Manfred Wong is a senior Hong Kong film director, supervisor, screenwriter and actor. He once worked for the Golden Harvest Entertainment (Holdings), D & B Films Co. Ltd., Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong) Limited, Cinema City Co. Ltd., Movie Impact Limited, Win’s Film Productions and other film studios. Now he serves as the vice chairman of Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild and Hong Kong Screenwriters’ Guild, and a board member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. He used to be chairman of Hong Kong Film Award Association and now member of the Hong Kong Film Development Council. In November, 2007, he founded the magazine Hong Kong Film.
To the famous Hong Kong filmmaker Manfred Wong, the words “Hong Kong film” have two layers of meaning: one is the films produced with the participation of Hong Kong filmmakers, and the other is the films mainly targeting at Hong Kong local film market. Recent years have witnessed the increasingly profound exchange and integration between Hong Kong film industry and the big mainland film market. The combination of the rich experience of Hong Kong filmmakers and the abundant capital and resources of the mainland film industry help produce many high quality films. For example, among the four most popular films released during the Spring Festival season, three are produced with the intensive engagement of Hong Kong filmmakers, especially Operation Red Sea, a work by Hong Kong film director Dante Lam, harvesting both high box office revenues and public praise. As Manfred Wong says, many of the most productive mainland film directors are “nurtured by Hong Kong film culture”.
Against the new background, Hong Kong films are now faced with both opportunities and challenges from the film industry integration with the mainland. Manfred Wong received our interview during the award presenting ceremony of the 2nd Asian Brilliant Stars and offered his original and in-depth interpretation of the status quo and development of Hong Kong films.
CFM: How would you comment on the performance and development of Hong Kong films in recent years?
Manfred Wong ：The words “Hong Kong film” have two layers of meaning: one is the films produced with the participation of Hong Kong filmmakers, and the other is the films targeting at Hong Kong local film market. There are large differences between the two types.
Since the mainland market opened, the films with the intensive participation of Hong Kong filmmakers in their production have always been an important pillar of the industry. Among the four most popular films released during the Spring Festival, three are produced by Hong Kong directors, and even the Detective Chinatown directed by mainland director Chen Sicheng includes al lot of Hong Kong filmmakers. Therefore, the Hong Kong filmmakers contribute a lot to the development of the Chinese film market, especially the market expansion and progress in film creation. Without the experience and production capacity accumulated in the 1980s and 1990s by Hong Kong filmmakers, there can be no such growth momentum of the mainland market.
Relatively, there is little space for the films targeting at local Hong Kong market, due to their limited types and genres in creation. Over the past two years, many young audience in Hong Kong resist co-productions by Hong Kong and the mainland due to the friction on the two sides. In fact, co-productions accounted for a certain proportion of box office before, yet now those films labeled as co-productions, though mainly created by Hong Kong filmmakers, are faced with cold reception in the local market of Hong Kong.
Take the Spring Festival season for example; the highest-grossing film in local Hong Kong market is Black Panther, imported from the US. Among the four Chinese films released during the period, two are authentic local films. One is Agent Mr. Chan directed by Dayo Wong, a popular actor in Hong Kong who hold personal talk shows every two or three years. The tickets are usually sold out only within one or two days, for his exquisite dialogues catering to the taste of Hong Kong people. So the film is very popular and harvested nearly HKD 17 million of box office earnings within 4 days during the Spring Festival. The other one is a comedy entitled A Beautiful Moment directed by Lim Sum Yip. Actually, even Raymond Wong has given up this type of film in recent years, and the audience has little feeling with them today. The film features actors of Emperor Entertainment Group, with Carina Lau, Simon Yam and other super stars. Honestly, Lim Sum Yip is best at romance films, and he still needs to accumulate more experience in comedies. The rest two Chinese films are The Monkey King 3, which encountered cold reception, and Monster Hunt 2, with its performance not as good as the previous episode. Though Tony Leung is involved in the film by the producer to take the Hong Kong audience into account, the film failed to meet the expectation. There are underlying causes and I would attribute them to the worse relations between the mainland and Hong Kong. Thus the films labeled as co-productions are not so attractive to the Hong Kong audience. Relatively, the mainland film market needs the Hong Kong filmmakers to expand, with their rich experience in making genre films and market-oriented creation of commercial films.
CFM: What do you think are the features of the highly productive Hong Kong film directors?
Manfred Wong： In fact, most of the productive Hong Kong directors are now in their middle age, or what we call the mainstay of the industry. For example, Pou-Soi Cheang, Dante Lam, Benny Chan and Wilson Yip have accumulated rich experience in practice with strong executive capability. In the mainland market, with abundant budget, they have more freedom in creation. Without the huge budget, it would be impossible for Dante Lam to make Operation Red Sea or Operation Mekong. It would be impossible in Hong Kong. The mainland market needs their experience and talent, so that the two sides are highly complementary.
