Clement Cheng is excited.
Part of his excitement is due to his second film Merry-Go-Round, which he co-directed with Yan Yan Mak, being selected as the showpiece of San Francisco’s inaugural Hong Kong Cinema festival. He’s also excited to be in attendance at the event and back in the city where parts of Merry-Go-Round were shot. No doubt Clement is also still buzzing over the success of his debut, Gallants. Co-directed by Derek Kwok, Gallants blended the spirit of classic kung fu films with comedy and a touch of sentimentality. Under Andy Lau’s production company Focus Films, the film became a hit with both Hong Kong critics and audiences alike. This culminated in several awards at the Hong Film Awards including beating out Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 2 among others for the prestigious Best Film prize.
Everyone would have expected Clement’s sophomore effort to be Gallants 2 or some other martial arts project, but Merry-Go-Round is about as far as you can get from comedic chop-socky. The film is a quiet drama about two women of different generations who return to Hong Kong with the hope of changing their lives. Eva (Nora Miao) is a Chinese herbalist who has returned to rescue the family’s herbal store from being sold by her great-nephew Yu (Lawrence Chou) who has inherited the business, but wants nothing of it. In fact, he wants to sell the place so he can pay a lifetime debt that he feels he owes to widow Yan (Denise Ho). The younger woman, Nam (Ella Koon) arrives is Hong Kong to pursue a man with whom she had developed online. Not a fist of fury in sight.
I interviewed Clement Cheng at the New People Cinema, location of the Hong Kong Cinema festival. I want to thank the San Francisco Film Society for the interview opportunity, Sylvia Rorem from achillesgirl in actionland blog for assisting with some follow-up questions, Richard Geddes from Terracotta Distribution for general assistance, and Clement himself for taking time, even after the event, for the interview.
There’s a marked change in tone and themes between Gallants and Merry-Go-Round, so I was wondering how you picked the project? Was it something new or something you wanted to do with someone else?
No, it was something I didn’t want to do (laughs)
(laughs) Oh, that’s interesting.
You see what happened was, um, during the post-production of Gallants and then my partner Yan Yan approached me and said, “There’s this thing called Tung Wah (Tung Wah Group of Hospitals), which is a charity group in Hong Kong and they’re having their 140th Anniversary and they want to make a movie.” And I’m like, “Screw that!” (laughs) I figured it’s going to be so boring, right? You know, a charity with 140 years of history? You know, that’s some boring shit. Then, two weeks later, she’s calling and she goes, “Ah, come on. You want to try? Let’s talk about it. I need help.” And then I’m like, “I’ll help you develop the ideas, but I don’t want to be involved.” Because, the project seemed stupid, right? Or so, I thought.
And then what happened was, the second time that we met, she brought me two thousand pages of research on that charity group. They have schools, hospitals, and things like that. And, you know, it’s pretty boring during post-production because you’re always waiting for the computer to render, waiting for things to come in. So, I read that in two days and there’s one particular thing called the “coffin home” that really attracted me. It caught my eye and I thought they only existed back in the day. From my point of view, I heard about the coffin home during the movies in the ‘80s when they had the Chinese vampire movies. Those are the coffin homes, right?
So, I thought, “No way! They still exist?” So, the next day I called them up and asked if I could come by and take a look. And everything got started there. I thought it was an interesting point to start the story.
So, you actually called the Association and they took you to one of them?
Yes, yes, yes.
Oh, wow. Is that the one that was in the film, too?
Yes, this is the only one.
Oh, there’s only one in the country now?
In Hong Kong. Yeah. So, I have no idea if there’s still an operating coffin home anywhere. That’s how the story got started.
But, it’s not just like a mortuary here? It’s different, right?
It’s very different. It’s like a mid-way house. And it’s not like a funeral home nor is it like a cemetery. So, every coffin there has somewhere to go, but they’re just stuck there. You saw the film, right?
So, the oldest coffin in that coffin home is 110 years old. And, nobody has claimed it. There’s maybe like 10 or 20 of them stuck there ever since the ‘50s. So what happened was there were many many Chinese people who went abroad and brought to work and they died. Nowhere else in the world but the Chinese people – well, I’m not sure about Koreans- they want to be buried in their hometowns and so what happened was that they took the bodies and then shipped them back to Hong Kong and hoped to eventually ship them back to China, to their hometowns. But, what happened during the ‘50s and ‘60s was the Cultural Revolution and China totally shut down the country and they were stuck there. So, their sons and daughters paid for them [to be shipped back]. But, their third generation might have been scattered around the world and they might not know [about the coffins], so they’d be stuck in the coffin homes. And, that’s what gave me the idea for the story.
