Hong Kong film-maker Pang Ho Cheung says he only makes movies he wants to see

Director Pang Ho Cheung's Aberdeen is steeped in symbolism, from a giant monster to people in a paper city

Love In A Puff's leads Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue (far left) and Vulgaria's Dada Chen and Chapman To (both left).
Love In A Puff's leads Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue (far left) and Vulgaria's Dada Chen and Chapman To (both left). PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, FESTIVE FILMS
Love In A Puff's leads Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue (far left) and Vulgaria's Dada Chen and Chapman To (both left). PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, FESTIVE FILMS
Actress Miriam Yeung (above) rides in a paper car in Aberdeen. Director Pang Ho Cheung (left) in his giant chameleon monster. PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE
Actress Miriam Yeung (above) rides in a paper car in Aberdeen. Director Pang Ho Cheung (left) in his giant chameleon monster. PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Singer-actress Miriam Yeung takes a ride in a car that is made of paper like it is an offering burnt to the spirits. She then steps into a paper apartment also made to be an offering to the gods.

In other scenes, a giant chameleon monster is seen stomping through a paper model of Hong Kong and a massive whale is beached on a shore, drawing a lot of curious onlookers.

Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung's latest work, Aberdeen, seems to be loaded with heavy symbolism, if you are so inclined to look for them - and perhaps even when you are not.

That is because there is a camp of moviegoers who see him as the beacon of authentic Hong Kong cinema, as he continues to make films about the Hong Kong experience in an age when the city's film industry players are increasingly heading north to China to make big- budget co-productions.

Aberdeen is, once again for a Pang film, set in Hong Kong and tells the story of an extended Hong Kong family whose members are plagued by secrets of their own. It stars top Hong Kong names, including Yeung, Eric Tsang, Louis Koo and Gigi Leung, and opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Its title refers to a neighbourhood to the south of Hong Kong Island that the English first came ashore in 1841, and is where director Pang says is arguably "where the story of Hong Kong begins". The Chinese name for Aberdeen, "heung gong zai", is also a pun for "Hong Kong kid" and "Little Hong Kong".

Despite much evidence to the contrary, Pang refutes the notion that he could be the shining light of his hometown's movie industry. "It's not like that. I just make movies that I would want to watch, about stories that I want to tell. I happen to feel for Hong Kong because I was born and raised here, and it just so happens that my mother tongue is Cantonese.

"But I do not set out to make movies only about Hong Kong. I'm not against making movies about other cultures too," he says evenly.

In fact, his stance could be seen as quintessentially Hong Kong - ever so practical. Big- mission statements and symbolism are oh-so-European.

The giant chameleon and beached whale scenes, for instance, were included "just because I felt like it", Pang says.

The 40-year- old adds with a chuckle: "I've always been a fan of Godzilla and I thought it'd be fun to have something like that in my work. And what better way to live out my fantasy than to play the monster myself, and destroy the city like that?"

The beached whale was something he had already wanted to include in his previous movie Love In A Puff (2010).

"When I was young, a whale beached on Hong Kong's shores and I remember asking my parents to take me to see it, but they refused. So I've always had this vision of it and wanted to put it on the big screen. We didn't have the budget to do it for Love In A Puff, and now we have more money, so I put it in Aberdeen."

It is a sign of how self-assured Pang is as a director - and he has good reason to be. His slate of unique works has time and again been much feted no matter the genre - from his excellent urbanite romance Love In A Puff to arthouse drama Isabella (2006) to the hilariously crude sex satire Vulgaria (2013).

And even though his movies have so far all been rooted in the Hong Kong experience, he believes that they are stories that resonate with audiences everywhere.

Aberdeen, he says, is a "universal family drama".

"Audiences don't have to have exactly the same experience as the movie's characters, but they can understand them. Similar family problems happen in many cultures across the world.

"Whether a movie is filled with local colour or not has nothing to do with whether it can travel. Look at Iran's A Separation - it is very much an Iranian story, but still managed to travel far," he says, referring to Asghar Farhadi's story about the break-up of an unhappily married Iranian couple which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.

That is not to say that Pang does not value what his fellow Hong Kongers say about the movie. He does, which is why he took his time to make Aberdeen because he was waiting for his preferred cast to be available.

"Since this movie is about a Hong Kong family, it was crucial that I got a local Hong Kong cast. Maybe overseas audiences won't be able to tell the difference, but a Hong Kong viewer would be able to tell immediately."

Aberdeen opened in Hong Kong two weeks ago to positive reviews.

The South China Morning Post called it a "nuanced offering" and "a reflective drama-comedy that's admirably mature and fresh in spirit". Entertainment trade rag Variety praised the "finely observed family dramedy" for presenting "an elegant slice of life".

