Ask anyone to name the most influential woman in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema today and Nansun Shi is the name you’ll hear. A key figure in promoting Hong Kong and Chinese cinema overseas for many years, Shi chairs Film Workshop, which she set up with her husband, the director Tsui Hark, as well as Distribution Workshop, which she co-founded with Jeffrey Chan. As a member of the Film Development Committee she has done significant work on developing the industry in Hong Kong from the regulatory and financing side.
The 64-year-old Shi has been on both the Cannes and Berlin main competition juries, and is also a consultant at Chinese private film company, Bona Film Group and among the titles she has worked on are Infernal Affairs (which was remade into the Hollywood movie The Departed by Martin Scorsese, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, and Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, both with Tsui.
Born in Hong Kong, and educated by Irish nuns, Shi has a degree in statistics and computing from the Polytechnic of North London and she started working in TVB television in the 1970s, before setting up China Cinema Studios with Karl Maka, Raymond Wong and Dean Shek formed Cinema City Studios.
She spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the pace of change in the Hong Kong business and the cultural impact that China is having.
How has Filmart changed over the years? Is it keeping its relevance and does it still have a role to play?
What’s been very apparent since the fast development of the industry in China is first a lot of Chinese filmmakers come because it’s easier for them to travel because to go to the European festivals they have to apply for a visa. On the other hand I think a lot of Europeans have taken the opportunity of accessing China through Filmart. You can see that the contingents from the UK, from France and from various European countries are bigger. Their stands are bigger, and it’s a very pain-free way for them to meet a lot of Chinese companies. Hong Kong is a very likeable city, people don’t have any hesitation about coming here for a week, do some business, have some good food, do some shopping, have a lot of business opportunities.
Also I think Filmart is very good because it’s very concentrated, in a very concentrated city. So I hope that we can keep this up and create a good platform for people to meet and do business.
It comes at the end of a busy year for you?
Overall, it’s very busy. A lot of things going on, a lot of people want to talk. In these last couple of years, there’s a lot of interaction. It’s not necessarily that things will be achieved but it’s part of the development. A lot of people talking, but if you do the ratio of meetings versus results, there are no huge results yet. But this is the period of discovery, finding the partners they can relate to, then things will happen. In filmmaking, serious filmmaking, it’s not instant coffee, you can’t just spoon it out and that’s it. You do need time to develop, define one another’s sensibilities, and what works for each market, so it does take time.
How much of a role does Hong Kong still have and do you feel optimistic?
People are sometimes are very torn between doing co-production films and purely Hong Kong films. Hong Kong filmmakers’ DNA is very good. In the past 30 years, Hong Kong filmmakers — some are more experienced, some less so — are very much steeped in the culture of commercial filmmaking. And of these of course there are many who are very conscious of the commercial market and care equally about the artistic, about the messages they are trying to communicate. We are well versed in commercial filmmaking. And because the nature of Hong Kong, because is so small, all of our lives we are very very attuned, we’re open to talent from anywhere in the world. We’ve always been very, very inclusive in that way. That’s the backdrop.
Overall, when this argument about whether we should be doing more co-productions or more purely Hong Kong films, I think as long as we are producing more films in terms of volume, that gives more people opportunity to be more practised in the art.
I’m not saying numbers are the only answer, but if you’re making very few films, it’s very difficult for young talent to be involved in filmmaking.
Because the volume of films has increased quite dramatically over the last 10 years, a lot of them happened to be co-productions. Hong Kong films which are not meant to be co-productions which may be imported afterwards, there are many more young filmmakers have been able to get into the industry. You have to be working in the industry before you can become a more experienced filmmaker.
What about government initiatives?
I think the Hong Kong government initiatives in trying to nurture the Hong Kong industry, which is a very worthwhile thing to do, has also helped. There is always room for improvement, people always say how we should do more to raise the quality, and not just by giving grant money and subsidies, but thinking seriously about how to cultivate or groom or educate young people to be interested and to be able to be a good filmmaker working in an industry that requires these elements.
Do you have a preferred approach when it comes to starting a project? Do you like the idea first, the script …?
I always say that when you are starting a film, every single step is equally important, but once you are past that step, the priorities shift immediately. I have heard people say that the idea is important, and it is true, but once you have that idea it’s gone, no more a priority, I need a good script. Once you have a very good script, it’s about the production, the performance, about the director, the DP, whether you can capture the essence of the script during production. Then it’s post-production, the editing, the sound. Overall what’s most difficult for me now is the script. Once I have a very good script I’m 60 percent comfortable. Getting a production together is not so difficult. Our networking is much more experienced, our knowledge is much more at our fingerprints. Once I have a good script I’m not afraid of anything.
The other thing that’s difficult is weather, it’s so unpredictable and something you can’t change. A script also takes time to develop, not something you can do overnight.
Have you seen a growing sophistication in the way movies are made in Hong Kong and China?
Technically I think standards have improved, but that’s not difficult to achieve. That is a good thing, but it happens quite mechanically.
What I do find quite interesting, in a way funny, is that there are a lot of these type of films that are unheard of in 100 years of development of film. They are very low budget films, very gimmicky TV shows, reality shows, or such like that are turned into films with big box office results. Technically they are not films, they are shown in the cinema, distributors are distributing it and audiences are paying to see it. But I find that it completely overturns what one’s concept of a film is, to watch characters, have meaning, cultural importance. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon and I think it will pass.
What are you looking at in 2015? What are your big plans?
I’m always reading scripts, always looking for opportunities in different ways. I always big-budget action films, but in the last two years I’ve benefitted so much and felt that a lot of what I’ve had has come from the film industry. Now that I have more resources available to me, I’d like to offer this to younger filmmakers, and try to move them along and give them some help.
I’m also paying more attention and making more efforts to look at smaller budget films with more interesting novel ideas.
So the big-budget action movies allow you to do the smaller movies projects?
I still have to do the big-budget action movies, that’s my job, my responsibility, but I’m also very keen to keep actively looking for smaller budget movies.
On the slate I have a bigger budget movie with Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. Alex and I are producing and Mabel is directing. It’s a very classic story about struggles and people who are not as privileged as others. We are paying tribute to a generation of Chinese people who came to Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s and laid down the foundations for Hong Kong’s prosperity. Hard-working people, never questioning, who for the first time had a roof over their heads, our parents’ generation.
Then I’m doing a much lower budget film with [Singapore director] Eric Koo called In The Room.