Merry-Go-Round is your second film and very different from your first and both were co-directed by you, so how was the process of creating Merry-Go-Round different from that of Gallants?
It was different and that’s the thing with two directors. With Gallants, me and Derek (Derek Kwok, co-director of Gallants), we go way back. We’ve been working together for so long and we know what we wanted and didn’t have to tell each other what we were doing, we just did it. We had to do the movie in such a short time, like 18 days, so we had to constantly shoot simultaneously with two cameras and one crew split in half. We didn’t have time to talk over it. But it turned out OK, because we knew what the other guy wanted and we trusted each other.
But Merry-Go-Round was kind of different, because we had two cameras, but the way that she works and I work is different. And what happened was we would be shooting one scene at the same time with the same characters and two cameras. We didn’t talk about it, but she automatically went to the female actors and then all of the male actors came to me and we’d never communicate on set.
It’s like a school dance!
Yeah, kind of (laughs). And, what I did was always talk to the guys on set, especially Teddy Robin, “What are you doing? What are you thinking right now?” Then, I’d never talk to Ella (Ella Koon, lead actress of Merry-Go-Round) and that’s the thing, vice-versa. It turned out to be a style and the way that we’d work together.
Does the title Merry-Go-Round have any particular significance?
It’s very straightforward. The main character in the movie is named Merry. She’s based one someone we came across the first we came to San Francisco. There’s this 94 year old lady that we met at a ballroom dancing event and she was so gorgeous. She spoke a little Chinese and that was her name, so we just took it. It’s a really unusual name, especially for a Chinese person. After we finished the script, we thought, “Hey, Merry-Go-Round, it’s like the circle of life.”
Why did you decide to shoot in San Francisco?
Well, it’s obvious. San Francisco has a high population of Chinese. From my research on the coffin home, a lot of bodies that stayed there were from San Francisco and Vancouver. When you go to Chinatown in San Francisco, it’s like time has never changed since the ‘40s and ‘50s. People don’t like that anymore in China and Hong Kong. It’s kind of frozen in that time period, so I thought that was interesting.
When I came here for research, I went to this place called the The Chinese American Citizens Alliance and the funny thing is that nobody speaks Chinese there. The people who volunteer there are from, like, Denver, Hawaii, different parts of the states, and they all came here because they don’t know any Chinese people and they’re retired, so they just want to find their roots and, to them, within the states, San Francisco is like their roots. I thought that was interesting because that’s not where they’re from, but that’s where the Chinese started in America. And it’s where the fortune cookie was invented! (laughs)
Music has played an important role in your films, moreso Merry-Go-Round than Gallants, how did you use decide how music would be used in them?
Gallants is very obvious. Spaghetti Western and the ‘70s, that was inspired by Bruce Lee. Merry-Go-Round was very different. I didn’t know what music I should use until I finished writing the script. I came across this band called Ketchup and they’re lyrics are in English, but they’re all fucked up (laughs) They’re not right! But, the music is pretty cool. So, I thought that this is exactly what Hong Kong is all about. It’s a colonial place in which people speak English, but they don’t really know why or how. So, I thought this is what I’m looking for.
In both of your films, there’s an element of nostalgia. I was wondering where that came from become you seem so young.
(laughs) Well, there are two aspects. The first is time. Time is like a magician. A worthless piece of newspaper today, if you give it one hundred years, it can become a treasure. People tend to forget about bad things through time. If you break up with a girl who you hate, you might feel hysterical at the time, but then after years, you’ll forget about it. I think that’s amazing because you’ll only remember the good stuff no matter how bad the relationship was.
I moved to Canada at a very young age and that gave me a lot of fantasies about Hong Kong, where I grew up. When I went back, Hong Kong was a lot better than I had imagined than real life (laughs). But, I noticed things which people in Hong Kong didn’t notice. When you’re away from a place for a long time, you get a prettier picture. That’s why I use nostalgia in my films.
You must have produced films on your own, student films and what not, but your first two full-length features have been collaborations. Do you like the collaboration process now that you’ve had both experiences?
Well, it’s not by choice. Every film is different. Every film has its own destiny. As you go along, you make a series of decisions which brings you to the end of the shooting, the editing, the production and then that’s its life, its own life, and you can’t tamper with it anymore. No matter how bad or hard you want it to be different. It’s like your son or daughter. You might want them to be more polite, more healthy, or more funny, but it doesn’t work that way because you’ve done your part. It has its own course because of all the different people involved. I don’t think it’s a huge difference, but I think it’s an interesting experience that takes on its own life.
