Interviews

INTERVIEW: TSUI HARK

By • May 20th, 2001 •

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FIR: Martial Artist / Actor Xiong Xin Xin played one of your most terrifying villains in The Blade. On Time and Tide he was your action choreographer. Tell us a little about Xin Xin and what your collaboration is like.

Hark: We’ve been friends for so long and we have a lot of concepts that we share and want to try. Time and Tide is one of the projects we wanted to use to see how our ideas would work out.

He’s very hardworking. He tends to think of a way to do things unlike we’ve done in the past. Especially the ‘contact’ – the time that people are in contact with each other during the fights – and also the physical things that happen in the story. He tries to think of a new way to present this kind of action instead of giving you the kind of thing you see normally in other movies. I think he’s very keen on that.

I wanted him to play one of the characters and he refused me. He said he didn’t have time to be an actor and an action designer. In The Blade he was an actor and, in doing the fighting sequences, he would suggest the way to do it, but on Time and Tide he was responsible for the whole thing.

He’s very creative. He’s an interesting and intriguing person and I would say that he’ll create more interesting stuff in the future.

FIR: Nicholas Tse and Wu Bai aren’t the first musical performers you’ve worked with. Jackie Cheung, Anita Mui and Sam Hui have also starred in your productions. Are there differences in directing music artists, martial artists and actors?

Hark: I think the people from the music industry are more into a modern – the ‘mod’ – image of themselves. On the other hand the martial art people are more into the physical part of their characters. Both have their own problems, the good and bad from their backgrounds. Music people are very concerned about how they look on screen. But then, as soon as you get them to do something and they feel confident about it, they’ll trust you to try out different things. On both sides, whether you use a martial art person or a singer, there are always two aspects you have to consider.

One aspect, to put it in simple terms, is: will they be able to act? For example, Wu Bai – this is pretty much the first time he’s taking up an important role to play throughout an entire movie, so he has to feel very comfortable in front of the camera. Even though he’s done MTV, and he’s done interviews in front of reporters with a lot of cameras around him, still, here he’s playing someone else’s personality. So for him, I think pretty much all the time he had to deal with trying to do something different. And also he wanted to be original.

These things add up to something that may not be helpful to the movie, because, basically, they are thinking too much and eventually finding it difficult to make use of their natural gestures and their personality to play the character. So one of the things we have to do is to relax them. We sort of blend the story with the way they feel about things. Also, we understand them by reading their songs, and try to connect the story with them on that basis, so they feel comfortable, like what they’re doing in the story is an extension of what they’ve done in the past. This sort of thing becomes the atmosphere – the relationship the director shares with the actors to make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera.

Another aspect of using people from the music industry is: will they have enough charisma to maintain a character for 90 minutes on the screen, to hold the attention of the audience? We have to take this very seriously because the actor has to be attractive, has to make a strong impact on the screen; and usually they are very shy. Most of them are very shy. They are the loners. They don’t contact people; they stay in a corner and play video games.

FIR: Really?

Hark: Most of them are fans of video games. So you have to get them out of that and try to open up the other side of their personality so they can hang around with the other people in the production; so they can relate to the other characters in the story.

FIR:
Time and Tide is a film of a million wild ideas. Was everything on screen written in advance or do you come up with things when you work with the actors on set?

Hark: Most of the ideas were written on paper but even so, I think when you realise these ideas on screen there’s a million ways to interpret the writing. We have drawings or storyboards. This is not something that becomes so restrictive that we have to abide by them and shoot the movie a certain way. Still, there’s a lot of complication between the crew and the director and the actors in coming up with the outcome of the imagery and the drama of it.

Sometimes you feel like the dialogue is not working so you have to change it, almost ‘on the set’. You have to eliminate some of the terms because the actors don’t feel comfortable saying them, even though you gave them the script a month ago. They try to overcome their problem, but still on the set you see the problem is quite obvious, so you have to cut those things out. Make them feel more comfortable.

Especially Wu Bai’s character: he had to speak Spanish. We had someone teach him, but still it’s not his native tongue. So we had to really make him feel like he was speaking Spanish. That was very important, that he overcome that shortcoming in his background. But he was trying very hard, and something that is encouraging on the set is quite fun to do.

FIR: I was convinced…

Hark: Yes, he’s… (chuckles) Most of the time he memorized all these lines and sometimes on the set we’d need to change a couple of words… He would jump. (laughs)

FIR: Every set has it’s stories… Were there any interesting incidents on Time and Tide?

