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Archive - 11th Five Flavours Film Festival

Nansun Shi: Young Hong Kong Filmmakers Are Interested in Local Subjects

Producer Nansun Shi, whose credits include John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow" and Ann Hui's "A Simple Life", talks about her remarkable career and the evolution undergone by Hong Kong film industry from the 1970s until today.

Nansun Shi, photo courtesy of Teo Keng Beng

Emilia Skiba, Five Flavours: Your education is not related to films. How did you start working in the film industry?

Nansun Shi: A lot of things happened back in life. I finished my studies because parents in Asia expected us to be a doctor or a lawyer. I did statistics and computer science to please my family. When I went back home, to work in Hong Kong, I knew it was not what I wanted to do. It was 1975 and people working with computers spent their time in a big room with air-condition, alone with just machines. It doesn't really fit my character. I left Hong Kong for eight years and when I got back I wanted to understand the society faster so I joined a public relations company which had contacts all over Hong Kong. I thought that would make me understand the society faster. It was in 1976 or 1977 when there was Miss Universe organised in Hong Kong which was a very big deal at that time. Somebody wanted to make a TV programme, called The Diary of Miss Universe, about how the contestants spent their time and they were looking for someone to live with the girls and follow them everyday to make a half an hour documentary every evening. And someone somewhere heard that I just got back from overseas and spoke languages. I said I'd never done television before but they thought it was fine since I was open to do my best. This is how I became a TV host. It was also the time of the satellite TV meaning that things like Eurovision contest needed live simultaneous translation and that was my another job that followed. I was sitting watching the programme live and I was explaining it in Chinese. Eventually someone asked me to join the TV station which I did for a few years. It was in 1978 and '79 Hong Kong experienced what now we know as Hong Kong New Wave. About twenty-thirty directors made their first features over these just two years. So then again someone asked me "Oh, why don't you come make films?" and again by accident I joined the company called Cinema City. I was very lucky because the company soon became very successful and I gained experience very fast.

What was a general atmosphere in the Hong Kong film industry at that moment?

It was the time of new wave, nouvelle vague, when new directors emerged. But at the end of the 70s and the beginning of 80s there were new topics that emerged. There were refugees from Vietnam, class divisions that emerged after the war, but also whole new local culture that popularised television very much and trends like Canto-pop. People wanted to watch films about ourselves and this is what Cinema City did. We were very proud of our culture, we wanted to watch films about local people and listen to Cantonese songs. The industry was focused on this local culture.

I assume that the industry was very inclusive?

It was. But it's always been like this and still is. Because Hong Kong is very small. Actually there is not enough talent and that's why there are people from Taiwan or Malaysia working in the Hong Kong film industry – Sylvia Chang, Michelle Yeoh, Brigitte Lin. They would speak different dialect but then we'd dub the film.

Sylvia Chang (The Secret, 1979) © Hong Kong Film Archive, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

You have a remarkable career in the film industry. It spans almost four decades. How the industry changed over these years from your perspective?

From the early 80s until early 90s Hong Kong films were doing very well. It was when Hong Kong production were discovered internationally, too, at film festivals. But it was also the time when tapes became popular and it created a demand for more content. By the way, making a movie was not as simple as it is now, though. Now you can make a movie even with your phone. But Hong Kong movies started being showcased around the world in the 80s, including at festivals like Berlinale and my first film was here in 1982. But the 80s saw Hong Kong movies being available on tapes everywhere – you could see a whole section of HK titles in shops on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and on Champs-Elysées in Paris.

Were they different films to what was popular locally in Hong Kong?

No, the same titles. Films from big directors like Tsui Hark or Ann Hui, with stars like Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung. But of course there were small sections with very arthouse films. But first of all distributors would be looking for cinema that was entertaining and would be welcome by a general audience. I'd say this is what gave Hong Kong films a big, faithful following worldwide. But then in the 90s Hong Kong cinema became a victim of its own success. People started making movies which were not good. But still at the time we were making about 300 films per year, which is a lot for such a small place. It's difficult to build your audience but it's very easy to lose it. We started losing the audience very quickly because the productions were not so good anymore. We lost the ground for a while, there were too many movies and too many bad movies. Also people started migrating to the US, Canada, Australia and so did the film industry professionals. There was a lot of concern about future of Hong Kong cinema. But then the event known as Handover to China happened, too. A lot of us started to make movies in China. At first there was no market, no audience. It was, let's say, archaic also in terms of infrastructure. For example they would have one old cinema with hundreds of seats but nobody goes to watch movies because everyone watches pirated tapes. First we went to China just to make films, not for the market because it simply didn't exist. For example, around 2002 the box office in Hong Kong was about 800 million dollars and it was the same for China – which is so much bigger in terms of population. We started making films in China simply because of the natural resources. My first film there was actually in 1992 and it was when there was no financial resources there but there were resources. We wanted to shoot in the desert, there was a desert. We wanted to shoot in a palace, there's a real palace. The reforms in the Chinese film industry started only about 2001-2002. Before there were only state-owned studios, the quota of only about a hundred of films to be made, no real money. The studios made money by selling a film copy to the cinema. There was no rental system, physical copies were just sold to the cinemas and that included copyrights. So until you have this physical copy you have copyrights and you can screen it as many times as you want.

