Felix Chong Channels John Woo With 'Project Gutenberg'

Felix Chong on set -Project Gutenberg -Publicity  H 2018
Courtesy of Pop Movies

The 'Infernal Affairs' helmer's blockbuster heist movie is an affectionate homage to classic Hong Kong crime epics from the '80s.

Writer-director Felix Chong was once hailed as the one of the saviors of Hong Kong cinema with his 2001 blockbuster Infernal Affairs, which was famously remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed from Martin Scorsese in 2006. Coming of age in the 1980s during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, Chong, now 50, idolized Chow Yun-fat in all his John Woo-directed splendor. In his latest hit, Project Gutenberg, a typically fast-paced thriller about counterfeiting U.S. currency that has taken in $144 million in China, Chong pays homage not only to Chow’s onscreen heroics but also to the movies he grew up with.

You’ve brought back the peak-form Chow Yun-fat in Project Gutenberg, with him brandishing two guns in classic John Woo style. Is the film a deliberate tribute to the golden age of Hong Kong cinema?

I’ve been called “the ultimate groupie.” I totally agree with that. I wanted to see Chow showing off his signature moves again, so I wrote a script with him doing those things. Even my action choreographer, after reading the script, told me it reminded him of the time when he started in the business, filming Phillip Ko grabbing a bazooka. I told him that’s exactly what I wanted to shoot, but with present-day film techniques. He got it as soon as we finished the first shot of Chow firing two guns.

To paraphrase a line in the film, can we call Project Gutenberg a simulated 1980s Hong Kong film?

Certainly. The film is my take on filmmaking as well. I came from a film studies background. I received my film education watching the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Truffaut. But after this many years in the industry, I realize those were the films of geniuses, and what I make are commercial films, which are like counterfeit banknotes. [Laughs.] While commercial films are not without value, I’ve always wanted to share my musings on commercial filmmaking. To put it bluntly, the golden age of Hong Kong cinema was a period of copying European cinema, but giving it a Chinese spin.

Project Gutenberg has grossed about $144 million in China. Do you think Hong Kong filmmakers can still compete with Chinese movies?

I think we can. I think firstly we have to be honest with ourselves. A director’s job is not to create something out of nothing; it has to be from something we see in the world, and then create a story in response. What the audience wants to see is human reactions. So for Hong Kong filmmakers, and all filmmakers, our job is to return to the basics. We have to be sensitive to our world and respond to it in our work.

The obsession with perfection was a big theme in Project Gutenberg. What kind of perfection are you obsessed with in filmmaking?

My biggest obsession is to make a film with value. I wouldn’t want to make a film that nobody remembers, which can easily happen. What is without value is a film that can’t even entertain an audience. That would be all for nothing.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 1 daily issue at the American Film Market.