Q&A: Tsui Hark

The Hong Kong cinema veteran talks about his latest, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Tsui Hark, director of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Tsui Hark, director of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

He was one of the founding fathers of Hong Kong's fertile New Wave in the '80s, responsible for infusing a sometimes goofy, always go-for-broke energy into the country's genre filmmaking. In the '90s, his Once Upon a Time in China series jump-started a revival of wuxia movies (stories that mix folklore, heroic derring-do and martial-arts mayhem) that continues to this day. Now, with his latest work, the legendary Tsui Hark is poised to reintroduce viewers to his sui generis brand of imaginative cinema. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame pits the popular Chinese pulp-lit character (played by Andy Lau) against 7th-century political conspirators on the eve of Empress Wu's inauguration, and marks a return to the fantastic, frenetic style that characterized Tsui's earlier groundbreaking work. TONY spoke to the 61-year-old producer-director last July after he'd presented the film at the New York Asian Film Festival.

You first got the idea to make a film about the character of Detective Dee back in the '80s, correct?
It goes back a little further than that, actually. I'd first head about the real Detective Dee—whose name was Di Renjie—back then; he was a real official from that period, an imprisoned judge who eventually became a consort to the Empress Wu before her own dynasty [known as the Zhao Dynasty] and a successful prime minister. In the 19th century, Di was turned into a folk hero thanks to a series of adventure books, which are still being written by different authors. He's been around for a while.
But originally, my interest was in looking at the time period itself, the Tang Dynasty [A.D. 618--907]. It's probably the single most interesting period of Chinese history, as there was a huge influx of Western influences threading its way into a very traditional Asian culture; it was a remarkably modern time for the country, very liberal and free-thinking. Compared to various other parts of the country's past, it's like a totally different world altogether!
I'd made films that were set in almost every past dynasty, up to the end of the Qing Dynasty for the Once Upon a Time in China movies—but I'd never done anything that takes place during the Tang. Then, about ten years ago, I'd remembered Renjie and I thought, He's the key. I've been looking for an excuse to do a movie against the background of the Tang...and I've finally found it.

What made you think of Andy Lau for the part?
I'd always imagined Dee as a modern person who was trapped in the past, as opposed to a more traditional, classic hero. Andy has done some costume-dramas—he's great in Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers—but he's actually played more contemporary heroes, so he was the first person I thought of; I knew he'd play Dee as sort of a man out of time, as opposed to of his time. The first thing I said to him was, "Everybody is going to compare your role in this to your Flying Daggers part—so let's try something different. Try playing Dee as funny, but serious." Which initially confused him to no end, of course. "How do you expect me to do both of those things at the same time, exactly?" [Laughs] He understood that Dee was a man of intellect and action, and that he shouldn't be treated like typical wuxia hero so much as a Chinese Sherlock Holmes.

Since you brought up House of Flying Daggers...when all of these mainstream Chinese filmmakers started embracing wuxia films again, did you feel like your work had influenced these blockbusters? Or that people were simply poaching on your territory?
Neither, really; the genre is much bigger than my work alone. When I came back to Hong Kong in 1976, after living in New York City for a few years, the first job I got was to shoot a wuxia series for TV. People didn't consider those stories very sophisticated back then, so a lot of young directors were hired to work on these small-budget martial-arts films. Think of the way that people thought about science-fiction movies before Star Wars came out: that's how most audiences thought of wuxia stories back then. There were a number of us who were lucky enough to learn how to make movies by doing these types of films, since there was no pressure to make everything perfect and you could experiment; at the same time, we infused all this energy into the genre because we were young and enthusiastic about getting to make any kind of movie at all!
But once I made a few of these, I started to get recognized a bit in the industry; I was thought of as a "wuxia director," even when I made other types of movies. I was stuck within that genre for years. Later, when it became an acceptable enough genre for big directors, I felt like, great, people have finally recognized that these films really are good. I'd had my turn, let them have their turn at least once. Or turns, in some case; a few directors keep going back for more. [Laughs]

You first feature film was a mystery, right?
Yes, The Butterfly Mystery (1979)—and that's the last traditional mystery I've had the chance to do until now. It's odd you bring this up, because recently I've noticed that the character in that first film actually has a lot of similarities to Detective Dee. I was never really happy with how that first movie turned out, so I think my subconscious may have been telling me, Make another mystery and fix all those things you didn't get right the first time around. These things go in cycles, don't they? It only took me 31 years to do another one!

There's a fairly equal amount of old-school stunt work and computer-generated effects here; was there a conscious effort on your part to strike a balance between the two?
For what we wanted to do, we needed to use both. We just tried to use everything at our disposal to tell a great story. Trying to show the destruction of a 20-story Buddha statue without using any computer-generated effects would make things look a little cheap; doing a fight sequence without using real people fighting looks pretty fake. They're just tools. You have to know how to use them—and when not to use them.

You just received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New York Asian Film Festival; what do you think of when you look back on that "Golden Age" now?
It was a period when you could take chances with moviemaking and all these markets opened up for the industry, which allowed us to reach a bigger audience. Suddenly, Hong Kong movies became a big deal in other parts of the world, and that allowed us to make the kind of movies we wanted to make. After 1997, things got a lot tougher, so filmmakers scattered to the four winds: Some of us went to the mainland, some of us went to Taiwan, and others went to Hollywood and Europe to make films. But now, things have settled a little bit, and filmmakers like John Woo have come back and are helping to build the industry back up again. I feel like the potential for another wave is starting to come around again. It's very encouraging. [Pause] As for the award, people usually get those types of things when their careers are over, right? I can't retire yet, I have too much to do!

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Read our review of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

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