Asian Filmmaker of the Year: Tsui Hark

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As he readies his next blockbuster, Tsui Hark talks about his respect for Korean cinema, looking to the past for inspiration and why he won’t be retiring any time soon.

The most commercially successful filmmaker to come out of the late 1970s cinema movement known as the Hong Kong New Wave, Tsui Hark has established himself as that rare auteur who can deliver at the box office. Lauded for revolutionizing the martial arts genre in hits like Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and the Once Upon a Time In China series(1991-7),Tsui kept his winning streak alive with last year’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, an effects-heavy period epic that grossed 300 million yuan ($46.9 million) in China. Named Asian Filmmaker of the Year by the Busan International Film Festival for 2011, Tsui recently took time out from post-production on his upcoming 3D release, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, to discuss his career.

The Hollywood Reporter (THR): How do you feel about being named Asian Filmmaker of the Year by BIFF?

Tsui Hark (Tsui): Three years ago BIFF asked me to come and teach a master class, to share my experience in filmmaking. Since then we’ve established a relationship with the festival organizers. I’ve stayed in Korea for longer periods of time and got to know more about the film industry, the historical background and development of the film culture here. My impression of Busan is quite different from the other places I’ve been to. I also talked to Korean filmmakers during the post-produc- tion process of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. I appreciate the Korean filmmakers’ discipline, working style, and fighting spirit, all of which are qualities that not only I share, but are valuable factors when I consider future collaborations.

For BIFF to give me this award, I’m very honored and delighted. I feel it draws me closer to the Korean film industry and establishes between us a closer relationship as friends.

THR: Why are you so attracted to new technology?

Tsui: Part of my motivation at the beginning was affected by the historical factors of Hong Kong filmmaking. Because of the circumstantial constraints in Hong Kong, when we wanted to pursue stories set in a historical context or related to the geographic environment in China, we had little choice but to film in the few studio sets available. If there were problems during filming, we had to fix them during post-production. So I’ve established a closer relationship with the technical departments. But in view of the technological advancement of the international film industry, there has been a great deal of research and development that gave us a new approach to design, subject matter and mode of expression, which I find interesting. To me, film and technology are indivisibly entangled — film is an experiment of telling a story through technological means.

THR: What, specifically, has technology allowed you accomplish?

Tsui: If I want to shoot a dangerous action sequence, I can achieve it through visual effects technology without putting people in harm’s way. That’s one of the main reasons we use technology in filmmaking. The other way it inspires me is the information we can get through technological means. The internet helps us know more about the world, beyond the confines of our geographical existence. In the long run, that affects our worldview. In other words, ourworldview is now different from before. For instance, we weren’t as familiar with Asian cinema in the past, but now we make films with an Asian crew, and deal with subject matter relevant or familiar to Asia. In this sense, technol- ogy obviously enhances development. It not only gives us convenience, but also provides uswithreferencesandcomparisons. Inthe past, there were many instances of copying or replicating foreign films; nowadays with the international distribution network, there is less chance of copying, so that we can focus more on expanding our creativity.

THR: Your recent films are set in specific historical periods. What do they reveal about the times we live in now?

Tsui: I believe that period dramas have a special significance to the Chinese people. For instance, when I did Once Upon a Time in China, the central character, Wong Fei-hung, was my childhood hero. By the time I was 30, I realized times had changed and people had forgotten about or overlooked this heroic figure. I began to wonder whether it was worthy to retell his stories, and to see

if the younger generation would appreciate him as much as we did. So out of curiosity, I tried to project the sense of excitement of my childhood on screen. I always want to know how I relate to the present time, to the young generation. The period setting was only a means; it represents mypersonal likes and dislikes when I was growing up. To the Chinese people, history, or the idea of ancient China, is something that we would encounter since childhood. I wanted to see if we could find ourselves in that world of history or historical fiction; to find the link between that world and our world today.

THR: What kind of challenges have you encoun- tered while making your first 3D film, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate?

Tsui: The 3D filmmaking that I know now is simpler than I imagined. I’ve heard a lot of people with technical expertise telling me all kinds of stories about 3D filmmaking. But now I know only some of them are true. Working on it dispelled a lot of my worries. I used to hear that there needs to be a digital expert onset to do calcula- tions, but now I know that’s not necessary.

THR: How excited are you to fulfill your childhood dream of making a 3D film??

Tsui: (Laughs) The feeling is more than a sense of excitement – I’ve also learned something new about myself. Before, my enthusiasm was based on my susceptibility to 3D as an audience member.

Now that I’ve learned about the technology behind 3D, I feel that I’ve gotten to know another side of me — someone who might have a lot of opinions about the technology. I think it’s worthwhile for me.

THR: What was it like to witness how Hong Kong cinema influenced global cinema in the 90s?

Tsui: In the history of cinema, there had never been so many Chinese filmmakers working in foreign countries as it was in the late 1990s to early 2000s. For a time, there was a strong influence of Hong Kong cinema in foreign films. HongKong is a place highly susceptible to foreign cultures, and in turn the filmmakers, including directors and action choreographers, were in demand in the international film industry. We’re very fortunate that we had the opportunities to work on an international stage, then go to China to explore a new world. When the Chinese market opened, we realized we could make films in China. But since there’s not a rating system in China, everyone, regardless of age, sees the same films, there is a limitation on the subject matter and content. We’d experienced something similar in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, when investors posed certain control on subject and content. There is still a lot of to be improved in the Chinese film industry in order to fulfill its full potential, but in the long run, I hope it would grow to be a counterpart of comparable influence as Hollywood in the international marketplace.

THR: You’re reuniting with your Once Upon a Time in China lead Jet Li on Flying Swords. How is it different this time?

Tsui: It’s been so long since Jet Li and I worked together, he brought along a lot of new perspectives, whether it was for the film itself or for his character. We have a deeper exchange of ideas in terms of choices.

After more than three decades, how do you view the present stage of your career? At this stage I’m still looking for opportunities to make more films. I love making films; it’s not as if there’s something else I want to do and I’d have to wait until I retire to do it. Even if I retire, I’d still want to make movies.


Tsui Hark's Top 5 Box Office Hits

Aces Go Places 3 (1984)

The Aces Go Places series first landed in Hong Kong cinemas during the Chinese New Year of 1982, but Tsui took the helm in 1984 for the series’ third installment, which raked in HK$29.3 million ($3.8 million) to become the highest-grossing film of the year.

A Better Tomorrow trilogy (1986-9) Tsui produced the iconic John Woo-directed 1980s film series of the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, which took in a combined gross of HK$76.2 million.

Once Upon a Time in China (1991-7) Tsui turned Jet Li into a superstar with this franchise about his child- hood hero, martial arts master Wong Fei-hung. The six installments grossed HK$133.7 million in Hong Kong.

Seven Swords (2005) Tsui’s first major release in China grossed a respectable 87 million yuan in 2005, coming in third at the Chinese box office for the year.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) The 300 million yuan-grossing blockbuster won Tsui his third best director award at the 30th Hong Kong Film Awards.