew up reading books on paper and I can’t stand reading on a tablet. I enjoy owning solid things. I really enjoy going to HMV, that’s kind of like my supermarket.

You ask a lot of questions in your albums, so what are the answers you’re trying to find?
[Pauses] I think there’re a lot of misunderstandings in the world. In this album, what I want to discuss is that we might not be in the right place and the right time when we fall in love, but that’s not something you can arrange and is it really so serious that someone deserves to be punished by death?

Your collaboration with Karen Mok on the song Imperfection last year was extremely popular. How did it come about?
Basically, I hate to repeat myself, that’s how that song came about. I never really listen to the demos provided by big companies. I prefer custom-made melodies that have something of a scent of me. I approached a young composer and told him what I wanted to do technically and I briefed him about the story and about the relationship between the characters. This was all before I contacted Karen.

Was it easy to convince her to sing with you?
Me and Karen met many years ago and we talked about collaborating but it just never happened. I called her – I remember it was late at night, probably very early in the morning – and didn’t tell her any technical issues regarding the demo – she never even heard it. I told her about her role, how I foresaw the project. In my mind, Karen has been doing a lot of Mandarin songs. I think with her originally being a Cantonese singer, singing in Cantonese would be something refreshing for the audience. I couldn’t guarantee that she’d agree to what I was suggesting, so I was quite grateful she came onboard. When I explained it more fully, she said, ‘wow, I’ve never done that before. It’s your album, are you sure you want me to sing most of melodies?’ 

How did you decide on that lopsided division of vocals?
Most of my work is very experimental. For me, as an artist and creator, it’s always been an experiment. Of course, success and failure depends on your definition... With Karen’s song, I was thinking about the meaning of duets. It’s very rare you’d ever feature another artist on a song of yours that much and show so little of yourself. I think I learned from being a director [on Rigor Mortis] about the need to step back. Most duets are split evenly – you sing 50, I sing 50 and we blend together and then it’s the end, right? That’s why I questioned what happens when I only sing 20 percent of the song and someone else is featured on the remaining 80 percent. How would that work? It was an experiment I really liked.

Moving away from music, your new film is titled Sons of the Neon Lights. Where’s that at right now?
At the moment it’s under censorship because we have partners from China and partners from the States. The hopping vampire genre featured in Rigor Mortis was a very traditional Hong Kong thing. Now I want to hop around genres, so I jumped on this tale of cops and robbers. At the same time, I want to give the genre a new definition. Contract killers or undercover cops – they’re roles audiences are quite familiar with. What I want to do is flip them and give them a new meaning.

Does this mean a deconstructed A Better Tomorrow or Infernal Affairs?
I never really provide any references for what I want to do. I just go do it. I just want everything to be original, and unaffected by other films I watch. When I’m shooting a film I never go and see a film during production because I don’t want to be influenced by it.  

When do you hope to start shooting? 
I guess end of this year or early next year. I need the weather to be colder. It’s set in Hong Kong, a quite surreal version that’s snowing. Obviously we can’t shoot now because I can’t imagine an actor wearing 10 layers of clothing without sweating when they’re walking in the streets. That would be a waste of time. Hopefully we can start when the weather gets colder.

Any regrets at this stage?
Regrets? Never regret. It’s a fine line, regrets turning into a grudge. There are good times and bad times, but I see them all as things that shape who I am today.  

Evil is a Point of View Exact album release date to be confirmed. Expected late June. Visit moov.hk to hear the already released material.

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