Bringing on the laughs

Veteran Hong Kong director Clifton Ko mixes comedy with family drama in his latest movie

Clifton Ko says comedies are the toughest movie genre to make.
Clifton Ko says comedies are the toughest movie genre to make.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

If you are a fan of Hong Kong comedy, chances are you have laughed along to a movie by Clifton Ko.

The first film he directed was the popular horror comedy The Happy Ghost (1984) and he was also a prolific maker of Chinese New Year offerings including the It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World series (from 1987) and the All's Well, Ends Well series (from 1992).

Despite all the hits he has helmed though, awards have proved elusive.

He laments in Mandarin: "Why do all the prizes go to dramatic films? It's not fair."

Ko, 56, explains why comedy is the toughest genre.

He says half in jest that action films are easy because the director leaves the choreography to the likes of Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo Ping. Dramas are harder because you need emotions to move the audience.

As for comedy, he sums up its essence thus: "He fu qing li, chu hu yi liao."

The audience needs to buy into the story's logic and reason first, and then you have to give them something unexpected to tickle the funny bone.

While he has made his name in comedies, there is more to Ko than laughs.

His first film in 11 years, Wonder Mama, mixes comedy with drama and tackles some unusual topics as well. It is currently showing at Filmgarde cinemas and Ko is in Singapore to promote it.

The story is about a timid woman Lovely, played by Fung Bo Bo, who has to deal with her parents' disintegrating marriage and the maid getting knocked up by her 70-year-old father, Ng, played by Kenneth Tsang.

Ko points out: "Just because we don't touch upon the issue of sex among the elderly doesn't mean that it doesn't exist."

He also explores the different relationships Ng has with the women in his life.

In a way, that reflects his own concerns. "I'm divorced and have two grown daughters, and it's very hard to explain that the love I have for my girlfriend is completely different from the love I have for them."

His daughters are in their 20s and Ko is currently in a relationship with stage actress Perry Chiu, 39.

The film-maker has no intention of fathering a child at this point though. "By the time he graduates from university, I would be 80. It's not like in the past when couples would give birth to five, six children and they would grow up in the streets."

In addition to being his big-screen return, Wonder Mama also marks the comeback of veteran actress Fung from semi-retirement. He says of his leading lady: "She can do both comedy and drama and take the audience along on a journey. If you ask some stars to do comedy, that's a tragedy."

Another actor who left a deep impression in Ko's long career was the late Leslie Cheung.

"I've never met an actor who brings his role home. When making a film, he becomes that character."

They had met soon after Farewell My Concubine (1993) wrapped to talk about All's Well, Ends Well and Cheung had remained in character as the fey opera singer. Ko had said to him: "Hey, come back, come back, what are you doing?"

When he first learnt the news of the actor's suicide in April 2003, his first question was: What film was Cheung making? It turned out to be Inner Senses, a film which explored depression and suicide.

Ko himself acts too, often in cameos in his own films including as an annoyed karaoke patron in All's Well, Ends Well and a trainee in Chicken And Duck Talk (1988).

His frank assessment is: "I can do only one take because I can never recapture what I've done previously. So I'm not a successful actor, I'm a director's headache."

Still, he has his share of fans. He had worked with the late comedian Ricky Hui many times and the latter had a special stipulation in his contract: The director has to demonstrate.

He muses: "That was his way of getting entertained on the set."

With his jovial and energetic manner, it is not hard to see why Ko and comedy are a great match.

He says: "When you make a comedy, it's like you're spraying the audience with perfume. They smell lovely and the fragrance lingers on you as well, because the process of making it was fun and filled with laughter."

Wonder Mama is showing in Filmgarde cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Bringing on the laughs'. Subscribe