So, basically you’re saying that you can influence a film, but you can’t exactly control it?
No, you can’t control it. I mean, the more you want to control it, the shittier it is. That’s what I think. I mean, it’s kind of an organic process because it involves so many people during the different stages of production.
So, earlier we talked about how you started the story from observing the coffin house. From there, how did you develop the script? From a thematic or narrative standpoint?
The absolute truth is that I wrote the script in four days, and I didn’t really have any ideas [of where to take the story]. I just thought of all the material I’ve read, what I was thinking back then was to keep writing. I didn’t have a conscious idea about what to do with the coffin house, I just let things flow.
It was just an organic process, then?
Yes, right. I remember vividly that it was December 19th when someone called me and said, “Hey, we’re waiting for you!” and I said, “What are you waiting for? To do what?”, “To start!” And I’m thinking, “Fuck! No way!” So, the first day of shooting should have been the 27th and that was the 19th, (laughs) and there was no script so I dropped everything and started writing for four days and it came out.
How about the production time? Gallants took you eighteen days to complete, but in Merry-Go-Round you shot in two locations, how long did it take overall?
Three. There was Hong Kong, San Francisco and China. The total number of shooting days was twenty-five.
That’s still pretty short.
But a lot better than Gallants, because there aren’t any fighting scenes (laughs). Merry-Go-Round is just all dialog. It was a lot easier for me compared to Gallants.
So, there was less action direction.
There’s no action. Well, there’s one action scene with Nora Miao (laughs). That took like a half an hour to shoot.
Speaking of Nora Miao, it seems that in your two films, you’re trying to revive these older Hong Kong stars from the past. Was that a conscious decision or did they approach you?
It was a conscious decision because I’m a fairly new director. Younger actors are not as mature, as actors, not people. They don’t really want to give it their all and do they trust you completely? Not often. But, with actors that are older or not in the scene anymore, when you give them the chance and talk to them sincerely, they will give their all to you if they trust you. Many people say that I’m helping these older generation actors come back and perform. But, the truth is that it’s the other way around. They’re giving me their experience and what I can’t offer, so it’s a conscious decision. Merry-Go-Round really is a love story, so I really wanted Teddy Robin to be in it. Except for the very first that he did, none of his films have been love stories.
The one’s I’ve seen him in, no.
His very first movie was a Singaporean movie in Mandarin, he was 16 years old. After that, none of his movies have been love stories and none were ones in which he was “the guy”, the one who gets the girl. I thought he did such a good job in Gallants that I wanted people who had never asked him to do a serious role will regret that, because I’m going to do one with him. I knew he could do it, and I think he delivered. Then, after that, I was thinking who’s going to be “the girl”? So, who’s the girl that nobody would think he’d ever get? It would be the girlfriend of Bruce Lee. (laughs) Nora was in almost every film of his. She was the lead actress, right? Nobody would think that would work. (laughs)
Nora plays an herbalist in the film. Why did you want an herbalist to be a character in the story?
Well, the herbalist symbolizes the past to modern China and Hong Kong. There is probably two or three thousand years of wisdom behind it, but people don’t like it because the medicine is bitter (laughs). I just thought it’s different. It’s harsh to swallow, but if you get to know it or if you try it, you’ll learn to like it and appreciate it.
So, does that parallel anything in your story or…
In general. I hate the fact that nowadays people yell at the younger generation. There’s a term called “post 80s”*; that’s so stupid. Every generation is the same to me; it’s just a cycle. Objectively, things are different which is why people have to do things differently. In Hong Kong, parents are always yelling at their kids. “You’re always in front of the computer for five or ten hours a day!” The only reason I think that they’re saying that is because they don’t know how to operate a computer and they’re afraid. This is typical in Chinese culture. Whatever they don’t know, they get angry at.
There is a similar theme in Gallants and Merry-Go-Round: no matter how young or old you are, you’re always facing problems. Problems come up no matter what. I just think you should do whatever you think is right and believe in yourself and that’s it. Don’t regret choices you make that you think are wrong because it’ll make you a different or better person if you look at them in the right way.
Do you think, looking at your films, that’s there’s an element of the importance of mentorship or guidance?
No, I don’t think that’s important. People think that’s important, especially Chinese people. What I’m trying to say with the two movies is that those things are not important at all.
So, have you already started working on a new project?
Yes, but I can’t talk about it just yet.
* Editor’s note: “post ’80s” refers to the generation of Chinese children born from 1980-1989 and, in terms of mannerisms and behavior, roughly the equivalent of “Generation Y” in the West.