Making Chow Yun Fat run for days: Veteran HK director Mabel Cheung on making An Autumn's Tale

Director Mabel Cheung weaved her own experiences into An Autumn's Tale and based Chow Yun Fat's character on a friend of hers. PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY

SINGAPORE - It might have been released more than 30 years ago, but An Autumn's Tale (1987), starring Cherie Chung and Chow Yun Fat, has hardly lost its wistful romantic glow.

While the film was set and shot in autumn in New York, the shoot was complicated by the late arrival of autumnal leaves.

The film's director, Mabel Cheung, decided to get some green leaves in Central Park painted red - with washable paint, she assured - but that still landed her in trouble.

"We were arrested after that and had to appear in court in front of a judge," Cheung, 71, said from Hong Kong during an online masterclass presented by the Asian Film Awards Academy in collaboration with the Singapore Film Society on Saturday (Feb 19).

"The judge said, 'Why did you spray the trees with colour?' I said, 'Because it is beautiful'... And the judge asked, 'What if I went to Hong Kong and sprayed your trees red?' I said, 'Oh, you are welcome. If you spray them well and make them beautiful, why not?'

"The judge was really angry. Anyway, we were fined some money, that's all. I think it was worth it," she said to laughter from the audience at Shaw Theatres Lido.

A restored version of An Autumn's Tale, which won Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Best Actor for Chow at the Golden Horse Awards, was screened on Feb 19 before the masterclass. It was a box office hit and is ranked No. 49 on the Hong Kong Film Awards' Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures list.

In the movie, Chow plays a roughneck (Samuel Pang) who does odd jobs in Manhattan. Chung plays a Hong Kong student (Jennifer Lee) who goes to New York for further studies and stays in the same building as Pang, who is a distant relative.

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Poles apart in class and education, the duo nevertheless find themselves growing closer to each other.

Recalling the filming of the movie, Cheung said Chow had to run repeatedly for a scene in which Pang chases after Lee as the sun sets over the Brooklyn Bridge. Chow ended up having to film the running scene over 15 days.

The movie is part of what is dubbed Cheung's migration trilogy along with Illegal Immigrant (1985) and Eight Taels Of Gold (1989), which explore the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the West.

Cheung, who studied film at New York University, weaved her own experiences into An Autumn's Tale and based Chow's character on a friend of hers.

Stills from Mabel Cheung's 1987 movie, An Autumn's Tale. PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY

Asked what accounted for the enduring appeal of the movie, Cheung said the success of the film had come as a surprise.

"It was really difficult just to finish the movie. I went over budget... my actor had been running for 15 days," she said. "Nobody expected that film to do well. I was thinking that I would be lucky to finish it."

She added: "Looking back, I think the most successful of my films are those that are genuine, truthful and sincere in their feelings and characterisation. I think these are the things that attract audiences for a long time."

Stills from Mabel Cheung's 1987 movie, An Autumn's Tale, starring Cherie Chung and Chow Yun Fat. PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY

Cheung, who also directed The Soong Sisters (1997), City Of Glass (1998) and Echoes Of The Rainbow (2010), has been working on a documentary that follows the lives of students from a Hong Kong school from the time they were 11 until 19.

While it is difficult to return to Hong Kong cinema's rosy scene of the 1980s, she is optimistic about its future, pointing to the emergence of directors who have won first-time directing awards in the last few years.

Referring to the popular Hong Kong boy band, she said: "I think it is not a lack of talent, especially now that we have Mirror. They are getting young people interested in pop music again. I hope that with this young energy, we can start making interesting Hong Kong films again."

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