Q&A: Gordon Chan Talks About 'The Mural'

Gordon Chan - ScreenSingapore 2011: Opening Night Gala - 2011
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Hong Kong film veteran talks about the arrival of effects-heavy films in China, and how far Chinese filmmakers still have to go.

Gordon Chan famously took the ghosts out of the best-known Chinese ghost stories and ushered in the fantasy genre into Chinese cinema with Painted Skin, and in the process became one of only a handful of Hong Kong directors in China’s 100 million yuan ($15 million) club. The outgoing chairman of the Hong Kong Film Awards Association – after 18 years – and president of Hong Kong Film Director’s Guild has recently relocated to Beijing under a strong sense of duty to the Chinese film industry. 

At ScreenSingapore, he debuted the trailer for his latest, The Mural, about three men’s journey into a fantasy world populated exclusively by beautiful women. The director talked to The Hollywood Reporter about revisiting fantasy and bringing what he’s learned since the early 1980s in the Hong Kong film industry to China.

The Hollywood Reporter (THR): With The Mural, you’re returning to the source material of Painted Skin, the Chinese classic literature Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio. Do you intend to make a series out of it?

Gordon Chan: When the studio, China’s Enlight Pictures, approached me to make another film out of the Strange Stories of the Chinese Studio after Painted Skin, I turned them down. I’m not interested in repeating myself. Besides, I don’t really like to make horror or ghost movies, or to sell fear. I hate using fear as a selling point. But I browsed through the book and very soon I stumbled across this short story of a scholar walking into a painting and almost dying there. He was shaken to his core, so when he returned to the real world he asked a monk what had happened. To which the monk replied: “what went on in your head was your own doing, you should ask yourself what’s wrong with you.” The story spoke volumes to me. I’ve always pondered the Buddhist belief that there’s only a fine line between heaven and hell, and this story struck me. Did the scholar enter heaven or hell? He had the most wonderful and dangerous experiences in his life inside the painting. The same place can be both heaven and hell; it only depends on your state of mind. This story inspired me, but it was difficult to turn it into a screenplay. I spent two years working on a script, almost right after Painted Skin. I didn’t have a finished screenplay when we started casting, but the pieces fell into place when I saw the actors, which has always been the case with me. I tend to write for the actors and I make changes throughout the production. I’ve always said the scripts of my films are finished the day filming wraps. [Laughs]

THR: Is the scholar’s journey a projection of male desire? 

Chan: That’s the main reason why it’s taken so long for me to develop the story. It’s very easy to have the story slip into chauvinistic territory – it’s about a man walking into a women’s world. We’ve spent a long time trying to shape the story and find a balance. At the end, Collin Chou’s character represents what I want to say –- a swordsman who entered a world of women, thinking he must be invincible, but ended up realizing how small and insignificant he is.

THR: Is it a reflection of contemporary gender politics in period fantasy clothing?

Chan: Definitely. I’ve always said the contemporary meaning in my films is the key. I have no interest in showing history, perhaps only for Discovery Channel or for a documentary. But films must convey something that relates to the contemporary audience and to contemporary values, otherwise there’s no point.

THR: With Painted Skin, you’ve turned a ghost story into a fantasy film and helped launch the effects-laden fantasy genre to Chinese cinema, and now again with The Mural. Is that what you will continue doing? What’s your view on the genre’s growth in China? 

Chan: I don’t think I’ll continue making epic fantasies, perhaps not for a long time after The Mural. But it’s a good thing that the fantasy genre is growing in Chinese cinema. Fantasy has been an important part of Chinese culture, there’s a lot to explore. And the genre itself occupies a significant share in the international market. It would be a good direction for Chinese filmmakers to go. But in the past the Chinese censors had been relatively conservative with this subject matter, they were very strict about imaginary scenarios and very sensitive about depictions of the supernatural. [Chan’s Painted Skin went through heavy cuts before it could be released.] I kept reminding them it’s only make-believe. Look how well the Pirates of the Caribbean series has been doing in China. Why can’t we do something like that in China ourselves? Why should the censors be so concerned – who’s going to believe the ghosts and monsters are real? 

