Wong Kar Wai Says Young Filmmakers Are "Less Competitive"

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Wong Kar Wai

"I'll come back," the 'Grandmaster' director promised to Cannes head Thierry Fremaux after he premiered his last film in Berlin.

Wong Kar Wai said the opening up of the Chinese film market is providing immense opportunity for young directors, but cautioned those coming up against being complacent, as competition will be fierce in the future.

Wong — who on Friday was honored with the top prize at the Lumiere Film Festival, headed by Cannes fest director Theirry Fremaux — made the comments at the Lyon, France, event while discussing the film business in Hong Kong and China.

Wong, born just before the Cultural Revolution in China, was raised in Hong Kong and came of age as a filmmaker in the 1980s and 1990s. He compared the current climate in China to his early filmmaking days in Hong Kong, with opportunity and financing readily available.

“China has the biggest number of screens in the world. But at the same time they need product, so that’s why there is opportunity there,” said Wong, noting that last year he headed up the jury at the first international film festival in Xining, China, which focuses on first-time filmmakers. “I thought young filmmakers today are the luckiest people in the world … because before I walked into the festival, I could see lines of all the film companies. They have all the money in their pockets and they are trying to find a new talent.”

Wong cautioned, however, against becoming lazy with such easy access to opportunity. “Young filmmakers today are less competitive because the thing is, they are given a lot of resources and opportunities to make the film that they want,” he said. “But at the same time, there are more and more coming [up], so it’s going to become very competitive.” He noted changes in the market that now sees Indian and Thai, as well as European, films on its screens.

The opening up of the Chinese market has also allowed for the democratization of the movie industry; whereas before a director had to come from one of the official film schools, they now come from all walks of life.

Wong talked about his own luck being part of the Golden Age of Hong Kong filmmaking in the '80s and '90s, when opportunities abounded. He said hotel lobbies looked like film studios on any given day, filled with producers and directors pitching projects. However, after Days of Being Wild (1990) wasn’t financially successful, he had to open his own production company to finance Chunking Express (1994).

Seven years later, Wong won the best director prize at Cannes. He thanked the festival for his many recognitions over the years, and added that submission dates keep him on a schedule of sorts: “They keep saying, 'This is when you have to send your print to come,' and it’s the only reason I have ever said, ‘Oh, we have to stop.’"

“But with The Grandmaster, you went to Berlin,” Fremaux said to good-natured boos and oohs from the audience.

“I’ll come back,” Wong promised.

The Grandmaster was met with mixed reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013, and Wong hinted that he hasn’t finished tinkering with it. “I wish we had the longer version, but I think we had done the best we could do,” he said. “I could keep shooting … The Grandmaster should be not just a film, but it should be given a bigger canvas.”

Wong said that while he is the producer, director and writer for all of his films, he hates the writing process. “It’s the most lonely moment in the creative process,” he said, explaining that is why he approaches his films differently with prolonged shoots and improvised scenes, giving the actors plenty of leeway to try different things.

Wong's longtime cinematographer Chris Doyle was in the audience. “We’re in it together, and it’s a different attitude,” he said. “In our films, the people we work with, they’re participants — they’re people who dare to go into this space, and the space is what we create. The space Feng Shui — it’s a give-and-take between the space and a person. It’s a dance between people and space.”

As for how Wong gets the actors to trust him with this process, he tells them: “’I promise I will be your safety net, and I always keep my promise.”