The drama of the action movie Extraordinary Mission takes place between antidrug police and drug traffickers. It has Wenqiang Zhuang as scriptwriter, Zhaohui Mai and Yaoming Pan as directors, and Xuan Huang, Yihong Duan, Yueting Lang, Feng Zu, Jiadong Xing, and Yaoqing Wanga as leading characters. The team has been dubbed the “Mai & Zhuang Mix”, and this is the first time they have collaborated on an antidrug movie in Mainland China, casting mainland actors in the leading roles. Most notable is the transformation of the young mainland actor Xuan Huang into a tough guy via epic action scenes, along with an impressive performance from Yihong Duan, who is famous for his strong acting skills in extremely negative roles.
At the film’s press conference, Mr. Mai disclosed that as early as 2011, leaders from the film administration department had expressed an interest in inviting his team to the mainland to shoot police drama. It wasn’t easy to arrange, and required a long period of communication, adding the roles of undercover officers and drug traffickers to form a prototype story. Mr. Mai said, “ We actually wanted to shoot this film five years ago, but the situations in Hong Kong and the mainland were so different that it took a lot of effort to create a story that belongs uniquely to the mainland’s undercover police.” On the same topic, Mr. Zhuang remarked that as mainland police are becoming increasingly involved in cracking down on multi-national crimes, Hong Kong directors are paying more attention to them, as they provide good source material for plotting.
The “Mai & Zhuang” is renowned for successful series such as “Infernal Affairs” and “Overheard”, and has major clout in the Hong Kong movie industry. For “Extraordinary” Mission they invited Mr. Yaoming Pan to be joint director, after employing him as the cinematographer for “Overheard”. The three respected filmmakers have been partners for many years, Mr. Mai and Mr. Zhuang as either joint directors or “scriptwriter plus director”; Mr. Pan has been recognised at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards for his top-notch cinematography. In recent years they have worked on countless classic scenes and episodes. As for the division of labor while making the film, Mr. Pan said, “My two partners have supported me a great deal over the past few years. Thus, although I hesitated when I was first invited to take part, after several discussions I began to see it as a fresh opportunity. I accepted their invitation.”
The film is scheduled for release on April 1st 2017.
Q: Mr. Mai and Mr. Zhuang, you have cooperated many times, on projects such as the “Infernal Affairs” series and “Overheard”. How do you feel about your collaboration?
Mr. Mai: Him and me? Boring. (Chuckles) Only joking. I mean, I understand what’s going on in his head, just like a colleague, close friend, and partner. It’s like we’ve been married for years.
Mr. Zhuang: I’ve never given it much thought. Anyway, I’m comfortable with him. Feeling comfortable is all right for me.
Q: “Extraordinary Mission” is set on the mainland, and most of the cast members are mainland actors. Does it feel different from other films you’ve made?
Mr. Mai: There was no difference when we were shooting. Since we made “Infernal Affairs”, we’ve worked with a lot of mainland actors, and I’ve shot on the mainland many times. I’m quite used to it. If there is any difference, it would be that mainland actors tend to ask more questions. This may be due to their training, because many of them graduated from theater academies. For me, it’s not a problem. No matter how many questions you have, as long as you can act that role to the fullest, it’s fine.
Q: Undercover police missions and gangsters are your specialties. What have you done with them in this film, and how are they different from before?
Mr. Pan: Actually, the themes were new to me, because I’d never shot outside of Hong Kong before. It was a challenge for all three of us to decide which perspective to use. Some aspects were completely new to us. It gave us some very valuable experience.
Q: Mr. Mai, you’ve said that Xuan Huang suits the style of Hong Kong films. What inspired you to give such an evaluation?
Mr. Mai: Some people will play any role they’re offered, but not Xuan. He really wanted this particular part. It’s my opinion that if someone wants a role badly enough, he will put his heart and soul into it. Of course, we didn’t know at the time whether he would perform well, but we were sure that his aspirations would push him to do his best. I was certain he would make the best of it. Also, he speaks good Cantonese.
Q: Mr. Mai and Mr. Zhuang, a sense of destiny and karma can often be felt in your work. In this film, when Feng Zu’s cop meets Yihong Duan’s drug trafficker, the former decides to sacrifice himself for his comrade-in-arms, whom he had once abandoned. Is there some fatalism at play here?
Mr. Zhuang: With “Extraordinary Mission”, you only feel a sense of destiny when you know the ending and then think back to the previous parts. This is what makes it a good story – there’s cause and effect within it. That’s not to say we did it on purpose, though.
Q: What’s the story with the chase-and-run shootings?
Mr. Mai: Making a film like this isn’t easy. One difficulty is the chase-and-run scenes, and the other is the actors. For the latter, the problems are how to get actors in the appropriate place, and how they portray the emotions of the characters. As long as a scene doesn’t start with a chase-and-run, then it’s doable. But if it does, I feel like I’m all at sea because there’s so much I can’t control. For example, if we want to shoot a scene at a hotel, things might be okay at first, but there are always complaints from guests or members of the public, and we sometimes have to cancel the shoot. At this point I have to thank Yaoming. It’s definitely down to him that the filming went so smoothly. He made careful plans for all the designs, action segments, and scenes. If it hadn’t been for him, we couldn’t have done it. Sure, we would have finished making the film, but it wouldn’t have been as good.
