CANNES Q&A: 'Wu Xia' Director Peter Ho-sun Chan
Peter Ho-sun Chan is one of the first directors from Hong Kong to set his gaze on the Chinese market, one of the blessed few who holds a place in China’s “Hundred Million Club,” and the most valuable filmmaker in Hong Kong by consensus. As much a producing magnate as a blockbuster director, Chan has established since the early 1990s a number of production and distribution outfits that have made their mark on Hong Kong cinema, from UFO (United Filmmakers Organization), Applause Pictures, to We Pictures, the rising powerhouse that made the award-sweeping hit Bodyguards and Assassins in 2009, and his latest directorial effort, Wu Xia, an eerie thriller about a murderous clan set in the martial arts world that is also his first entry on the Cannes official selection. In between flying across Beijing, Bangkok, South Korea, and Hong Kong to finish the film’s postproduction in time for the festival, he talked to The Hollywood Reporter’s Karen Chu about his new take on the martial arts genre, and how he navigates the film industries in Hong Kong, Hollywood and China.
The Hollywood Reporter: It’s the first time one of your films has been chosen in the Cannes official selection. How are you feeling?
Peter Ho-sun Chan: I’m very excited. Cannes has always been a special place for martial arts films. The films I made in the past weren’t usually suitable for Cannes, and the films I’ve made in China in recent years were for all the New Year or Chinese New Year period, so the timing didn’t work. Wu Xia fits the time frame because it’s set to be a summer release. Then again, the reason for us to decide to launch Wu Xia in Cannes went back to all the way to 1975, when King Hu’s A Touch of Zen was selected for Cannes; and the same thing for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Cannes is the predominant launching vessel for martial arts film.
THR: You’re a fan of martial arts films. So why did you wait so long to try your hand in this genre?
Chan: I’ve never made a martial arts film before, to a certain extent because it’s such an established and even drained genre, there’s very little room for originality left. But at the same time, it gives me a chance to give it a new spin. I’ve also never made anything as visual-driven as Wu Xia. My films had always been dialogue- or character-driven. I’ve been thinking how to revitalize this genre and at the same time make it exciting to me. That’s when I saw a television program about the physiology of a gunshot, about the physical impact on the different organs and how it kills someone. Then it hit me that martial arts is the same. What we usually see is the choreography; we see how flashy it is, or how fantastical it can be. But all those seemingly fantastical moves can be explained in terms of physics. For example, I like to think about how does light body skill work, or acupuncture points, or the impact of a punch. How much physical damage would it do to our internal organs? How do people die from these injuries? It’s all a mystery; no one would question it. Of course I can’t explain all of it, otherwise I’d be a martial arts expert, but I’d like to find an explanation in a logical and medical way, in terms of physics or mechanics.
THR: What made you a fan of martial arts cinema?
Chan: It all started from Jimmy Wang Yu. My fascination with Wang and director Chang Cheh was founded on a sense of heroism. When I was a teenager, everyone in my generation idolized these martial arts heroes — from Wang, David John Chiang, Lung Ti, to Bruce Lee a little later. They existed in a fantastical world that appeals to all of us.
THR: You’ve made Wang one of the stars of Wu Xia, alongside Donnie Yen in the lead. He’s a bit ubiquitous nowadays, isn’t he?
Chan: The choice is first and foremost based on film business calculations. It just makes sense to try and get the hottest star, the box office guarantee of the moment. If I want to make a martial arts film with lots of fight scenes, it only makes sense to get a star that can perform the action scenes himself. Of course box office guarantee is also a flip of the coin, someone who’s a guarantee might become box office poison if he’s in too many films. But other than that, I’m also not used to making action films and shooting fight sequences. I might have a lot of ideas and ask a lot of questions, which helps in the sense that I’m asking these questions for the audience as well, and these questions might challenge whoever that’s choreographing these fight sequences and stimulate their imagination. Donnie helped me directed a fight scene in Bodyguards and Assassins, which I think is the most appealing fight scene that in all of my recent films. That scene made me realize if I were to shoot an action film one day, then I must find an action choreographer whom I trust. So the heart of it, although some people might not believe it, is that I might need Donnie as my action choreographer more than I need him as my onscreen lead. And there’s no way I could get him as an action choreographer and not as an actor, unless I pay him an actor’s salary for the work of an action director; he’s so in demand now.