Pang is pleased with the reviews, but is happier that audiences are inspired by the movie to reflect on their own actions. "Many viewers have told me that after watching the film, they attempted to talk more openly to their family members and that makes me really happy."

He first scripted the movie five years ago, but put it on hold when his friend, veteran Taiwanese producer Chen Kuo-fu, told him that he was "not mature enough" to film it.

Pang says: "Now that I'm older, I think I can take on the subject matter. Being older has changed how I view the world. If I had made this five years ago, I think I would have given all the characters' stories good, proper endings. But life isn't like that. People can have regrets and never come to terms with them, so I altered the ending to reflect this."

Throughout the 30-minute interview with Life!, the Hong Kong director is frank, earnest and lucid, always responding with thoughtful, intelligent answers.

From the way he details the effort he put into building the elaborate props (the paper city took six months to complete) to his laborious screenwriting process, he is one who is serious about his work. Yet he is open to changes and collaboration.

While the dialogues in his scripts are often lauded for their authenticity, he readily admits that his initial drafts are "not at all all realistic".

"As a creator, when you're holed up in a room writing by yourself, the dialogue is very stiff because you tend to use all the proper grammar and way of speech. But no one talks like that in real life."

He would bounce his scripts off his colleagues and friends and, during filming, he ends up making major cuts to the dialogue as well "because the actors' body language is more than enough to convey the message".

Ad-libbing by actors is also perfectly fine by him "as long as it does not change the characterisation".

Perhaps the trust Pang places in his cast has to do with his inclination to collaborate with the same people over and over again. Other than the cast - Aberdeen's Yeung, for instance, also starred in Love In A Puff and sequel Love In The Buff (2012) - many crew members, he says, are people he has worked with many times over the years.

"There are some people who have been working with me since I did my first film," says the director, whose debut feature was You Shoot, I Shoot (2001).

Pang, who is married to Subi Liang, a producer on a few of his films, sounds excited discussing this issue, launching into a lengthy explanation of how working with his frequent collaborators allows him to get work done more efficiently.

"We're on the same page when it comes to how we think and judge situations, so we can get to work straightaway. Let's say we're discussing a scene about sending an e-mail: With these people, we can immediately talk about what is in the e-mail, which is most important.

"But if it were with people who are not on the same wavelength as me, then we would end up wasting a lot of time discussing what constitutes an e-mail - does it have to have a date, does it have to have a subject, do we have to CC other people? That'll just go on and on."

When it comes to the content of his films, however, he would much rather avoid the familiar. "With every new project, I hope to do something different. I'm a fan of all sorts of genres and I'd like to explore that in my movies. If you ask me which of my movies is most like Pang Ho Cheung, I will say there's a bit of me in all of them."


Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

Aberdeen opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Fun ride on little tales

Five must-see films by Pang Ho Cheung

1 Men Suddenly In Black (2003)

In this dark comedy, four buddies decide to cheat on their wives by visiting prostitutes. Their plans are thwarted when their wives suddenly return from their vacation to follow them on their devious schemes.

Movie reviewers described the film as creative, smart and funny, with established online film database LoveHKFilm.com calling it "one of the best films of 2003". Pang won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best New Director, while actor Tony Leung Ka Fai was named Best Supporting Actor.

2 A.V. (2005)

A group of eager university students decide to make an adult movie in a sneaky way to get laid, which leads to many awkward and hilarious situations.

Viewers lapped up the easy laughs and chemistry between the likeable cast that include Derek Tsang and Lawrence Chou, with entertainment trade rag Variety describing the work as "a product of a film buff-turned-director".

3 Isabella (2006)

Pang shows a rare serious side in this arthouse drama about a Macau cop (Chapman To) whose life is changed forever when a daughter (Isabella Leong) he did not know he had shows up at his doorstep.

The film screened in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Critics were surprised by the cast's "fine performances" all around, especially by actress Leong, who had previously been considered little more than a pretty face.

4 Love In A Puff (2010)

In Hong Kong, smoking is banned in indoor areas, which means smokers have to congregate in specific areas to have a light. That is where advertising executive Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and cosmetic salesgirl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) meet and then fall in love in this film.

The movie was noted for the authentic dialogue and also garnered critical acclaim for actress Yeung, who was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress. A sequel Love In The Buff was made two years later, which brought their love story to Beijing, where the two find new work opportunities.

5 Vulgaria (2012)

Centred on a film producer (Chapman To) who struggles to remake a classic erotic film starring Siu Yam Yam, this lewd comedy with heart was a major critical and commercial hit in Hong Kong, making more than HK$30 million (S$4.8 million) at the box office.

It was nominated for several awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including for Best Picture, and also garnered actor Ronald Cheng a Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Award for Best Supporting Actor.

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