Oscars: How 'Mad World' Offers an Alternative Look at Life in Hong Kong

Mad World- Still 1 - H 2016
Golden Scene

Director Wong Chun discusses making his directorial debut with a gritty, unflinching look at the the difficulties of living in one of this most expensive cities in the world.

Hong Kong's Oscar foreign-language film selection, Mad World, is the debut directorial feature of 28-year-old Wong Chun, who shot the film in Hong Kong in merely two weeks with a tiny $257,000 budget.

The film was mostly shot on location in a subdivided flat – a type of private rental housing unique to Hong Kong that consists of individual rooms divided by newly-built partitions with each room accommodating an individual, a couple, or even a whole family. The film stars three highly established actors in the leading roles – multi-hyphenate Eric Tsang (Infernal Affairs), Shawn Yue (Love Off the Cuff), and Elaine Jin, also known locally as the queen of supporting actresses.

After wowing the audience at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and winning accolades at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards and the Hong Kong Film Awards, the film became the talk-of-the-town when it opened last spring. Its subject matter — the story focuses on a man whose struggle with mental illness is exacerbated by overcrowded living conditions in a wealthy metropolitan city — struck a chord in Hong Kong, where class and inequality are becoming increasingly important issues.

The young director talked to THR about his expectations, limitations, and an alternative view of Hong Kong in his film. 

Mad World was the first feature you’ve ever directed, but it garnered nominations and awards in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. And now it’s been chosen to represent Hong Kong in the foreign-language film Oscar race. How do you feel?

The reception or accolades Mad World has received have been beyond our expectations. To be able to enter the Oscar race has exceeded what was beyond our expectations.

What are your expectations regarding possibly being shortlisted, nominated, or even winning the Academy Award?

I do not anticipate going any further from this point. The contenders from around the world are all exceptional films. But as the representative of Hong Kong, the fact that Mad World is in the same category as these excellent films is already a huge honor.

Hong Kong’s international image is as a prosperous, metropolitan city. But the Hong Kong depicted in Mad World is a city of high-pressure, high-density living which drives people insane. Nevertheless, this view of the city resonated with the local audience. What do you want the international audience to take from the film?

The Hong Kong displayed in Mad World is, to me, a Hong Kong that's closer to real life. In the past, the facet of Hong Kong that was presented to overseas audiences was usually one of prosperity, or as a city of crime where the lawless and the unruly mingle (these impressions were told to us by the audience at overseas screenings). They were stereotypical images of Hong Kong. Mad World does not proclaim to be a more comprehensive impression of the city. We only wish to provide an authentic and down-to-earth depiction.

Do you have any personal experience with subdivided flats? What inspired you to put this phenomenon in the film?

The screenwriter Florence Chan and I were both living in lesser conditions when we were working on Mad World, although the conditions were not as poor as the subdivided flats in the film. The screenwriter wanted to expand on the aftermath of a news story in a subdivided flat — to record Hong Kong’s living issues and circumstances of this era in the film.

What kind of limitations did the budget of $257,000 and a two-week shoot pose on the filming?

The limitations mainly came from the number of scenes and the duration of filming. Due to the lack of funds, we had to give up some of the scenes that were originally in the script, and concentrated on the scenes in the subdivided flat. And also because of the fact that most of the crew was hired by the day, in order to reduce the cost, we had to reduce the number of shooting days. That affected the style [and] the execution of the film, and created a highly pressured environment for the actors. Nevertheless, these limitations lent a uniqueness to Mad World.

How did you direct the actors?

I think the most important foundation for a good performance is a good script. The actors were all very experienced; they were able to quickly make the characters and the drama come to life through the characterization and to present the conflicts through interactions. I only led the cast to a common rhythm and context, to enrich the drama and make it more effective.

After such a good reception for your first feature, do you feel any pressure for your next film?

Not just yet. My next film will be about a completely different topic and in a completely different style. My screenwriter and I both wish to learn and try new things, and to avoid being typecast.

Mad World was financed by the First Feature Film Initiative of the government-backed Hong Kong Film Development Fund. The film performed well at the box office (grossing almost 10 times its budget). Did the Film Development Fund get a return? Your two leading men, Eric Tsang and Shawn Yue, both waived their fees when they joined the cast. Did you share the profits with them?

Mad World had to be completed within the budget given by the Film Development Fund. Outside funding was forbidden. But once it was made, we did not have to share the profits with the Film Development Fund. The box office performance indeed did better than we anticipated, but since the two leads, Mr Tsang and Shawn, did not take a salary, most of the profits were shared with them as bonuses. A minor share of the profits were also given as payment to a small number of the main crew members who worked for free.