PRODUCTION PERFECTIONIST: PHILIP LEE Image

PRODUCTION PERFECTIONIST: PHILIP LEE

By PA Epps and Joi Chan | May 6, 2005

How do the local authorities support their respective film industries, or not? ^ Truthfully, governments don’t do enough. An exception might be Korea. In the past few years I’ve done a lot of seminars there. The government provides certain platforms, meaning knowledge and infrastructure to Korean filmmakers. For example, they’ll enforce a policy where theatres have to play a certain number of Korean movies. And they’ll hold a lot of seminars and very good film festivals. The government sponsors many things to make the movie industry more prosperous.

Whereas in Hong Kong, the government has its difficulties. I’ve talked to a lot of government officials and in their point of view, the movie industry is only one of many sectors. Why should it get preferential treatment and not other industries? They think they should treat each one equally. But I believe there’s no other industry that can make Hong Kong so well known to the rest of the world. Sure, the movie industry is one of many but I don’t agree with the government in this case.

But from another point of view, it would be rather impractical if an industry had to rely so much on government support. I think governments can improve infrastructure and help with education or distribution. But, finally, it should be the job of the filmmakers themselves, whether they have the ability and creativity to make projects that are acceptable to audiences.

Regarding audiences, I did a survey recently. People in their twenties rarely like Hong Kong movies unless they’re very special. It’s mostly because they have so many expenses these days such as mobile phones, online games, etc. And since they don’t want to spend so much on movies, they appear to choose foreign movies more.

If you could give a constructive criticism of the Hong Kong film industry as a whole, what would you say? ^ I hope those who can afford to make movies in Hong Kong will be more daring in cultivating young people and new topics. Surely from a business point of view it’s not that easy. There were two local movies released earlier this year and they were both very commercial, but in fact they still didn’t work out.

To local filmmakers, being commercial means a great cast and grand scenes. But that formula just isn’t working. Instead of wasting money on just trying to be commercial, they should come up with better and different topics to attract audiences. Do better creatively. Maybe use new talent.

Part of the issue is limited resources, so we need to figure out how to make use of the resources we already have. The market is highly competitive obviously, but actually there is a question of leadership. I think in the near term, it isn’t going to be possible for Hong Kong to get back to the prosperity of twenty years ago.

But as an educator, my hope is that while teaching my students, I feed them well and let them digest useful knowledge. It might take three, five or even ten years for them to make it. You just have to keep giving them the tools and hope for the best.

Has the popularity and success of kung fu movies like “Crouching” somehow ‘typecast’ the Hong Kong-China film industry by not allowing for modern dramas or other genres to succeed? ^ Let’s put it this way. When we were making “Crouching,” we had this mindset to be innovative. Ang Lee had his own vision of the martial arts world. He wanted to expose that world to our eyes. He achieved that.

In “Hero,” Zhang Yimou wanted to espouse a ‘poetic and historical’ world to us. I think both he and Lee have the passion, ability and confidence to fulfill their visions — and their movies work. Actually, I don’t think they made these movies because they thought they would be successful.

Do filmmakers think the market can still accept such a genre after “Crouching” and “Hero”? I think so. The market — not necessarily the genre — determines whether a movie is good or no good and of course whether people accept it or not.

After “Crouching” came out, some foreign producer friends of mine came to Hong Kong and told me everybody was providing them with similar material. The main thing is, they have to understand what works. Frankly, I don’t see a lot of filmmakers in Hong Kong who lead the trend. Possibly they don’t have the opportunity to, whereas in the west, there are more chances available.

I feel I’m in a fortunate position because I just went to Moscow for discussion about a production I’m working on called “Mongol,” which is a very powerful love story about Genghis Khan. We plan to use Mongolian language to shoot the movie. The point is we hope we’ll be able to reach audiences everywhere because we believe we have a good story and that technically we can execute it well. We’ll also have an excellent marketing campaign later.

Recently a friend asked if I wanted to make this movie “Mongol” like “Crouching”. I said ‘No’. With all our abilities, I think it would be hard for anybody to reach that level, but at least we’ll try to get close to it. Every time I make a new movie, it’s a new challenge to me. A new page, a new film.

To me a good story is the most important thing. Like when I was first reading the script for “Crouching,” I knew that it would get the best foreign movie award at the Oscars. Actually whether we got an award or not didn’t matter too much to us because during the production we were all so heavily immersed in the project.

Whether it’s the directors or other colleagues, we all put a lot of effort into it. The actors had a very strong baby, and the baby was the script. We made the baby bigger and stronger. Very often looking at Hong Kong movies, I can’t really see a lot of good scripts. There is so much to be done for the Hong Kong movie industry.

Regarding whether “Crouching” has affected the movie industry here, I think maybe it has in both good and bad ways. Any time we develop some good films they always bring inspiration. But sometimes the problem is when we have created something good, there is this assumption that we have to copy it and follow its structure for another one. It’s not necessarily true.

So, in general, the atmosphere in Hong Kong is relatively unhealthy? So cliquey and short sighted, aiming only at instant cash…? ^ Yes. But sometimes I understand why it’s this way. The truth is people have to make a living. They’ll just keep making fairly ordinary movies until they can’t make a living anymore and then it dies.

It’s been said that China’s CEPA (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) with Hong Kong could help the film industry here. To some extent it will, but in other ways it will cause it to die faster. For a while everybody was thinking we were going to see the China market opening up, so we needed to make more movies – and we did — but the quality was so bad that they couldn’t be released. Even audiences in China wouldn’t want to see them.

The filmmakers thought that as long as they had Hong Kong actors, audiences in the mainland would want see the movies. This is not the reality. There are actually only a handful of Hong Kong movies that have done well in the mainland.

I want to work with some of the new directors from mainland China. But recent experience has taught me to take extra precaution. Our mentality is so different. Some of them don’t think that after getting the trust and money from the investors that they have to do a good job. They might be thinking let’s get into bed together first, and then at a certain stage later on you have to pay.

At this point of my career I want to focus on creating film that is alternative and international.

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