Straddling two worlds

Print edition : September 22, 2006

Interview with Hong Kong film-maker Stanley Kwan.

ROBERT FROST said that poetry is about grief that nothing can be done about. Watching the retrospective of Hong Kong film-maker Stanley Kwan at Osian's Cinefan (July 14-23) in New Delhi made one feel that his cinema too, like his eponymous recent film, was about Everlasting Regret. The word regret implies a certain irrevocability. (The phrase harks back to Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie, "The present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret.") Kwan's vision carries the notes of that wistfulness, highlighted by melodrama, and spiced with irony in the memorable moments. Everlasting Regret (2005) makes a tryptich with Kwan's other films located in Shanghai in mainland China - Centrestage (1992) and Red Rose White Rose (1994).

Centrestage was a biographical take on Ruan Ling Yu, the celebrity star of the silent era. No one was surprised when Maggie Cheung bagged Berlin's Silver Bear for her brilliant portrayal of the protagonist. Kwan's collage-like non-linearity and commanding stylisation proved just right in balancing upclose emotion with objective scrutiny. Candid interviews and black-and-white footage from old films not only mused on the woman's mystique, but traced the events leading to her suicide against the backdrop of China's film industry of the 1930s.

Kwan returned to the Shanghai of the 1930s in the awards-sweeping Red Rose White Rose , this time with a tale steeped in bitter satire. `Respectable' upper-class Chen-pao has an affair with a friend's passionate, self-seeking wife, his Red Rose, but marries a meek, unexciting, traditional woman to be his spotless White Rose. How else can he maintain his sober image in society? Based on a novel by Eileen Chang, the film adopts a seemingly bland tone to trounce sexism and hypocrisy. It paints the two women reacting in wholly different ways, to their exploitation in a patriarchal society.

Again Kwan uses a complex form to subvert the content. He reflects the theme from angled mirrors. Distortions reveal truths hidden to the straightforward eye.

Mounted on a form no less ambitious than the first two in the trilogy, Everlasting Regret failed to equal their ravelled density and ironic texture. Kwan layers his story in time and perspectives. His characters evolve through several decades, witnessing the changing social order from 1947 to 1981. The weak strokes in establishing the political background give the canvas a straitened, pallid feel, and reduce the reality dimension. The events therefore acquire a heightened emotionalism, called melodramatic by the local and foreign press, and plain maudlin to this viewer accustomed to Bollywood trends.

Protagonist Qiyao wins a beauty contest and becomes the mistress of Officer Li in the pre-revolution era. Life wafts through rainbows of adulation and love. But soon, buffeted by the vast tides of political and cultural changes affecting her nation, the woman is forced to give up her butterfly existence and take heed of earthly realities.

She retains her dignity (and rather incredibly, her youthful beauty) through see-sawing fortunes, until she is murdered by a heedless young lover Kela. The film is anchored by some irony in the photographer's (Cheng) vision. He first discovered the woman's potential, and his feelings for Qiyao glint and darken with hues that are difficult to pin down.

For many, Kwan's Rouge (1988) remains special. The strands from this early film were to appear again and again in his subsequent works. He winds the love story through twin realms - modern Hong Kong and dissolute Shek Tong Tsui, again in his favourite 1930s milieu. Two memories mesh - his-story and her-story, bridging existence in the flesh with that of the spirit. Gender distinctions in the voice over almost blur, as again they would in Everlasting Regret.

Kwan revealed his homosexuality in a documentary and made an underground film (Lan Yu) on same sex love. It was a ground-breaking attempt, winning attention abroad, though blacklisted in his country.

From his own experience Stanley Kwan knows that for a Chinese film-maker, recognition outside his country is important today, not only for financial gain, but as a passport to more freedom in making creative choices. Ang Lee is the ultimate role model here. He is not saying that the way is through a big-budget spectacular film like Zhang Yimou's The Hero or Ang Lee's blockbuster Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. He believes that to reach beyond a Chinese audience may be the way out of present-day frustrations engineered by Hong Kong's commerce-driven film industry.

Stanley Kwan served on the jury panel for the Asian Competition at the film festival. Excerpts from his interview to Frontline:

Born and brought up in a Westernised milieu, how was your film-making affected by Hong Kong becoming a part of mainland China?

The Hong Kong film industry is extremely commercial. As film-makers, we were well-trained in the packaging of our goods. It is not that we do not want to do something very personal, in fact we know that is really important in the kind of creative work filmmakers aspire to achieve. But within the system in Hong Kong, it is not easy to disregard or get away from the mainstream that much. In the mid-1980s, the golden era of our filmdom, we had the freedom to make choices, but only if we got cooperation from the big stars and studios. And we did get that cooperation then. But things changed after 1997. A very difficult time for Hong Kong cinema. The local market could not afford big budget films and hesitated to invest in smaller productions. But at the same time, the mainland market began to expand. Many mainland industrialists began to get involved in the film and television serial business.

