Q&A: Tsui Hark

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Tsui Hark is the China-born writer, producer, director and actor behind Hong Kong's prolific Film Workshop, a wellspring of groundbreaking martial arts and action films that got its start by bucking the Hong Kong action-comedy trend of the early '80s with "Shanghai Blues" (1984), the first film in the genre with a nearly all-female cast. Some 10 years later, he cemented the West's respect for the martial arts genre with "The Blade." Before he begins shooting his next movie in May, Tsui spoke with THR Asia editor Jonathan Landreth about the past, present and his myriad ideas for the future.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Reflect for a minute on Film Workshop's beginnings.

Tsui Hark: "Shanghai Blues" was the first film from the Film Workshop. There was nothing really significant, but it carries a certain passion about why we established this company. My thinking was that we should try something else, so we did a non-action comedy with an all-female cast. Women were rarely given significant roles before this movie. But I said, "This is quite a boring thought, we should try something away from the ideas that have been established." The film was not greenlighted by the company I was working for at that time (New Cinema City), so that's why we formed Film Workshop.

THR: "Shanghai Blues" was made well before Hong Kong returned to China's rule in 1997. As migration for labor continues to be a huge topic in China, could you make a film with that as the subject now?

Tsui:"Shanghai Blues" is quite connected to that moment as the story is about migration because of political unrest. In 1948, the moment of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists in China, civilians were put into this polarization of extreme politics. That's why some of them stayed and some of them left. So this is sort of a tragedy, which, when you look at it nowadays, it's not tragic in a way, but it was kind of sad to look back seeing that in late years of Chinese history these things happened to a few generations.

THR: Last year, your film with Beijing-based J.A. Media, "All About Women," was another all-female comedy. Do you think women are particularly funny?

Tsui:I think people are funny altogether. Not just any single sex. I think the funny part is that when people are being serious about something, there's always another side about being very funny.

THR: Tell us more about "Detective D," in which the hero will be played by Andy Lau in a Huayi Brothers film penned by Chen Kuofu.

Tsui:He was a very intelligent detective in the sixth or seventh century in China. That was a time where you had a mixed culture of people around the world, even the Italians, who had traveled from Rome to China. That was like in Xi'an, nowadays, and there was like 10% of the population from foreign countries. Even the government was a blended, mixed race between the people from outside the border and the midland people. It was quite an interesting culture and an interesting era.

THR: Apart from Lau, have you hired your cast?

Tsui:We're still very busy casting, because I have a very subjective choice in casting all these people because these are all real people from history. The most important character will be the empress. She was the first and last empress in China, who claimed to be very iron-fisted, who used cruel methods in handling her politics. At the same time, she was very smart. The story's Detective D was in prison for eight years and then released to solve a case for her. D later turned out to be the prime minister for the empress. They had such an interesting relationship of hatred and love and passion.

THR: During your career, you've skipped from one kind of film to another. Is this a return to an earlier kind of film for you, one based on the "wuxia" literary tradition of warrior-philosophers?

Tsui:I hesitate to use the term "return," because when you say return, you mean you're going back to the same stuff. Actually, you can never return. It's impossible because of the kind of angle, the viewpoint, your appreciation of the style of telling a story, that changes according to the times. I would say that it's trying to go into something that is fresh for myself.

THR: How do you focus?

Tsui:For a time, I wrote down something I had in mind every time I was creating a story, or after I looked at a movie that inspired me. Sometimes I talk; at dinnertime, I discuss with friends who will not steal my ideas. Recently, I had the idea of making a movie about forgery. The world is filled with forgery, and I think it would be good material to play with.

THR: How will you overcome these tough economic times?

Tsui: I don't want to have to think too much about what would happen if somebody doesn't give me the money to make a film. I always just wait.
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