MASTERCLASS SERIES with Mabel Cheung 張婉婷

Written by Yu Yifan


The pandemic has not stopped us from holding exciting events and we are always delighted to see that quality films still have the power to draw fellow cinephiles into cinemas. Last month, Singapore Film Society had the great honour of hosting a Masterclass with Director Mabel Cheung, the first of the Asian Film Awards Academy (AFAA) Masterclass series to be held in Singapore, with our VIP guest joining in virtually in front of a live audience seated in the cinema. The Masterclass with Mabel Cheung was organised in collaboration with the AFAA, and sponsored by Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund.

Founded by 3 of the major international film festivals in Asia – Busan, Hong Kong and Tokyo – AFAA’s objective is to promote and develop Asian cinema, its talents and audiences. The AFAA Masterclass series has received international recognition as a platform for young and inspiring filmmakers, students as well as cinephiles to get together and learn from legendary filmmakers from Asia. 

Singapore’s inaugural AFAA Masterclass featuring veteran Hong Kong Director Mabel Cheung 張婉婷 sold out almost immediately and took place on 19th February 2022 at Shaw Theatres Lido, before the screening of the 4K restoration of one of Director Cheung’s most successful box office hits – An Autumn’s Tale” 秋天的童话 (1987). 

Mabel Cheung is an important female filmmaker and one of the leading directors in Hong Kong cinema. Her critically acclaimed migration trilogy explored themes of identity, race, gender, and culture during the height of migration in the 1980s, and created stories with historical significance by documenting the immigrants’ experiences. Director Cheung’s various works, as well as her career as an influential director, producer, and scriptwriter, were discussed during the Masterclass. 

Here are some highlights from the Masterclass. 


On being a director

Singapore Film Society (SFS): What are some of your favourite and least favourite parts of being a film director?

Diretor Cheung (DC): I don’t see being a director that way. I don’t count my favourite and least favourite things because for everything in life, there are good times and bad times. For me, I am actually very happy that I can become a film director because of how hard it was for a woman to become a film director in my time. I really enjoyed being a director. I could make my dream come true through the protagonist in the movie. For example, in City of Glass (1998), I realised my dream of becoming a pilot through [the protagonist] Shu Qi as the director. This is how I dream through the protagonist – [so] that I could live lives that I can never experience in real life. When I made The Song Sisters (1997), I lived the life of first ladies. When I did A Tale of Three Cities (2015), I lived the war and escaped from city to city, realising how hard it was for our parents.


SFS: What are some directing tips you can give to young directors in the audience today?

DC: Nowadays, a lot of things could be done through technology – the colour, the editing, virtual reality, 3D scanning and so on. The actors do not even have to leave the studio. For young filmmakers, the most important thing which technology cannot take away is to be creative, to go out of the box and live an exciting life, to meet all sorts of characters, like how I made friends with gangsters and illegal immigrants in New York. One can learn technology anytime, but a director needs to write stories that appeal to film companies and audiences in order to enter the business.


SFS: What’s the best advice anyone has given you about film making?

DC: I remember one piece of advice from my professor when he praised one of my thesis works that was done by accident. He said that art by accident is still an art. From then on, I realised I should not be so strict about everything so that good accidents may happen along the way. One should not be so nervous and stressed out about creativity because insights might come to you while you are doing other things. Actually, I always put some paper by the bedside because I think of wonderful things to be used in my stories when I am half conscious.


SFS: About two years ago, during the height of the pandemic, there was a survey done in Singapore about what are the essential jobs and non-essential jobs to keep the society going. Artists came at the top of the list of non-essential jobs. We would like to know about your opinions on the role of artists and filmmakers in our society today. 

DC: Actually I think about it a lot, too. When I was making Eight Taels of Gold (1989) in China in the heat of summer, I was approached by a farmer there. Always having the mindset that people like farmers and doctors are essential workers in the time of a pandemic or war, I was surprised to hear her express that my work as a director was essential to her. She said that good films and other art forms gave them the motivation to work and they could enjoy some entertainment after long days of growing crops. 


On An Autumn’s Tale (1987)

SFS: The film An Autumn’s Tale (1987) has such a beautiful and iconic ending. Can you walk us through the conversations you had with your writer, your Director of Photography (DOP) and your editor to create such a memorable film ending?

DC: Actually at the writing stage, it was a very simple concept that Chow Yun-fat and Cheri Chung gave each other the parting gift, which was the most precious thing in their possession. Unfortunately, the perfect pair of gifts missed each other due to bad timing. I wanted to make something more beautiful and memorable for the ending. I was sitting at the Brooklyn Bridge one day to wait for my crew members to show up. Then, I looked up and saw the spectacular structure and I thought, maybe we can shoot Chow Yun-fat running to catch a last glimpse of Cherie Chung when the car drove through the tunnel towards the highway entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. And it was then I decided the film would end with Chow Yun-fat chasing Cheri Chung under the beautiful twilight.

There was this one shot I really wanted to do when I was a child and watched Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In the shot, Omar Sharif was wearing a black robe on a camel, riding across the desert, and somehow he appeared to be riding in the same spot, not making any progress. There was heat and steam and it was such a magical shot because you can see that he was trying so hard but could not get anywhere. When I was a student director, I thought that I had to make a shot like that, without realising that a very powerful telephoto lens was needed to make a shot like that. To shoot the shot of Chow Yun-fat chasing the car, I used a 1020mm lens to shoot him running toward the camera. In the shot, Chow Yun-fat was running and everything else was out of focus, like shadows. He was running very fast but he could never reach his girl. It was like my dream came true.