Hark: A lot of them. But one incident was quite strange. In one scene, Wu Bai is fighting with Nicholas in the laundry room and somehow, during one of the set ups, Wu Bai fell from the top of the cart and hurt his back. I realised that he’d aggravated an old injury from when he was a kid. He insisted on finishing the sequence but the fall was so painful we had to send him to the hospital. Next day he came in and said he wanted to complete the sequence but I stopped him because I thought it would be too risky, since he was scheduled to do a concert a week later. He’d been rehearsing for the concert on the set, sitting in a chair, and I told him, joking, that ‘I hope you won’t be doing the concert in a wheelchair…’

FIR: Wondering about Swordsman; in the credits it says ‘Director: King Hu, Acting Directors: Tsui Hark, Raymond Lee, Ching Siu Tung’. What was the nature of that collaboration?

Hark: I’m a big fan of King Hu. In the 80s I was one of the producers who had this big possibility of getting people to make movies. One of my big fantasies was getting King Hu to direct the film. And also, Swordsman was one of the materials I thought was marvelous, y’know, such interesting material for a creative director to make.

So I got King Hu to do Swordsman. But then, because of his physical condition, he was trying too hard and I was worried about him: most of the time he was shooting he was on a mountain and had to climb up all these rocks. When I visited the set I asked people, “How did King Hu get up there?” And, basically, he was carried on the backs of the people, and every time he got up there he was too weak to direct. I was quite worried, and 10 days into shooting I decided to stop the production because I felt it was too dangerous for him.

The film had to be finished, but his physical condition did not improve, so I had to tell King Hu, “We have to shoot the movie for you because, with your health as it is, it would be inappropriate to go on with the production.” So I got the other directors and I told them, “Let’s put our minds into this big director. Imagine ourselves as King Hu.” We were all very familiar with his work and we can only say we were acting directors because he’s the soul behind the whole thing.

FIR: Out of curiosity, what are your three favorite films of all time? Also, what are your three favorite Chinese films?

Hark: It’s difficult to list three most favorite films in my life, but I can quote films I love to watch over and over again. One of them would be Seven Samurai by Kurosawa. Another one, I think, would be Citizen Kane by Orson Welles. And also Jules et Jim by Francois Truffaut.

And three Chinese most-favorite movies? One of them is Dragon Inn by King Hu. Let me see… ( He leans away from the phone and, in Cantonese, asks for the translation of what sounded like a Mandarin title… ) The Crow and the Sparrow – it was done in the 40s, it’s quite nicely done. Also East is Red, the musical. Do you know it?

FIR: You don’t mean your film, Swordsman III: The East is Red?

Hark: No. It’s a musical. It’s actually a political propaganda movie released by The People’s Republic of China. (Chuckles) It’s this monumental, ‘Russian style’ musical… Quite a unique experience ’cause on the stage you have tanks and a hundred people getting there and shooting a big extravaganza of a show. It could never happen again.

FIR: On the Swordsman II DVD, Bridget Lin’s character was called ‘Invincible Dawn,’ but on the laserdisc she was called ‘Invincible Asia’. What was her name supposed to be?

Hark: It should be ‘Invincible Asia.’ ‘Dawn’ would come from the first syllable: Dong Fung Buut Bai… ‘Dawn’. (Laughs) It has nothing to do with dawn at all.

FIR: Was her character symbolic?

Hark: Yes. When I read the novel I felt it was actually a political background. At that time I think the writer was into the satire of that political stage in China, and most of the characters have a political implication of someone in that period of time. It’s part Lin Biao, part Mao Tse Tung – a political satire, action style. When I made the movie I tried to interpret the characters in that way.

FIR: What’s film preservation like in Hong Kong?

Hark: For the time being it’s pretty much up to the investors who own the movie. Most of the time they keep them in vaults in the labs but, depending on the lab, the vault might not be so good. We also have a library of film history in Hong Kong, so sometimes we can request to see a film. I’m one of those people who are anxious to see the films that have disappeared. It’s interesting to get a hold of them, to see them. Sometimes they show on television, but most of those prints are badly preserved.

It’s a difficult situation, how films are preserved in Hong Kong. Hopefully in the near future the digital facility will help in restoring work from the past and preserving film in the future.

FIR: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Hark: I have a couple of projects in my hands, and I’m waiting for the schedule of the actors.

FIR: Are there any more Van Damme projects on the way?

Hark: Not as I know of. I think Van Damme was working with Ringo Lam last year and I haven’t heard from him since.


If you are fond of Tsui Hark’s work, and you live on the East Coast, then you should be made aware of a restrospective of the director’s work being presented late in May at the Anthology Film Archives at 32 Second Avenue at 2nd Street on the lower East Side.

From Friday, May 25th, through Monday the 28th, you can catch the likes of We’re Going to Eat You (1980 – a cannibal flick?), Green Snake (1993), Peking Opera Blues (1986), A Chinese Ghost Story 2 (1990), The Chinese Feast (1995 – screwball romance), Swordsman (1990 – Mike Lodes’ favorite), Swordsman 2 (1992), and The Blade (1995).

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