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McDull creator Alice Mak on surviving Hong Kong and McDull: Rise of the Rice Cooker

The illustrator talks to Time Out about the latest McDull movie, life in our city and why she’s luckier than her famous creation

McDull: Rise of the Rice Cooker
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McDull: Rise of the Rice Cooker
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McDull is one of the few truly original Hong Kong icons. Even Bruce Lee, that other famous son of the Fragrant Harbour, was born in America and spent considerable time in the country of his birth. McDull, though, is Hong Kong through and through. He first appeared in the Ming Pao comic strip of his distant cousin, McMug, in the late ’80s before getting his own comic, in 1991, as part of the content for Yellow Bus, a children’s magazine dedicated to the work of his creators: writer Brian Tse and illustrator Alice Mak.

McDull’s defining characteristic has always been his painful mediocrity. Not particularly smart or talented in any way, he rose to popularity by virtue of being more slapstick than his cousin, whose humour was a tad more sophisticated. Essentially, McDull was the Laurel to McMug’s Hardy. Yet even if McDull is labelled dumb, his movies are anything but – Prince de la Bun ranked number 48 in our 100 Greatest Hong Kong Films poll. Their greatest strengths are their inherent Hong Kong-ness, evident in the many Cantonese puns and the jabs directed at everything from the government’s efforts to promote a unified ‘one-country’ culture or the many foibles of education in our SAR.

With the seventh McDull movie – McDull: Rise of the Rice Cooker – in cinemas now, we chat to Mak about her most popular creation and his continuing appeal 25 years on...

What were your inspirations for this giant monster movie?
The well-known ​Ultraman versus kaiju [giant monster] theme saves us a lot of explanation [laughs]. You can easily grasp the good people versus bad people story. Of course, McDull’s story kind of deviates from the norm. You’ll know what I mean once you see the film.

How involved do you get to be with each of the movies?
I’m always the image designer, mainly. Character­wise, this time, I primarily created McDull’s schoolmates, like the kid with broken tooth and the one who’s super tanned.

But we’re lucky in that we get a lot of help. For instance, Yeung Hok-tak helped create characters in the fishing village, where a lot of the movie is set, that are less privileged but charismatic. For example, there’s ​Ha Sou [Auntie Shrimp] and we found a waitress from a local ​cha chan teng who speaks with a ​heung ha accent, so we asked her to help out and do voiceover for us. But, ultimately, the design of the character is by Yeung and these characters wouldn’t be possible without his talent.

You’ve said McDull “wouldn’t survive” in Hong Kong if he were real. As such, he’s not a typical Hongkonger. So what’s his appeal?
It’s true that he wouldn’t survive here if he were real. It’s a question we keep asking: can McDull – who’s not smart, handsome or privileged, and comes from a single parent family ­– can he survive? Can he be happy? We’ve never given audience an absolute answer. But this time [the ending] is more complete because McDull really wins something and his perseverance allows him to do something he believes is right. Some think it’s a pessimistic ending but others will agree with McDull’s way of thinking.

It seems somewhat surprising that you’ve stayed in Hong Kong when your portrayal of society here is rather critical. How do you cope?
[Laughs] I’m not alone in thinking the city is this way, don’t you agree? There’re high real estate costs and rental rates. The city is overpopulated and full of pressures. It’s not an ideal place for McDull to live at all. Yet whenever he faces adversities, McDull has his own unique ways of battling them. As for me, I just get by.

So you’re pretty similar to McDull?
I’m luckier than McDull in the sense that not only my mum but many other people around me love me, including people who don’t even know me but who know McDull. They all know I’m really stupid, so they help me a lot. That’s why I’m luckier than McDull. But things like being stupid and feeling helpless while facing difficulties in life... I’m pretty much the same as McDull.

What was your original inspiration for McDull’s character?
I think we all have a McDull side to us. But I don’t see stupidity. I see kindness, purity and perseverance. That’s what I appreciate most about McDull in this movie. If you watch the movie, you’ll see that McDull doesn’t perceive ​kaiju the way we do. He cares about the ​kaiju a lot. He cares about how the ​kaiju is going to scratch its butt because its hands are so short, he wonders whether or not the ​kaiju likes to eat rice…

How do you feel when people call you a “sell out” for the commercialisation of McDull?
I think it’s very foolish to think that way. If you think that way, then aren’t the creators of Hello Kitty and Chibi­ Maruko all “sell outs” too?

Creative workers think in this way: I created a piece of work. I want more people to know about it and love it. Very few creative workers will simply hide away and restrict their creations to a small number of people. At least I’m not like that! If I like something, I will tell everyone about it and try to get others to share my passion. I’ll also support it by purchasing related products. Only this behaviour benefits the creative industries and allows them to survive. After all, this is a business driven society.

Has the continued success of McDull surprised you? Did you ever imagine in 2016 that the character and series would remain so popular?
Honestly, I’m not really surprised because our team consists of the most talented people in the city and people whom I respect a lot. For the new movie we’ve been lucky to be able to partner with a top 3D company, Yeung Hok-tak, and Wong Ping, who created the images of outer space for us. Just to name a few.

I want to express my gratitude towards the people who truly love McDull. Even though there’re many wonderful entertaining Hollywood movies you can enjoy, you still choose to go into the cinema and watch a ridiculous animation that features a pig trying to save the Earth. I truly value the child­like curiosity in our audience.

McDull: Rise of the Rice Cooker  In cinemas citywide now. In Cantonese with Chinese and English subtitles.

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