Filmart: Director Derek Chiu Talks Hong Kong Politics and the Dangers of Self-Censorship (Q&A)

Derek Chiu - Publicity - H 2017

Chiu’s latest project, 'No. 1 Chung Ying Street,' is set to cause controversy at this year's Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum.

Veteran director Derek Chiu’s latest project, No. 1 Chung Ying Street — taken from the name of a street on the Hong Kong-China border, which translates phonetically as “China-Britain Street” — is one of the highest-profile, and potentially most controversial, projects at this year’s Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF).

Shot in black-and-white, the film examines two still-sensitive political movements in Hong Kong: the 1967 Leftist Riots, when a number of China-leaning protesters took to the streets against Hong Kong’s British colonial government, and fictional protests set in 2019 that are based on the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014. Chiu, who is also an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong School of Creative Media, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of getting No. 1 Chung Ying Street made, self-censorship and creative freedom in the Hong Kong film industry.

No. 1 Chung Ying Street has been years in the making. What attracted you to this project?

The project started in 2011. A participant of the 1967 Leftist Riots contacted me. He was 16 at the time of the riots, and went to a leftist school. He made some leaflets for the leftist cause and put them in his school bag, but it was searched and he was arrested. As a result, he was in prison for about a year. He is now a successful businessman and continues to move in a leftist circle. He contacted me through a mutual friend and asked if I was interested in developing a script about the 1967 Riots. I had made The Log (1996), which was about political issues, and I have always been attracted to these topics. I was interested in the topic of the 1967 Riots, as there hasn’t been a Hong Kong film that is focused on this event. But the project took a long time to get off the ground.

Was financing the film difficult?

Yes, it was. We originally wanted to release the film in 2017, to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Riots. But we couldn’t get the financing, so we set it [partially] in the present time in 2019. One of the major obstacles was that we applied for the government-sponsored Film Development Fund for one-third of the funding. This is something I lament, because we were quite optimistic we would get the government funding. We were actually invited to apply. But our application was rejected, which we questioned. It’s hard for us not to think the rejection was political. In the political climate at the time of our rejection, I wasn’t particularly surprised. But the reason for their rejection was a little ridiculous. The Film Development Fund said our film was not commercial enough. If my film were so commercial, I wouldn’t have to ask for government funding.

Why make the film in black-and-white?

Because half of the film takes place in the 1960s, and we don’t have a large budget. Black-and-white is more forgiving.

Apart from financing, what other challenges are you facing?

Not only was it difficult to find investors, it was also difficult to find actors. On the one hand, it was difficult to find actors because I don’t have the financing. When I contacted the actors I have worked with previously, they told me, “Director, anything you want me to help, I’d work for free for you.” And then once they heard about the subject matter, they would do a 180. Some would say, “This would jeopardize my chances of going to work in China,” while others would say, “But this is political stuff, and I don’t want to deal with anything political.” I don’t blame them. It is understandable that they want to avoid anything political in this political climate. ... I just don’t understand why Hong Kong has become like this.

Your last film, My Boyfriends, was a solely Chinese-financed film.

Yes, I’ve made films for the Chinese market before, too. But most of the co-production projects don’t interest me. I didn’t enjoy the experience of making My Boyfriends. That’s why I came to teach [at the City University of Hong Kong]. Nowadays, if you don’t try to make films for the Chinese market, there isn’t much work, especially for experienced directors like me. But the co-productions, they don’t seem to be from the heart for me. Whereas for this project, I have deep feelings about [it], and what [we] created eventually would be special.

Is self-censorship becoming an issue in Hong Kong?

Everyone is censoring oneself now. The creative people won’t create anything political, and actors won’t dare act in anything political, either. It didn’t use to be like this in Hong Kong. If the script was good, they would act; if they got paid, they would act. A lot of people praised my script, or thought they could demonstrate their range in the role, but at the end they didn’t dare take the job. It is due to self-censorship. ... But back in the day, in Hong Kong, we could make whatever we wanted. Who would dare make [the 1990 political satire] Her Fatal Ways today?