Stanley Kwan has 8 words for filmmakers out there

Stanley Kwan is a name that is associated with some of the most iconic images of Hong Kong cinema. His back catalogue of films – among them Women, Rouge, Actress, Hold You Tight, Lanyu, Everlasting Regret, Red Rose White Rose –  are highly celebrated by both critics and fans. Known in equal measure for the star power of the actors that he has worked with – Anita Mui, Joan Chen, Maggie Cheung Sammi Cheng, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fatt - as well as for biopic and emotional themes, his films have not only withstood the test of time but have picked up multiple accolades for himself, his creative team and actors.

With a career that has spanned decades, the debut of First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏 in 2018, his first film after a long hiatus, still has the ability to immediately garner attention – would the film be relevant in today’s society? Is the power of Hong Kong cinema still present and applicable today? Does the Stanley Kwan magic still hold strong?

Stanley was recently in Singapore as part of the recently concluded Singapore International Film Festival, SGIFF (December 2018) to promote the film’s Southeast Asian Premiere with leading actress superstar Sammi Cheng and the love from the audience was palpable going by the response and interest in the Q&A and In Conversation sessions. SINdie had the opportunity to witness first hand Stanley sharing his thoughts and experiences both in a Masterclass session as well as at press interviews.

Immediate and first impressions of Stanley are of approachability. He is ever obliging to fan’s requests for autographs and photos that SGIFF organizing staff would constantly need to maintain order. He is extremely open as well – answering questions from both press and the public honestly and openly. It was almost easy to forget his many accomplishments and influence. However, it was in these conversations and exchanges that his true artistry shone brightest - his point of view, his truthfulness to his position.

Perhaps then it should not be surprising that even his actors have been known to remark that Stanley likes to have conversations – at times preferably over a steam boat dinner! Conversations where he could and would cover a variety of topics. It is in these conversations that Stanley observes his actor – for casting suitability, for the creation of trust. He shared how trust is an essential component in his film making – and at times indirectly or directly, these conversations enabled him to speak to and connect with his actor to inspire the performance that he is after. He shared how actors are intelligent and do realise this – at times recognizing their own personal stories reflected perhaps indirectly in their characters.

He even references that perhaps this difference in director-actor relationship is what has enabled an audience’s observation of how actors, even well-known superstars, display unique performances in his films. He does hold on, both in theory and practice, to the belief that nothing cannot be unsaid between him and his actors.

Three particular superstar actresses that Stanley has been associated with through the years are Anita Mui (pictured above with Leslie Cheung), Maggie Cheung and most recently Sammi Cheng. Hence it seemed almost cinematic serendipity that one of the most poignant moment in the public forum occurred post screening of the original trailer for Rouge which starred the late Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. Post the trailer, Stanley’s immediate reaction was to jokingly remark how he felt the trailer could have been edited better but in answer to being questioned on how he felt – he was left almost speechless, fixated on the images of Anita. Even with the prompting of the audience that there were indeed many now famous actors in the trailer, he repeats – I only saw Anita. After a moment’s silence, the audience clapped in appreciation, acknowledging the director’s honest connection and fondness for the legendary star now no longer with us.

Rouge was also a quoted example by Stanley of how societal change can be sad but is natural. In the film, it features the transformation of brothels into new neighbourhoods with schools and this similar concept of transformation was also touched upon in his latest film First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏. In addition to being a rare women-genre film, and eight in this film, Stanley referenced City Hall as the other ‘actor’ in the film. He shared that it was the news that the City Hall was to be demolished that inspired Stanley. To his generation, this was the place of memories – of concerts, films and theatre shows. While others may have raised objections to its demolishment, for Stanley, his reaction to the news was to not wait but to actually use this time left to write a film.

While the film had eight women characters, Stanley shared about how to him it was actually one woman (Sammi Cheng, pictured below) in focus with seven women in supporting roles – these characters surround and enhance the leading character’s depth. Multiple relationships are explored, with side stories that are mirrors or accessories to the lead character’s story. It was no surprise when Stanley revealed how characters are very important to him in a script. And his advice to young directors and scriptwriters was to start with the characters, both large or small, and their motivations. 

Stanley also spoke about the importance of collaboration – in scriptwriting, in filming, in editing, in design. Referring to a legacy of learning from established directors like Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Ann Hui, all of whom were very capable of writing their own scripts but preferred instead to work in collaboration. Similarly, he himself prefers a collaborative approach even though the originating idea may be his. To him it was a journey and selecting the right collaborators enhances this process. He felt it important to re-assure new directors that it was not obligatory to write to be a director – this may instead be a matter of the ego.

In response to a question from an aspiring director in the audience about readiness to film, Stanley had eight words

企遠且近,企近且遠 (in cantonese)

Translated to
站远则进,站近则远  (in mandarin)

The further away you stand, the closer you are
The closer your stand, the more distant you are

That when directing, there needs to be a constant change between being close and being distant from the subject matter and character. To look closely and in detail at creating the character’s perspective but to also step back and observe from a distance to avoid self-indulgence. Wise advice from Taiwanese master director Hou Hsiao Hsien that he wished to pass on. Words that the master director shared with Stanley when he was making a documentary for the British Film Institute in 1996 for an initiative titled ‘A Century of Chinese cinema’.

It was a joy listening to Stanley share but too soon the time together had to end. In closing he provided a little insight into the changing promise and perhaps evolution of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. How in the last few years, Chinese movies and big budgets had indeed dwarfed the Hong Kong film scene but he also felt a growing maturity of both audiences and sponsors not just for big names and pretty faces but also for interesting stories. He felt that perhaps that is the future for Hong Kong cinema – boldness to explore and innovate. To do different things. That it may be time to let go.

Trailer of First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏

Leading a cast of eight women, Sammi Cheng plays Yuan Xiuling, a theatre star past her prime, who takes the opportunity for a return to the spotlight following the death of her philandering husband. Behind the scenes drama takes centre stage as the role of her co-lead is given to her biggest rival, He Yuwen played by Gigi Leung. The film also starts Bai Baihe, Qi Xi, Catherine Chau and Angie Chiu

At the Busan International Film Festival screening of First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏 (From left: Sammi Cheng, Bai Baihe, Stanley Kwan, Gigi Leung, Angie Chiu) Photo credit: VCG

Plans look to be in place for First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏 to be on general public release in Singapore in April 2019

Written by Ivan Choong

Bai Baihe and Sammi Cheng in First Night Nerves 八个女人一台戏
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