There is still a large gap between the new generation of Hong Kong film directors and the mainstay ones. In addition, even the most experienced Hong Kong directors are at the transitional period. While Tsui Hark and Andrew Lau are still active at the frontline, the new film of another mainstay director John Woo, Manhunt, fares not so well. While time has changed, he continues with the techniques used in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course Jing Wong can still manage to survive in the market. I think film directors such as Pou-Soi Cheang and Wilson Yip, as well as young directors such as Derek Kwok and Ho Cheung Ping tend to be the most promising ones in the next five or six years in Hong Kong.
Other younger directors such as Chun Wong (director of Mad World), who are not so firmly established yet hard-working and dedicated, tend to be not so highly productive. So I would always urge him and ask when he would make the next film, while he would say he is still busy with the screenplay. If your work is not so impressive or you could not guarantee at least one film a year, then you might not be able to maintain your influence. In the past, it used to be highly possible for a capable director to produce two or three films a year. Yet under the current production conditions, at least one work a year is the prerequisite. for a director to expand his or her influence.
CFM: In recent years, you have been pushing for the exchange and cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland film industry. What are the changes you find in the film creation and market? How can Hong Kong grasp the opportunities in the mainland film market?
Manfred Wong： I started making film in the mainland in the 1990s; of course I returned to Hong Kong from time to time. After 2000, especially since 2008, I had witnessed the whole production process of many co-productions, such as the Painted Skin by Gordon Chan and Perhaps Love and The Warlords by Peter Chan. Sometimes we had meetings where I could offer some suggestions on the film creation for them.
I think the mainland directors have gradually learned from their Hong Kong counterparts in the production of commercial genre films, in which the latter used to excel. Moreover, the new generation mainland directors have little burden in their creation, who watched Hong Kong films as early as in their childhood. For example, Sicheng Chen once admitted that many of his techniques were learned from Hong Kong films as well as some of the patterns in film creation. It cannot be denied that most of the new generation film directors in the mainland are nurtured by Hong Kong films. So what are the features of Hong Kong films? There is no burden of commercial films. It is the same case with the new generation of film directors in the mainland. Unlike their predecessors, who tend to express or reflect something in their work, they only think about how to make the films popular with the audience. Therefore, when complemented by the rich experience of Hong Kong filmmakers, they can better command the creation of genre films. For example, Lu Yang and Sicheng Chen are becoming better at martial arts and Hong Kong comedy respectively. For example, Some Like It Hot, which was released last year, is of strong Hong Kong film flavor. Thus we can see the mainland film directors are becoming more mature in the production of this type of comedy and genre films. Then what is left for Hong Kong filmmakers? If the mainland counterparts only value our experience, we will soon be overtaken. Thus we cannot rely on our experience. But overall, Hong Kong filmmakers can rely on their advantage in the basic education, creative ideas and less burden.
Moreover, as I always say, you have to adapt yourself to the market; in other words, you have to keep your foot on the ground. For example, Patrick Kong’s style is not popular with the audience in the mainland while Pang Ho-Cheung, who is of the same type, has established himself in Beijing. The reason is that he knows how to cater to the market. Another example is The Ex-file: The Return Of The Exes, which scored 1.9 billion in box office earnings, and its director Tian Yusheng is also market-oriented. Tian became famous for Lost On Journey, a screenplay he wrote in place of me. It cannot be denied that the mainland film directors learned from the experience of their Hong Kong counterparts.
CFM: This year’s FILMART is about to take place in mid-to-late March. In your opinion, which are the hotspots that deserve our attention, from the perspective of project and industry?
Manfred Wong： I think many hotspots will attract much attention. Happening in mid-to-late March every year, FILMART lasts only three to four days, but it will be a good platform to flex muscles for almost all film studios in Hong Kong and some large studios from the Chinese Mainland. It will provide a showroom for projects to be launched by time-honored studios in Hong Kong, like Mei Ah and Media Asia as well as Emperor Entertainment Group, a studio under the flag of Louis Koo that has risen to fame over past two years, and China 3D Digital Entertainment Limited under the flag of Stephen Shiu Jr. I think some projects have made very slow progress, possibly restricted by actors or production resources. For example, Louis Koo has still gone slowly with his films Wind and Cloud and A Step Into The Past after another year has passed. As an industry insider, I have participated in their projects and found many objective barriers. Stephen Shiu Jr. is good at producing films with pure local taste of Hong Kong. Last year, they produced The Yuppie Fantasia 3, which mainly targeted local audience in Hong Kong as well. This Spring Festival’s Agent Mr. Chan is also a great success.This year, they will also launch a very important film Dynasty Warrior, which is expected to appear at the film exhibition. Meanwhile, Philip Yung will direct a new film Theory of Ambition produced by Media Asia. After directing Port of Call, he has risen to great fame. The new film, to be starred by Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung and other actors, will catch many eyeballs.
