Filmart: Hong Kong Director Pang Ho-cheung on His 'Love' Series, What He Learned From Acting (Q&A)

Pang Ho-cheung Getty H 2017
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The multihyphenate talks about his HKIFF opener 'Love Off the Cuff,' capturing the essence of Hong Kong and how acting has made him a better director.

Pang Ho-cheung is one of the leading Hong Kong auteurs to emerge in the new millennium, despite the local film industry experiencing a downturn. Hardworking and prolific, he is a true multihyphenate — with writer, novelist, director, producer, columnist and actor credits to his name.

Pang's latest directorial effort, Love Off the Cuff, the third installment in the acclaimed Love in a Puff series, will open the 41st Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. He talked to The Hollywood Reporter about making sequels, his desire to act and the benefits of his “dissociative identity disorder.”

Congratulations on Love Off the Cuff being selected to be the opening film of HKIFF, after your Love in the Buff and Aberdeen opened the festival previously. How do you feel about it?

I like having my films shown at the Cultural Centre. As a kid, I enjoyed sitting in the dress circle of big cinemas, and the Cultural Centre has that. Sometimes when the opening film was screened in the Convention and Exhibition Centre, the feeling wasn’t the same.

It’s been seven years since the beginning of the Love in a Puff series, and the two protagonists have gone through the process of falling in love, breaking up and making up. In the trailer for Love Off the Cuff, we see that Cherie (Miriam Yeung) was trying to pierce a condom. Will she get pregnant in the film?

You have to wait until you see the movie. The common perception is that women want to have kids, but the story is not as simple as that. Many couples I know, after being together for some time, it’s usually not the woman who wants to have a baby.

It’s the third time you’ve told a story about this couple. What are the challenges this time?

I never want to make sequels. When Men Suddenly in Black (2003) achieved success and the studio wanted to make a sequel, I refused. Because I think one shouldn’t repeat oneself. But the interactions between the main characters of the Love in a Puff series were inspired by my wife and I, and we are particularly attached to these two characters. I don’t want to let them go. It wasn’t my intention to make a sequel, I just wanted to resurrect these two characters. When I made Love in the Buff, I was adamant that I shouldn’t repeat the first film in content or in form. When that film was commercially successful, the studio asked me to make a third one. But it took me four years to come up with a new take on the characters, the story and the format.

There is a strong feeling of the “Hong Kong essence” in this series, even though the second film took place in Beijing. Now with the new film having been shot in Taipei, how did you portray this essence of Hong Kong?

There are a hundred interpretations of what Hong Kong feels like to a hundred [different] people. There are different versions of Hong Kong in different Hong Kong films. What we have in the series is a kind of playfulness and liveliness that people identify as exemplification of Hong Kong cinema. But what I think is this: No matter where Woody Allen makes his films, he is still Woody Allen. He has been identified as the ultimate New York filmmaker. But I don’t agree. There are many different versions of New York in films. Die Hard 3 was set in New York. But one wouldn’t equate Woody Allen with Die Hard 3. I think Woody Allen represents a certain type of people in Manhattan, but that is the essence of Woody Allen, and not of New York. He has been making films in Europe in the last few years, but he hasn’t lost himself.

You have directed films in many genres — comedy, romance, drama and horror. What is the genre you’d like to tackle next?

I have been developing a war movie. Even though a lot of people think I’m not suitable to make a war film, I think they are wrong — a director is not confined to a certain genre that he’s made before. All genres are storytelling. The story is the nucleus. Some investors might want to hire an action choreographer to direct a kung fu movie, no offense to the action choreographers, but that is wrong. Because kung fu films are not just action sequences — the center of it is still a story. Sci-fi films are not necessarily only computer-generated effects. I have been developing my war film story for 10 years, and I’ve been writing the script.

You are a director, producer, screenwriter, novelist and newspaper columnist. What is your secret for multitasking?

I am scared of being bored. Most of my short stories were written on location when I was waiting for the lighting setup. I hate to wait for a long time for light setup or actors in makeup, and I get irritated. So I write my novels during those waiting periods. People might think, "You’re busy filming, you might not have time to write newspaper columns." To which I reply, "You are wrong." I have all the time in the world to write columns during shooting.

You have added actor to your résumé as well, signing to Sun Entertainment Culture. Why the desire to act?

I think that all directors should try to act, in order to understand how actors think. What bothers an actor is not something directors necessarily understand. When I first started in this business, I worked for Asia Television as a scriptwriter. Because ATV was very poor, we had to go in front of the camera as cameos or side cast. I learned all my scriptwriting techniques when I was acting as the side cast. When I was only a scriptwriter, I thought I was good at writing dialogue. Only after I acted did I realize I had to adjust my dialogue. I think it’s a very good exercise. So I always encourage new directors to act. And once you’ve acted, you’d realize that the acting energy is limited. Directors, especially new ones, don’t realize that a person’s emotional energy is limited, unless one is theatrically trained to prolong that energy. Actors who are not classically trained might not be able to put that energy in a loop. They would collapse eventually. Through being an actor, I understand the limitations of actors. So I am careful, and I put extra effort into fine-tuning the script.

Out of all your different responsibilities, which role do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy being a scriptwriter the most. I think scriptwriting is very liberating and free, so I can write to my heart’s content because I don’t have to think about the execution. As a director and a screenwriter, what pains me the most is to judge something from a director’s point of view when I’m writing. But then I adjust myself, to think that when I’m writing, I’m writer Pang Ho-cheung, I’m not producer Pang or director Pang. I don’t care about their points of view. I write freely, and then hand it over to producer Pang to think about the schedule and budget, and director Pang to think of the rest, but the writer Pang doesn’t care about those things. So writer Pang is the happiest. All worries are left to producer Pang. It’s a little like having dissociative identity disorder.