Looking at the works of China's best-known film-makers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou one knows that they make films of a different kind. Their traditional themes have both local and international appeal. Why would Chinese industrialists want to invest in you?

Mainland China's attitude is changing. I'm a Hong Kong director who made films on Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s. Nostalgia is a strong element, of course. But it also enables me to use an epic sweep to look at the past - and the past in the present. In a way we can make much better films of this kind than local film-makers in China. Why? Because things were turbulent in China with events like the Cultural Revolution, and changes in policy, all of which take time to settle down. In Hong Kong we've had access to more things and therefore are in a position to bring in more details.

Are you saying that a Hong Kong director can be more objective in his perspective - or more modern in techniques?

Both. We were not born in China, nor do we belong to the 30's generation. But all that is part of our memories, somehow! From what our parents told us, from magazines, films, art. So many sources, influences.

Isn't Cantonese more common in Hong Kong? Don't you have to use Mandarin for Shanghai-based films? Do your cast and crew have to adjust to differences in language and culture when shooting in Taiwan or China?

Look, let's leave out Taiwan, it's altogether different. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. We speak bad Mandarin, but somehow we can communicate. I have the advantage of having learnt Mandarin in school. Our actors are learning it now. The real problems are different. In China, once you submit a script to the film board, you can't deviate from it. If you do, you run into problems at the time of its release. If you make an underground film as I did with Lan Yu, you can't release it in the country. No, I don't see things changing on this front in the near future. So, since we want to get our investors from China, and have our largest viewership there, we must learn to deal with this situation.

We must choose our subjects carefully, and ensure that we follow the script faithfully. I've decided, no more underground films for me.

You use a highly crafted style. Formalism and passion don't usually go together. How do you manage to blend them?

That's an interesting idea... Let me think. I think it's really because I'm gay. I'm not saying that heterosexual people don't suffer. Love, hate, passion, withdrawal, they are the same for all human beings. But a gay person faces more rejection, hostility, disappointment, misunderstanding... not only in individual relationships but from society's attitude. I can project that suffering, unhappiness, anxieties, disappointments and in my characters... (Struggling for words)

I draw my experiences not only from my own relationships with people, but from society's attitude towards me. I use all these strands in shaping my characters. The external repressions, suppressions, pressures... they make me imagine more, understand more... make every experience more complicated than it is.

You have two films on the same track in "Red Rose White Rose". The old-fashioned tale of the macho gentleman and his beautiful women is paralleled by a strong critique of male chauvinism. The protagonist is no hero, but a scoundrel. Based as the film is on Eileen Chang's novel, you continually project her words between the visuals. This gives another dimension to the narrative.

Eileen Chang wrote like that, she always had something else going on under the surface. I thought why not use that technique deliberately, and try to give the audience a feeling that they are reading the novel, getting the metaphor, not watching my interpretation of it. The contradictions emerge more strongly that way.

I thought that the words on the screen will pull the audience out of the inner and outer world of the character. Not identify with him, but look at him from some distance, as a third person would.

What excites you when you shoot?

I joined a drama club in middle school to be an actor, but found that I had stage fright. I'm camera shy too. But I enjoy the process of communicating with my actors. I am moved behind the camera if they do something good in front of the camera - a vicarious thrill. The actors become my good friends.

I still remember how once, as we were shooting Centrestage on a very hot night in Shanghai, nothing would come right. I tried to get away from the bunch of actors to think of something else, but Maggie [Cheung] noticed and said, "Don't worry, we'll do it tomorrow". I was so overcome that I wept.

Why so few women directors in China?

Don't know. Most of our production managers are women though!

We know the kind of cinema you like to make. What kind of cinema do you like to see?

My all-time favourite is [Yasujiro] Ozu's Tokyo Story. (Thinking) When I was young if people asked me `What's most important to you - family? Friend? Lover?' I'd say `Film-making'. But now in my late 40s every time I watch Tokyo Story I say, yes, making films is important, but not a priority. I've a problem at work, I get home, I yell at my mother, brothers, sisters. That's not good. Can't take them for granted. My father died when I was 13. Now I'm getting older, my mother's definitely getting older. A Chinese verse says, "The trees want to be calm, the wind is still blowing; the son can afford to take care of his parents, but they're already gone."

If any film-maker can be called spiritual, it must be Ozu. Didn't Spielberg and Coppola find him universal? Are you getting there?

All his films are about family values, relationships. Ozu maintains a certain distance. Yet you feel the director's passion. I'm nowhere near that. But I hope... One day...

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