As Hong Kong filmmakers, we respect and admire Louis Koo very, very much, because he always spares no effort in cultivating local films and does his utmost to help you, even to work overtime, as long as you turn to him. However, he is very busy and has no good team that can help him promote projects, so he can’t market some projects in time. Moreover, I don’t think they understand employees of the Chinese Mainland market very well, and they even don’t know who are the most popular actors in the Chinese Mainland. As a result, they can’t find best partners to cooperate with. Therefore, I hope they will do better in this regard. Other time-honored studios should also launch some new projects, but they have not finally decided what contents to promote. Therefore, I won’t know more about these projects until arriving at the venue in March, just like you.
CFM: The Hong Kong Film Awards is one of the most important awards in the Chinese film circle. What reform measures has the award taken in past years?
Manfred Wong： Actually, no changes have happened. I have worked at the board for many years and once served as the chairman of the board. I didn’t work at the board for a few years during the period, but I have worked at the board over the past six years. We still aim to host the Hong Kong Film Awards to display the annual work of the local film circle in Hong Kong and adhere to the principle of neutrality, openness and transparency. If the rating mechanism deviates from the principle, we will immediately amend the deviation. I am the head of the rating panel. For example, a local director in Hong Kong and a director from the Chinese Mainland jointly direct a film, and then, will the film satisfy the condition for a local film? We have observed such new situations from time to time. Once finding new situation and issues, we will improve the rating mechanism.
The only pressure over the past two years comes from the political factor, or to be more specific, a contradiction between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. For example, the film Decade won the best film award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. The nomination of such a sensitive film has affected the communication of our Hong Kong Film Awards on the print, TV and Internet media in the Chinese Mainland. Some don’t understand the situation of the film circle very much, and some even interpret the event from a political perspective and believe this will deliver a very significant impact. However, we will not allow any external force to intervene in the rating of the Hong Kong Film Awards, and we don’t have the power to manipulate the nomination or award for any film. Now, we have a total of 1,300 qualified voters, who cast votes on films. The films winning the most votes will be nominated, and of these films, the one winning the most votes will win an award. Everything is open, and we believe in professionals such as accountant and auditor.
Therefore, we are very reactive to face such a dilemma. For one thing, we acknowledge the Chinese Mainland very much for opening up the market, which creates a bigger space for our Hong Kong film circle. At the same time, it is impossible for us to control the discontent sentiments of some young natives of Hong Kong. Actually, we always seek to avoid display any political stance. Over the past two years, the Hong Kong Film Awards has felt an unprecedented pressure, which is troublesome for my colleagues and Chairman Derek Yee of the board. We have no right to influence the nomination and award result, but will still adhere to the fair and transparent procedure. We can’t lose the tradition of the Hong Kong Film Awards that has taken shape over the past 37 years.
CFM: Could you please share your own project plans for 2018?
Manfred Wong： At the end of last year, I completed a film Angela together with Mr. Dong Ping from Huanxi Media Group Limited, which has also invested in the Crazy Alien, a film directed by Ning Hao. Actually, I hope to open up a new universe for the family children’s film, but not animation. My film is a film targeting at children, and I think we will still take more than half a year to complete the special effect. The story is very simple and takes place in the Old Summer Palace during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing Dynasty. Why is the Old Summer Palace? This is because Hengdian has just completed a new palace with the same proportional scale of 1:1 as the Old Summer Palace, and we’re the first crew who have produced a film in the new palace. What story did we tell? The heroine is a little princess aged about 6-10. One day, the little princess and her companions found an alien in the Old Summer Palace, and the story happened between these kids and the alien.
In my opinion, some film types have not grown as we expected, and have even lost the space to grow better. For example, when it comes to horrific ghost films, The House That Never Dies, a terrific ghost film directed by me, has recorded a ticket office of more than RMB400 million. I once expected a good performance of Demon Bell, a film directed by Chen Kexin, but the film failed to meet the expected ticket office. We are not very possible to produce some films highlighting pornographic and practical contents. Then, what films can we produce? Dante Lam is now working on military films, and a crowd of comedy directors have appeared in the Chinese Mainland. Therefore, I think the children’s film market still has a big potential and will possibly produce a film that will create a record in the segment, if I borrow something from the film ET directed by Steven Spielberg. Of course, not all people are optimistic about the segment, but it is enough as long as I think well of myself.
Meanwhile, I have recently cooperated with Lajin, an entertainment company that bought two famous intellectual properties, including the Tibet Code and Hachik. I participated in the second project. Now, the film has entered the stage of final story design and is expected to start production in 2018.