The first time when we met with Director Cheung is this May at the campus of Hong Kong University. Mabel graduated from Hong Kong University, where many of her films were shot. We still remember the scene of our first meeting. She wore a pair of baseball pants with a white sunbonnet. As her name suggests, she is slim, graceful and energetic but quiet.
As we all know, the creators normally have cutting-edge ideas. This is particular true for Mabel. She is vigorous like a campus student. Creators likely have a faster metabolic rate than ordinary people. Since engaged in the cinemas, Mabel has indulged her passion for cinemas and contributed one after another classical works to fans. During the golden age of Hong Kong cinemas in the 1990s, shootout films, cop films, martial art films and comedies were dominant genres, while all of her works were related to romance, family, compassion and times. These works were regarded as the most artistic films at that time. Mabel is like a wisp of white moonlight (beloved one) in the mind of Hong Kong movie fans.
Returned to Hong Kong University where the story started
In the warm spring month of May, Hong Kong is full of flowers blossoming. We kicked off our follow shot of the first Hong Kong director and the first woman director to witness her personal charm within and outside cinemas.
To shoot a documentary about Mabel Cheung, Hong Kong University is a must-visit place. Director Cheung studied at the School of Psychology, Hong Kong University. After graduation, she continued her studies at Bristol University, UK, where she received an Advanced Diploma in Drama and Visual Arts. In 1981, she studied a film directing program at the New York University. She was definitely an A+ student. Her education background is similar to Jennifer Lee, the leading lady of AN AUTUMN’S TALE. Education experience both at home and abroad enables Mabel to expand her international version. So, we could always find oriental people’s euphemism and exquisite and western people’s passion and romance in her works.
During shooting the documentary, we followed Mabel to visit her classrooms, girls’ apartment and ballroom. She still clearly remembered the scene of dancing disco in the ballroom. She even remembered that she wore the most fashionable mini skirt at that time. She whispered to tell us that she had no feeling about her dance partner…Like good movies, lovely memory would always linger in our mind no matter how long it past.
An artistic representative in the heyday of Hong Kong cinemas
When we talk about Mabel Cheung, we would think of her film AN AUTUMN’S TALE, CITY OF GLASS and THE SOONG SISTERS. Actually before these films, she has won the 5th Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director by her film ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT. This film was not only her graduation work, but also marked her directorial debut, won the financial support from the wife of Sir Run Run Shaw. She was the first student to win the investment in her class and she was crowded by her classmates like a hero when returned to campus. The film finally earned a box office of HK$5 million with an investment of HK$1 million, created a miracle at that time. After graduation, Director Mabel Cheung retuned to Hong Kong and started her film career, produced a series of classical works and reached a peak of her career.
In 1987, AN AUTUMN’S TALE was screened. At the beginning of producing this film, Mabel once found herself stuck in sourcing the investment. Finally, John Shum, a senior producer in Hong Kong cinemas supported her financially. John showed great interest when saw the script. He tried his best to help Mabel Cheung and Alex Law who only produced a graduate film at that time to realize their dream. In 1989, Mabel produced the third part of her “migration trilogy” EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD, which was rated as one of top ten Chinese films in Hong Kong in the year. During this period, Mabel Cheung was a prolific director, produced such works as NOW YOU SEE LOVE… NOW YOU DON’T, THE SOONG SISTERS and CITY OF GLASS. All these are regarded as a representative of art films in the boom period of Hong Kong cinemas. In 2010, under the support of John Shum, she produced ECHOES OF THE RAINBOW. In the eyes of John Shum, Mabel is a devoted director. She only produces films that could touch her. When shot AN AUTUMN’S TALE in New York, the crew were blackmailed by local gangsters. Mabel may be the first director to ask the gangsters to shut up. She is a girl in life, but a warrior in film studio.
