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Interview Clement Cheng on Gallants
Debut in the HK film industry 1/1 - Page 1
Author(s) : Thomas Podvin
Date : 1/6/2011
Type(s) : Interview
 Intext Links  
People :
Clement Cheng Sze Kit
Gordon Lam Ka Tung
Andy Lau Tak Wah
Movies :
The Moss
The Pye-Dog
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Page 2 : Concept of Gallants

Produced by Andy Lau's Focus Films Limited, Gallants was arguably one of the best 2010 Hong Kong films. Ten years in the making, it was tremendously successful, both publicly and critically, at home and overseas. It pocketed many awards in HK (four 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards; 2010 Best Film Award from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society) and it also has enjoyed a fruitful career on the international film festival circuit (Udine, Montreal, New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, London, etc.).

Last May, half of the directorial team, i.e. Clement Cheng, attended London's Terracotta Far East Film Festival, where he presented his drama with kung fu elements to the English audience. A devoted fan of the Canucks (Vancouver's ice-hockey team) and the son of two cultures, Cheng was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada. He came back to Hong Kong 15 years ago to break into the local film industry, and has teamed up with Derek Kwok Tse Kin (The Pye-Dog, The Moss) ever since, doing mainly scriptwriting jobs. On Gallants, in addition to co-writing the script with Kwok, he also shared the directing duties.

In London, we met Cheng for a one-to-one interview (we regret that Kwok wasn't at the festival as he was busy on a movie shot in China with Stephen Chow for another adaptation of the Monkey King story). Cheng also hosted a masterclass in the British capital, “Make your first film and shoot it in 18 days,” in which he simply answered questions from members of the audience. After the film Gallants was screened at the festival's venue, the Prince Charles Cinema, Cheng answered questions from filmgoers.

We have transcribed these three events. Below are excerpts of the transcription that we have re-organized by theme for more clarity. To distinguish who asked the questions and in which event, the following system is adopted:

- HKCinemagic one-to-one interview: “HKCM”

- Questions from audience members and HKCinemagic at the masterclass: “Masterclass”

- Q&A after the film screening: “Q&A”

Director Clement Cheng in London in May 2011 (Photo by HKCinemagic.com)


Debut in the HK film industry

Masterclass: I'd like to be a filmmaker. I would like to know how you started in the filmmaking business and what would be your advice for wannabe directors?
Clement Cheng: First of all, I grew up in Canada, and they don't have a film industry there. I really wanted to be involved with movies. At least write or direct something. I was a personal assistant for the Hollywood people that were shooting up in Canada, and I could never get my hands on things. I did location scouting, I bought coffee. That's about it.

It's very different in Hong Kong. I went back [to HK] and got to know some people from the film industry because HK is such a small island. There is no system at all in HK. Everybody knows everybody. From then on, I started doing what people needed. If they needed a grip, I'd be a grip. If they need someone to carry a bag, I'd do that. It was mainly to [develop] my networking.

And eventually, I got to do some art direction for commercials and music videos. I got to know more people and started doing directing work.

Actually, I started off by being an art director. It was very comfortable; you can do two or three jobs a year and get paid. It was a good life. But after a year of that I thought, “Wait a minute, this is not where I want to go. This road doesn't lead to being a director.” There is one job in HK which no one is doing, and they are paid shit - well, we are not actually paid and don't get respect - that's a screenwriter. Whatever the director says, you write down. And the next morning you come up with a script or a theme. Nobody wants to do it but you are involved in the creative process. I've been doing that for the past 10-12 years. Eventually people got to know me.


Gallants by Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok.


The script for the movie Gallants was done ten years ago. I tried to sell it to producers and directors but nobody liked it or wanted it. It's about a bunch of old geezers fighting - who wants to watch that? It's crap. I tried to sell it for the first five years. I just gave up because nobody wanted it and I got rejected over and over again. Three years ago I met with my producer, Gordon Lam, who happened to also be a first-time producer. His boss is Mr. Andy Lau.

I was pitching him a few story ideas but he didn't like them. Right when we were leaving, I said I had one more, and I told him the story of Gallants. He said it sounded pretty interesting. I gave him the story outline, the treatment, and he passed it on to Mr. Lau. And for some reason he liked it a lot, and said “let's make it”.

So I guess the answer to your question is: to persevere. Just keep trying. It's tough. You know, I cried so many times on set because people were yelling at me. The longest I've been yelled at was five hours straight, in a conference room. So yes, I guess you have to persevere. And don't lose your sight. Do what you really want to do. Somehow it will happen, I guess. But you don't know how.

It's like the story of Sylvester Stallone. He used to be a porn actor [Ed.: in Morton Lewis' soft-core The Party at Kitty and Stud's / Italian Stallion , 1970]. He was rejected on every other film. At one audition he was rejected again but on his way out he told the director that he also writes. The director told him to send him something he thought was good. And that's how Rocky got made.

I guess there is no one way to do it. Keep talking about it, keep trying. It is easier now because you can even make a movie with your mobile, with your iPhone. You don't need big equipment or a director of photography. Just try making it, and you'll get better. One day people will come and click on your video on YouTube and it will probably be spread worldwide.
Masterclass: Do you advise aspiring filmmakers to go to HK to have a career there?
Clement Cheng: I don't know. That's a good question. I did both of my films in HK; there is nothing in Canada. I was born in HK and I speak the language, even though I didn't write it very well. I am good now (laughs).

In HK it's chaotic and there is no system. My thought is, when everyone says “it's right, we have to do this,” I don't do it. When people say “it's a dead end, don't go there, it's not gonna happen”, I go the other way.


Clement Cheng attending the masterclass organized by the Terracotta Far East Film Festival (photo by HKCinemagic.com).


When you are scared of doing something, just keep trying. Chances may lie in dangerous places. There is a novel called A Tale of Two Cities [by Charles Dickens] , the first two lines are “This is the worst of times. This is the best of times.” [Ed.: The book starts with It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... ]

In HK there is no big studio. They don't make any money. We just do it guerrilla style all the time. I guess the more people you know, the more opportunities you can get. My advice is: everybody will have the chance. Every dog will have his day. As long as you are prepared when the chance comes.
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