The Director: A Lonely Pitcher at the Center of the Baseball Field
- An Interview with Chan Chi-fat, Director of Hong Kong Film Weeds on Fire

Chan Chi-fat graduated from the Department of Social Sciences of the School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University, majoring in film and TV. Before his graduation, he obtained an advanced diploma in multi-media design from the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. During his college years, Chan did film editing and animation design, covering music videos, advertisements, and concerts.

In 2013, with the screenplay and film-making plan for Weeds on Fire, Chan Chi-fat won the First Feature Film Initiative Award sponsored by the Economic Development Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and with the fund of HKD 2 million, he made his first commercial feature film. With the woes of youth as the main theme, the film is set in the 1980s and features the Shatin Martins – the first youth league baseball team in Hong Kong, depicting how it started from scratch and rose to defeat the Japanese team. Full of optimism and inspiration, the film received a warm response after its debut at the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival.


Q: Where did the idea for Weeds on Fire come from? Why did you want to make a film like that?

A:During my college years I used to ask myself – if I had the opportunity, what would my first film be? The idea was eroded by time until the launch of the First Feature Film Initiative. I had intended to make a film about nostalgia among people living in public housing, but I found the storyline hard to develop. As a result, the plan was delayed until several years later, when I read a report about the Shatin Martins. It occurred to me that I could combine my original story with baseball. That was how the screenplay for Weeds on Fire came into being. In fact, the report focused on the development of Sha Tin. The baseball team was only mentioned in passing. Yet for me, it was really good material. That’s because the Shatin Martins, founded in the 1980s, was an epitome of the history of Hong Kong. It was a period when Hong Kong’s economy took off, but the history of the baseball team was unknown to most people. I made it my mission to make it public.


Q:What did you want to express about youth and dreams?

A:Weeds on Fire is not a pure baseball film; neither does it intend to talk about dreams. I would say it is a film about youth. Athletics-themed films are always associated with youth, inspiration, and excitement, but a new perspective needs to be added. Therefore, I combined athletics with the depression, confusion, weakness, and rage faced by young people through an exciting part of history. In the end, I was bold enough to shift the focus from how to build a team to the growth of two boys living in public housing.


Q:It was your first feature film. How did it match with your previous filmmaking experience?

A:Previously, I had only made short films, around three to five minutes long. My longest was around 40 minutes. It was also the first time I’d made a film about baseball, even though I didn’t play baseball myself. I encountered a lot of difficulties with the screenplay and the shooting. It was thanks to the support and selfless contribution of many people that I managed to pull it off.


Q:What difficulties did you face in the filmmaking process, and how did you overcome them?

A:I think the biggest difficulty – the one the whole team was worried about – was that the film might only attract a small audience. With no idol in the cast, and with baseball not being a popular game, there was the risk that very few people would want to see it. We also feared there would be no distributor with whom we could cooperate, or that the film might go offline within few days. We had to be prepared for high pressure.

The second biggest difficulty was the screenplay. It was adapted from true story about people between their primary and middles school days. Initially, I intended to focus on primary school, but the producer asked me whether I was trying to tell the story of public housing or of the Shatin Martins. I favored the former, but after while we found that many of the true stories couldn’t be effectively used in the film; they risked disrupting our creative process. Thus, the producer and I had to make a lot of trade-offs. In this aspect, the producer Chan Hing Kai offered me valuable suggestions. We ended up getting rid of the irrelevant stuff and focusing on the main theme.

The biggest challenge during the shooting process was the budget, which was only HKD 2 million. A lot was missing when we began shooting, which was what I expected of the 1980s. I asked myself why the reality was so far from my ideal. I was not confident in the film, and worried about criticism from the audience. However, after the film was completed and screened, nobody spotted any goofs. This is down to the outstanding performance of the actors, the coordination of the various parts, and the editing. In fact, we also encountered a tough period in the editing period. We were running out of budget in the latter phase, and I had to ask my friends to help out at a lower cost. While doing a part time job to make ends meet, I also bought a computer on installments to do editing. The unsatisfactory parts of the screenplay had to be corrected with editing. This is what we call “re-creation”.


Q:There is a mix of younger and more established actors in the film. Were they easy to work with?

A:I think many amateur actors have great potential. Though they haven’t played roles before, they can easily handle the dialogue and rhythm. A good example is Wu Tsz Tung Tony. He played his role like a professional actor, but in some emotional scenes he couldn’t get into character as quickly as professionals, This is one weakness of new actors. Of course, we have real baseball coaches in the film, who are handsome young men in real life, but seem unnatural in front of the camera. Luckily, experienced actors such as Liu Kai Chi were on hand to offer guidance and suggestions on the set.


Q:What do you predict for the future of the Hong Kong film market?

A:Personally speaking, the freedom of filmmaking in Hong Kong has been compromised compared to the 1980s or 1990s, partly due to the fact that local films have to rely on capital or markets from the mainland. I think the cinemas and film studios in Hong Kong should offer more support to non-traditional Hong Kong films, to give audiences more choice. We should have confidence in and support the making of Hong Kong films. We need more coordination, so that we can carry forward the fine traditions and advantages of the local film market.


Weeds on Fire is Chan Chi-fat’s first film as both screenwriter and director. The film was produced by Chan Hing Kai, the winner of the Best Screenwriter at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and Sing-Pui O, who was nominated for Best Cinematography. The film is adapted from the true story of the prodigious Shatin Martins youth league baseball team. The film stars Liu Kai Chi (winner of the Best Supporting Actor gong at the Hong Kong Film Awards), Lam Yiu Sing (leading actor in High Noon), and Wu Tsz Tung Tony (a member of the Hong Kong Baseball Team).


In February, 2014, I resigned as a TV director. From then on, this film became my life. I ignored the people and things around me. Now looking back, I realize that when you put down your obsession and give yourself more gaps, you can find the crux of the problem. To make a film about pity, you have to experience pity yourself. It can haunt you, and getting rid of it is an important question in life.

At the start, we all thought we had enough time and could control everything, including the direction and drop-point of the baseball. In the end, we had to change our strategy and direction due to the environment and the team, although the effect could have been better. Half of the game had passed before we knew it, and we had missed the best time for change. In the second half of the seventh game, the team was exhausted, both psychologically and physically. Some of the members were injured and withdrew from the battle line; some made peace with others who hadn’t seen eye to eye at the start, while several benchwarmers did unexpectedly well. For me, I should be the lonely pitcher in the middle of the baseball field. We both have to carry on, and both rely on our teams to proceed without hesitation. The producers Chan Hing Kai and O Sing Pui are more like the coaches.

I remember the day when we shot the scene of the final. Liu Kai Chi asked all the players to imagine that they had undergone nine months of games and this was the last one. Their happiness was beyond expression. The whole team burst into tears. Looking at the scoreboard, I couldn’t help recall the past nine months, when the one who knew me best had left me. Crying with my team, I carried on to the final game.

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