Mr. Pan: To be honest, our designs for chase-and-run scenes are based on the temperaments of the characters and the twists of the plot. After Wenqiang had finished writing the script, we started to think about the chase-and-run scenes because we wanted them to reflect qualities like valor, bravery, and heroism. It was our first mainland police story, so we had to portray the police positively.
Q: Mr. Zhuang, how did you feel about writing chase-and-run scenes?
Mr. Zhuang: A qualified scriptwriter should have original ideas. This is the most important thing. The second most important thing is that they must help the director to realize these ideas. I often use the metaphor that I’m a manufacturer of raw ingredients, and the directors put the dishes together. If I give them a piece of meat, it’s up to them to decide how it will be cooked. Sometimes I give them several pieces of meat and ingredients. They can take their pick. The selected angle is the value of a film in my opinion. Can every novel writer be a scriptwriter? Definitely not. You can only come to a conclusion about the script once the film has been shot; a good film must convey clear ideas to the audience.
Q: Mr. Pan, this was your debut as a director. How was it different from your previous roles? What was it like to work with Mr. Mai and Mr. Zhuang?
Mr. Pan: It was certainly different, particularly the allocation of work. When I worked as a cinematographer, my job was simply to convey the directors’ thoughts through my pictures. For “Extraordinary Mission”, I was given the chance to convey them with words, sounds, and images. It was a very different experience.
I’ve actually worked as a director before, but this was the first time I was labeled publicly! We’ve all enjoyed working together over the past few years. During “Overheard” and “The Silent War”, they had enough confidence in me to give me the space to be a director. We’ve built a relationship that is inclusive, considerate, and understanding. So I’d say that the only difference lies in the allocation of work or the public definition of roles. The core remains the same. If I had to explain the difference, it would be about who tells the story to the audience. We’ve always allocated work well. One advantage of our cooperation is that we never vie to be the director or the scriptwriter. It doesn’t matter.
Q: Xuan Huang had never appeared in an action movie. Why did you choose him for this film?
Mr. Mai: When we were casting his part, we didn’t really think about the action scenes. The most important thing was whether the actor would be able to shoulder the role. Action scenes are not the norm. In any case, Xuan Huang has been professionally trained. Whether an actor is suitable or not is the most important thing for us, not the action scenes.
Mr. Pan: Actually, when we first looked at the script, we had some images in mind for this character. So, when we conducted screen tests to find the right person, we found a few who coincided with our original ideas. They were all pretty good. But later, when we found Xuan Huang, we all knew he was the one. He may look frail and gentle, but it’s only on the outside. As it happens, his inner strength fit perfectly with our vision of a hero.
Q: Mr. Zhuang, did you take Xuan Huang’s personality into account when you were working on the script?
Mr. Zhuang: Nothing was specifically designed for him in terms of his personality. He has a kind of capability that other actors don’t possess, because most people only act when they’re in front of the camera. He acts in real life. I think that’s the most crucial point for any film. My requirement for a good actor is that they act “real” instead of acting only for acting’s sake. Xuan Huang has never thought about whether he acts well or not. For example, if there is a scene where he goes into a room and picks up a cup, he won’t be thinking about his parents, himself, or his task before he does it. He is perfectly suited for gangster films, and there was no need to design anything around him. He did it it naturally.
Q: How would you evaluate the performances of the three leading actors in this film?
Mr. Mai: They are all good. Maybe that’s because filming went on for so long. We worked together a lot. They’ve been part of our team for a long time, and I’m very familiar with them. We’re still in touch. I like them a lot. I appreciate their good work and the way they related to us as directors.
Mr. Pan: Mai has summed up my thoughts as well. All three of them are professionals. Yihong is an experienced actor with great inner flexibility. We didn’t need to say much; he was able to adjust himself to express the feelings we were looking for. Xuan is different in this regard, but it’s my firm belief that he’ll go on to do even greater things thanks to his inner strength. I have a deep appreciation for him as an actor. As for Feng, he’s a gentle person and a seasoned actor. He may look unassuming, but he took on his character’s fantastical personality in this role. He has a rare talent for embodying a part to the highest degree. It was a very enjoyable experience for me to see the three actors working together.
Mr. Zhuang: Feng was truly a surprise to me because from the time I met him to the first day of shooting, he seldom spoke. I later discovered that he was fond of telling sarcastic jokes. This struck me as interesting, because his character is the same. Yihong is an actor of great range and potential. He will try anything, even female roles. He’ll go on to do some interesting things. As for Xuan, I would love to write another script for him.
Q: Achieving commercial success in China’s film market is usually a question of genre or theme. Did you bear this in mind when you were making “Extraordinary Mission” ?
Mr. Mai: It wasn’t our main concern. What fuels the film is the element of fairness, not a particular genre. That’s what audiences will respond to.
Mr. Pan: We don’t want to define whether the film has a main theme. What we want is to portray the positive side of China’s police in terms of feelings and responsibilities.
Mr. Zhuang: For us, the film is a story we believe in and want to share. It’s an excellent story. Whether it has a theme or not is up to the audience to decide. Would you say that “Operation Mekong” is a themed film? Although its effects imply a certain theme, I don’t believe that Dante Lam had one in mind when he was directing it. If he had, the film wouldn’t have been so successful.