A soul-mate couple pursuing their life-long film dream
In 1981, when Mabel studied at New York University, only three classmates were Chinese. Alex Law was one of them. They were assigned to the same group. When remembered the first time to meet Mabel, Alex said, “It’s a big surprise that I met such a Chinese girl on my first day in New York.” They became lovers in 1986. 30 years on, they are not only good partners in their career, but also the most tacit lovers in life. In film production, one is responsible for controlling overall narration framework, while the other is good at design and dealing with details. No one knows them better than themselves. From them, we find a kind of romantic love with mutual support and a sense of belongingness while giving the maximum freedom to each other. Alex Law said, “People always say that girls have two stomachs, one for sweet delicacies, the other for savoury food. Mabel has only one stomach because she doesn’t like sweet delicacies. However, she has two heads, one is for directing films, and the other is a lovely girl.” When talking about Mabel, his eyes are full of appreciation and affection.
Reviewed her directing career, Mabel felt graceful, “We are a lucky generation. We experienced the golden age of Hong Kong cinemas in the 1980s, which gave many opportunities to new directors like me. Later, we also see the golden age of Mainland’s cinemas. It’s a rare opportunity for us.” Over the years, Mabel and Alex still keep lover relationships. They devoted their life to each other and films.
Q: In the process of film production, do you have some occasions that you like the part but Alex doesn’t?
A: I know why he insists on because we trust each other’s taste and professional views. So, if he persists, I choose to believe him. Sometimes, the result is good by taking his suggestions. If it’s not good, we just cut it. That’s easy.
Q: I am particular curious about how’s your daily life. How do you divide tasks between you and Alex and how do you get along with each other?
A: I am good at cooking. That’s because I am a foodie. If my producer told me that we had a big meal after work, I would speed up my work. So, we could enjoy our dinner. I like cooking. Alex is good at buying food. He is a good bargainer. He could always buy cheaper food.
Q: If you and Alex have completed the script after hard work, the investors ask to change it. How do you deal with it?
A: It depends on whether we could accept it or not. We will write terms clearly in the contract. We could accept the suggestions of investors. But, we would negotiate to decide it finally. Some producers offer good suggestions, like John Shum. I seriously take his suggestions because he has his insights. But, he basically accepts my script and I needn’t change too much. John Shum was our first investor to invest AN AUTUMN’S TALE. At that time, we sought helps from all Hong Kong film companies. No one wanted to invest us. Later, our classmate recommended him to us. He told me that John was a little bit crazy and may want to invest such film. When we met, I said, “CEO, this is our script”. I give it to him and he asked me to leave it. Then, I left. John read my script immediately. I received his call in my way home. He agreed to invest us and gave us maximum freedom.
Q: CITY OF GLASS is a story about extramarital affair. In your movie, the extramarital affair is described as a beautiful love story.
A: What I emphasize is to truly present these figures. No matter what story is, love stories, family stories or stories about humanity, what I do is to present characters vividly. If the story is fabricated, the figures would have no true emotion. I try my best to write my stories to close to life. This is the most important.
Q: You studied both in the UK and USA. Your story starts from the USA. Is it because American life left you a strong impression?
A:Yes. I had scholarship when I studied in the UK. So, I needn’t have a part-time job as my scholarship was enough to support me. The British people felt that they were superior than others. However, the American people didn’t have such arrogant feeling. At that time, annual living cost needed several HK$100,000. I would study three years. So, I must find a part-time job at China town.
Q: Was Alex Law a poor student as well?
A: Yes, we had three Chinese classmates, including a student from Taiwan and us. Three of us were poor. The others were wealthy, including son of an oil baron from Texas, model…At that time, I had a chance to know them when worked at China town. I felt lucky.
Q: How do you select suitable cast?
A: The criterion for me to select cast is that he/she fits to the role, rather than they are superstars. Sometimes, investors would ask me to use famous actors, such as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. So, directors need have the courage to say no. If you think who is the most suitable, you should hold the line.
Q: The soundtracks of your movies are all beautiful melody pieces. You must have you unique way to heighten the emotion in the movie through soundtracks?
A: No. This is because I love music. It’s my favourite job to add the soundtrack to the movie and take audiences into the storyline. I feel really lucky to work with so many masters.
Q: Actually, we could see you had many lovely memories in your university studies.
A: Every student should indulge in university life and do what he wants to do. It’s the best time, isn’t it? The biggest advantage for young people is that you have time to make mistakes. You could make changes, dance, do some sports or fall in love. Even all these failed, it doesn’t matter. You are still young. You could do it again. So, you should have a wonderful university life. Otherwise, you will regret.