Summer Snow, dir. Ann Hui (1995)

What happened then in 2001?

The government wanted to stimulate the industry, they knew it was very backwards and wanted to make it more commercial. First, the rule that a coproduction can be made only with state studios was lifted, now you can make it with any studio. Secondly, the cinemas no longer had to be owned by the government and new cinemas were built, including multiplexes. Also the video rental system allowed new players from the outside. That brought new expertise – how to run this new-style cinema or distribution chain. That was a huge change for basically whole world because anyone was allowed to make a coproduction with China. And from 2003 until last year, Chinese box office grew by a double digit every year, it was crazy. Except for 2015-16 when it slowed down, when there was a single digit, I think it was 3.7%. There were about 2000 screens in 2003 and it was last year that this number was already higher than 40 thousands. And for many years the number of films was just a hundred and now in some years it's more than 700. It's a very prosperous period now. Many Hong Kong professionals went to work in China. But even if there was a slump in Hong Kong cinema in the mid-90s, it's been a few last years that I can see many new young directors making films about subjects that are very Hong Kong and they are doing very well. I don't think it will get back to the status from the 80s, with 300 films. It was not normal anyway. It was the moment when China and Taiwan made few films so Hong Kong could emerge. But now you cannot reverse history when China already grew so much and will be growing.

So how would you describe the current identity of Hong Kong cinema?

This very good phenomenon of new young filmmakers making films about very local, very Hong Kong subjects has become visible in the last few years. And these films are doing very well.

Would you say "Ten Years" is an example?

I don't think "Ten Years" is a very case. It was not really a well made movie. It was a political statement. Actually, there was a politician, obviously a conservative, who started saying that it was such an awful film. It was when people started noticing it. Otherwise people wouldn't see it, it would disappear. In a way it was a great promotion. But I'm talking about films like Juno Mak's "Rigor Mortis", Adrian Kwan's "Little Big Master" or Adam Wong's "She Remembers, He Forgets". They were very good and commercially successful. But at the Golden Horses in 2016 we had also a big success. Wong Chun was awarded the Best New Director for his "Mad World" and both actresses from Derek Tsang's "SoulMate" were together named the Best Leading Actress. And they are both very young directors.

Soul Mate, dir. Derek Tsang (2016)

You mentioned technology. How did these changes influenced the way you work as a producer?

The digital era changed so much. And it's been constantly changing. But there are conveniences and inconveniences of it. You no longer need to worry how much negative you have but with the digital sometimes you have just too many takes to deal with later. The sound production has changed so much, too.

And the way directors work?

It depends on a person. Some directors are more technology oriented than others. Some make their films in a very traditional way while others like to experiment. Inevitably switching to the digital changed the picture and sound but things like storytelling or the way you set the shot have not. Some directors would experiment with 3D but others, like Ann Hui, would make very traditional films, like "A Simple Life" which was very straightforward in terms of filmmaking and there was not much technology involved.

In more general terms, what is a challenge for you as a producer?

Finding a good script is a real challenge. It's always a very important stage in any film and getting a good one is the most difficult part, it's my biggest challenge. The second most difficult part is weather because now it's uncontrollable. Before I could predict that when I want to shoot red leaves in New York, I'd have to plan it for the end of October or early November. Now you can't say when it would happen. Or when there will be some snow. Another challenge is tracking all the changing tastes. In China, for example, it's changing rapidly. When you're making a big production, you're preparing it for six months. Then you shoot another four months what already gives ten months. A post-production takes a year. In this way the film comes out two years later. You don't know if the story is going to work in two years.

Is it a challenge also in case of distribution?

Well, now everybody is so China-centred. Even if they say they care about the outside, they don't enough. Its box office is so big so it becomes important to make it work in China. Before Hong Kong industry was so small that we could support our own films, we had enough resources. Then we needed to develop income from outside markets. But now the income from China can be so big that you keep working there. It became everyone's top priority. Distributors stopped caring about developing proper relationships with markets like Singapore or Malaysia because it's the Chinese market what comes fist.

I'm curious how do you choose the films you are involved in?

First of all, I need to like the idea and the script. For example I don't do horrors, I don't enjoy watching them. I do them only as my homework. So I don't think I could produce a horror film. It has to be something I personally like and I think I can contribute to. I did a lot of action movies and because of my background people still would come to me with such ideas and I still do them. But now I also like developing small ideas, small films with young directors because I think that a lot of people helped me during my own career. Now with my resources, network and experience I can do something faster than other people. It's more difficult to work with young directors than with the experienced ones who already know what they want. But I can contribute to their ideas and experience also by making them find out for themselves what they want to do as directors.

Nansun Shi

Celebrated Hong Kong producer and co-funder of Distribution Workshop which represents titles such as Yuen Woo-ping's "The Thousand Faces of Dunjia" and Ann Hui's "A Simple Life" and "Our Time Will Come", both screened at the 11th Five Flavours. Her credits include "A Better Tomorrow" (dir. John Woo), "Infernal Affairs" (dir. Alan Mak, Lau Wai-keung), "A Simple Life" (dir. Ann Hui), "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" (dir. Tsui Hark). In 2017 she was awarded with Berlinale Camera which honours film personalities with extraordinary achievments in the film industry.

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