THR: Your work has taken a turn away from the lighthearted romantic comedies that made your name in the 1990s, into epics like The Warlords, or Wu Xia. What was the reason behind this change?
Chan: After a certain age we’d all aspire to wisdom and the deeper meaning of life. Every time I make a film, it’s usually about some questions that I can’t find the answer to, and then I’d try and find the answer through a subject or a character. It’s usually about the why. The Warlords was about the corporate world and our lives nowadays. What if we have certain ideals and it turns out you can only achieve it at the expense of sacrificing your brothers, but those ideals are for the bigger good for humanity? Wu Xia is another exploration of people’s dark side. Can a murderer turn a new leaf?
THR: You’re one of earliest Hong Kong directors to work and succeed in China in recent years, the second director ever to break the. What had been the upside and downside of your experience in China? How did it compare with your experience in Hollywood, when you made The Love Letter in 1999?
Chan: There are upsides and downsides anywhere you work. The Chinese film industry has turned out for much better in the last few years, the only remaining major problem is the censorship. But as I always say to my director friends, you haven’t worked in Hollywood, the censorship there is even trickier. The only difference being the censorship in Hollywood is not imposed by the state authorities but the studios. The studio bureaucracy is much more troublesome than the Chinese bureaucracy. At the end of the day if you know all the rules about censorship and you try to work around the rules, then theoretically it won’t be that difficult to deal with. Every place has its own rules. Hollywood has its rules, which are business rules, and principles that are fuzzier. They’re only made by a bunch of executives who don’t have the power to make decisions trying to outguess, speculate and challenge each other and to take credit from each other. They’d ask us to make cut after cut, and then when the moment came when someone had to make a decision they’d throw it out for test screenings. Wouldn’t that be harder to please than the Chinese censors?
THR: So compared with that, how hard could it be to deal with the film authorities in China?
Chan: In some ways it’s even easier to deal with the authorities in China, because they are official, they are not the investor, they are the authorities and they have their set of policies. I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult at first, but things can be difficult anywhere. Every place has its own censorship rules for film, however unfair. As for the upside, the finance, the market, and the audience are what is great about working the Chinese film industry right now. When the audience is more discerning, it’s harder to guess what works and what doesn’t. Then everyone needs to be more original, and relies less on formula. Without formula controlling you, filmmakers won’t be dictated by the investor asking you to put this star and that together and make a cookie cutter film. That was so prevalent in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s. We don’t need that anymore, because we know that the more formulaic and more seemingly foolproof a film is, the audience is less likely to accept it.
THR: How do you think all the hot money going into the Chinese film industry from investors who had never before been in filmmaking would affect the industry?
Chan: Let me give you an example. The new investors would certainly go to the top tier directors, there are maybe five or six of them, who have no worry whatsoever about financing their films. The finance model is beneficial to directors, which is not seen anywhere else in the world. A lot of the times the directors even own all the rights. My finance model at the moment is that I have a lot of minority investors and no majority investor; each of the investors contributes about 10 to 20 percent, not exceeding 30 percent for any one investor. Then, at the day’s end, I own the property. I don’t have to answer to anyone. Even if they have equity investment, they’d have profit sharing but not necessarily equity.
THR: What about your partnership with China’s Poly Bona, which dissolved last year?
Chan: When I had the deal with Poly Bona, each of us holds 50 percent, but I found it too restraining. Now I keep all the individual investors not more than 30 percent.
THR: Would you ever revive your partnership with Poly Bona?
Chan: No, not with Poly Bona, and not a partnership like that.
THR: Why not?
Chan: Well, I have a much better deal now.
Peter Ho-sun Chan's Vital Stats
Nationality: Hong Kong
Date of Birth: Nov. 28, 1962
As Director: Alan & Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye (1991), He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996), The Love Letter (1999), Perhaps Love (2005), The Warlords (2007), Wu Xia (2011)
As Producer: He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993), Twenty Something (1994), Jan Dara (2001), The Eye (2002), Golden Chicken 1 & 2 (2002 &3), Protégé (2007), Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)