THR: The Mural is the most effects-heavy film in your career, and you’re working with a U.S. visual effects house, Base FX. How is the film visual effects industry in China shaping up?

Chan: There are more than 1200 special effects shots in The Mural, so almost every shot in the film is an effects shot. We’re working with the Beijing office of Base FX, and the team that is doing the effects of The Mural mainly consists of young Beijing effects artists, headed by an effects supervisor from Los Angeles. The team has been doing work for Hollywood productions for years. But I’ve always stressed that China should develop our own effects industry in the long run. At the moment the effects talents are still quite limited, mainly due to the lack of scope in their vision and experience. Most Chinese filmmakers grew up watching television; they watched films on television, not in cinemas. The scope of their vision is not big enough, they’re not yet detail-oriented enough. You have to watch films in cinemas for years to understand the depth and scope of vision needed in filmmaking. Directors in China usually come from an academic background; they graduate as film directors. Whereas the directors from Hong Kong learn their trade on sets, beginning at the lowest rung, so the amount of time we’ve spent on sets before becoming directors might be longer than the amount of time they’d spend on film sets in their lifetime. Our experience gives us production know-how and makes us well-rounded and skilful filmmakers, and we need to train young Chinese filmmakers and let them learn from the whole process. That takes time.

THR: The Mural has a budget of $10 million, not that high for a Chinese potential blockbuster. What’s your view on the future of the escalating film budgets in China?

Chan: I’m not against it. Filmmakers need to give the audience that something extra, an incentive to spend money and go to the multiplex – the ticket prices are high. Otherwise they’d just stay home, buy DVDs or download movies. But if there were only big budget movies it would be impossible for the film industry to survive. So I emphasized time and time again the importance of mid-range films. But those films need the support of theatre owners. The theatre chains have to have the vision to realize the need to support smaller films for the growth of the domestic film industry. They have to give smaller films room to survive, otherwise there’d only be Hollywood movies in the Chinese multiplexes in the future, and then the owners would lose the freedom they have now. They have to think in the long term. There are times when you walk into a multiplex in China, all the screens are showing the same film. That’s unheard of in the U.S. It’s a serious problem that needs to be rectified. What that’d lead to is raising stakes – you’re gambling with 100 million yuan this time, 200 million yuan the next. If it’s a hit, well done. But if it’s not, it’s 200 million yuan. Not that many companies can afford to lose 200 million yuan. The Hong Kong film industry has gone through a phase of more and more expensive martial arts films, and the bubble burst. I kept reminding people this bad experience is something the Chinese film industry should learn from. 

THR: Is that one of the motivations for you to work with new Chinese studios? You worked with Golden Sun on the company’s first film Painted Skin, and you’re making The Mural and Four Marshals with Enlight.

Chan: In a way, I think my function working in China is to bring my experience and what we’ve gone through in the Hong Kong industry to China. I hope there’ll be more and more new Chinese companies with vision, that understand producing and film financing. My plan for the future is to work with as many new companies as possible, to pass on my experience as to what is commercial film. There are a few Hong Kong filmmakers doing the same thing now –- Peter Chan, Derek Yee --  to try and pass on our experience in success and failure. I’m getting quite restless and can’t wait to do more. The balance shift towards Hollywood films is getting more pronounced. The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean or Kung Fu Panda 2 broke the 100 million yuan in just a couple of days. And when you look at the domestic films…it makes me very worried about the Chinese film industry.


Vital Stats:

Date of Birth: 16 January, 1960

Nationality: Chinese (Hong Kong SAR)


Selected Filmography:

Painted Skin (2008)

The Medallion (2003)

A-1 (2004)

Okinawa: Rendez-vous (2000)

Beast Cops (1998) co-director with Dante Lam

First Option (1996)

Thunderbolt (1995)

Fist of Legend (1994)

King of Beggars (1992)

Fight Back to School (1991)

The Yuppie Fantasia (1989)



1999 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director (shared with Dante Lam), Beast Cops

1989 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Screenplay, Heart to Hearts