SFS: For your first film The Illegal Immigrant (1985), you were working with inexperienced actors, but for An Autumn’s Tale (1987), you have professional actors. As the director, did it change the way you approached the project?

DC: Yes, The Illegal Immigrant (1985) was my student thesis film in which I used my friends from Chinatown as the actors – gangsters played themselves and illegal immigrants played illegal immigrants, except for the male lead who was my classmate and female lead, a medical student I found through the local newspaper. It was kind of like a docu-drama. It was easy to direct them as long as they acted like themselves. The difficult part was the scheduling because they had other commitments and it took me one year to film The Illegal Immigrant.

For An Autumn’s Tale (1987), I worked with professional actors and at first assumed that I should answer all questions like what I did for The Illegal Immigrant (1985). However, at that time, I did not know that I could discuss with the professional, great actors for their opinions and choose the best suggestions. After shooting the running scene for around twelve days, Chow Yun-fat came to me and asked me nicely why he had to run for more than ten days. I could not tell him that sometimes my amateurish camera assistant could not get the focus of the 1020mm lens camera. I just told him that the scene would be moving and beautiful and his acting was great by portraying different emotions well. I had to figure out how to work with actors later in my career.


SFS: You mentioned during an interview with Lian He Zao Bao that the character of Samuel played by Chow Yun-fat was inspired by a real gangster. Can you tell us more about this?

DC: Yes, Chow Yun-fat’s character was based on my friend who was an illegal immigrant working in Chinatown. I just want to remind everyone that he’s not a gangster [laughs]. The way he talked and acted was exactly like the character. He called me ‘trouble’ because I was troublesome. He did not learn English but he spoke English very well. He was the most interesting person I met at that time and Chow Yun-fat’s character was based on him.


SFS: An Autumn’s Tale (1987) was made in the 1980s and we are watching its restored version today. Why do you think this film has such a timeless appeal, and how do you, as an artist, create art and film that stands the test of time? 

DC: When I made the film, I didn’t think about making a film that stands the test of time or making a classic film. At that time, it was very difficult to just finish the film. I got over-budget, I had no control over the schedule and I made my actor run for fifteen days. I got reported back to Hong Kong and my boss asked me to shoot the exterior scenes in New York and decide whether to continue shooting the rest of the film. I said goodbye to my crew and my friends at the airport and almost cried. Now looking back, I think most of my successful films are those that are genuine, truthful and with sincere feelings and characters.


SFS:  What do you think is the best way to portray Asian experiences through movies internationally without diluting it for the Western audience? 

DC: When I make a movie, I do not actually think about the audience, but try to come up with the best script and movie, a genuine and truthful one. I believe that sincere emotions, friendship, family, or love, can translate across borders and reach audiences locally and internationally.


SFS: Is there a reason that you set the film in the season of autumn?

DC: Autumn in New York is really beautiful and it’s my favourite season. The leaves turn red and yellow, it’s not too cold or too hot. However, when I shot the scene of Cherie Chung riding the bike in Central Park, the trees were not red or yellow so we decided to spray the leaves with washable paint. Unfortunately we got arrested and had to appear in court during which the judge asked us how I would feel if he sprayed the trees in Hong Kong. I replied that I would love it if it was done beautifully, and got fined. I think it was worth it though [laughs].


SFS: Would you consider making another migrant story in today’s context?

DC: I will not make a sequel to An Autumn’s Tale (1987) since I have put everything in that movie. However, considering the situation in Hong Kong, immigration has become a hot topic again. I made the migration trilogy back then because a lot of people tried to move out because they did not know what would happen in 1997. I was even offered to arrange a fake marriage when I was in New York. Though now it’s not a good time to make such a movie, I think I could easily write another trilogy on immigraion in Hong Kong now.  


On To My 19-year-old Self (2021)

SFS:  Could you tell us the key difference between being a director for a documentary and a scripted drama?

 DC: As a director for a drama feature, you decide the fate of the characters, you are a god-like person deciding the destiny of the protagonist. In a documentary, the people themselves are the directors of their own lives and they get to decide whether to share their stories, be followed and filmed. I discovered that to be a documentary director, you had to be a nice person whom people like to talk to and eventually they forget about your existence and become their true selves.

 For To My 19-year-old Self (2021), I shot for ten years and it’s so difficult to find the stories of different girls and the spine of all their stories through tens of thousands of footages.


SFS: What drew you to this project and what kept you going for the ten years?

DC: That was the school I went to and they were going to rebuild the campus. I was asked to film the girls from when they were eleven in the old school, and followed them to the “hotel” school, and in the end, the newly built school. At first I followed thirty-something girls from 2011 to 2021, from eleven years old to twenty-one years old. I narrowed down from thirty to ten, then to six girls and witnessed the girls, their difficulties, their trials and tribulations of growing up, the influence of education, family, friends and peer groups. Interestingly, it was the ten years [during which] Hong Kong went through the most changes, socially and politically. That also influenced the growth of young people. It’s a growing-up story of young people in the turbulent ten years of Hong Kong society.

During the Masterclass, Director Mabel Cheung shared her unique experiences as a female director from Hong Kong in the 1980, shedding light on the migration issues and other human stories through the camera lens. It was an unforgettable experience and we would like to thank everyone who joined us and inspired us to keep doing what we’re doing. The SFS team will continue to work hard, inviting acclaimed directors and filmmakers to Singapore, bringing film lovers together for more interactions and discussions. We hope you will join us in our love for everything film!

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