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Fruit Chan - King of Hong Kong Independent Filmmaking

Written by Vicci Ho Tell a Friend

"Welcome to Hong Kong: Asia's World City!" The bright lights, the beautifully designed architecture one can view from the Victoria Harbor, it all signals prosperity in a city that grew from a small village to one of the most developed cities in the world. However, beneath the surface, there is a Hong Kong that does not fit this picture-perfect society depicted on posters promoting tourism. Like every city in the world, there are parts of the city that is ignored and its inhabitants forgotten. Chan Gor, or Fruit Chan, has been working in the industry as an assistant director for years and directed one feature, Finale In Blood (1991), before making a sleeper hit on a shoestring budget and expired film stock. Since then, Fruit Chan has been directing films that infuses politics, compassion, and quirkiness, making Chan one of the most respected directors in Hong Kong, and internationally referred to as "Hong Kong's most independent-minded auteur".

Chan's first breakthrough film, Made In Hong Kong (1997), is legendary even before becoming an internationally successful film. The film was shot on film stock that Fruit Chan scraped together while he worked as assistant director on other films. With a budget of $80,000 USD, a crew of five, a cast of non-professional actors, and a borrowed production office, it attunes to the spirit of genuine 'independent film making' that is fading in Hollywood and almost unheard of in Hong Kong cinema. Rejected by Hong Kong Film Festival, it was accepted into many international film festivals to critical acclaim. The film also won best director and film at 1997's Hong Kong Film Awards, with many awards given to Chan and newcomer Sam Lee in other award ceremonies. Made in Hong Kong is a film that deals with kids living in housing estates, with a nihilistic mentality towards a society they cannot relate to and have chosen to ignore 'the trouble kids'. They have little choice but to mingle with the triad and survive in a life of crime. Unlike the hugely popular triad films from Hong Kong, namely the Young and Dangerous series, there are no heroes in this triad. Moon (Sam Lee) is doing the dirty work to survive and his boss prey on hopeless young men like Moon for his own gain. This intelligent and challenging film launched Fruit Chan's career immediately, and Made in Hong Kong become a part of a trilogy that became known as "Hand-over Trilogy". Chan wanted to negotiate the effects of Hong Kong's 1997 return to China upon the life of its lower-life inhabitants, whose lives are considered inconsequential, and ultimately forgotten by society.

The Longest Summer (1998) tackles the direct consequences of the Hand-over on a group of Chinese soldiers serving in the British Army in Hong Kong. Finding it difficult to adjust to post-colonial life and with little steady work, they fall in with the triad and eventually decide to rob a bank during the festivities of the Hand-over ceremony. The Longest Summer is considered by many to be a step forward for Chan, as the film tries to deal with residents of Hong Kong whose lives are completely thrown into disarray by circumstances beyond their control. The government did little to help the people whose lives they completely dispossessed, and they are left to fend for themselves in a world they no longer know. Chan once against used unknown actors (except of Sam Lee), and launched the careers of Tony Ho Wah-Chiu and Jo Koo. The success of Chan lies with his ability to deal with subject matters most filmmakers would not dare to approach with poignancy, compassion, and most importantly, a sense of quirky humor. The final film of the trilogy, Little Cheung (2000), Chan took on the challenge of using children as leads. The film is by no means a "kids" film, yet it is about the friendship between two children: Little Cheung and illegal immigrant mainlander Fan. Like Chan's other films, this is a political film that depicts the hypocrisy of the how Hong Kong handles the Hand-over. On the one hand, Hong Kong proudly declares its return to the "motherland", but at the same time 'motherland' inhabitants are living in the shadows of Hong Kong, and when captured, shipped back to China immediately. By using children as the leads, it shows the erosion of innocence in the face of such political times, and it is one of the most moving films released in 2000.

Fruit Chan is one of the few filmmakers in Hong Kong that portrays mainlanders in a realistic light. After the Hand-over Trilogy, Chan begins work on what is known as "The Prostitution Trilogy" to negotiate the often complex relationship between Hong Kong and China after the Hand-over of 1997. Durian Durian (2000) marks the return of Fan, the child from Little Cheung, as she and her younger sister moved to Hong Kong illegally to be with their father, who works as a hawker in Hong Kong but has a house in Shenzhen. She becomes friends with a young mainland prostitute, Yan (Qin Hailu), who lives in the same alleyway Fan spends her Hong Kong life dwelling in, and the two form an unlikely friendship. Yan seems like a typical 'Buk Gu', slang for mainland prostitutes, who cares about nothing but money. However we slowly realize she is merely a ghost of herself trying to survive. When the second part of the film switches to China when Yan returns home, we learnt of the ultimate irony: Yan moves to Hong Kong in hope of a better life only to discover that the life in China is significantly better than what she ever experienced in Hong Kong. Chan once again showed his ability to spot talent by casting unknown Qin Hailu who gave a powerful and sympathetic performance, and won her the Best Newcomer Award at the Hong Kong Film Festival. In this film, Chan shows his perceptiveness in the precarious relationship between China and Hong Kong, who is still unwilling to accept mainlanders with open arms.

Hollywood, Hong Kong (2001), the second of the "Prostitution Trilogy", Chan presented us with an absurdist black comedy about a mainland prostitute (playing by Zhou Xun of Suzhou River) wrecking havoc in Tai Hom village, the last shanty town waiting to be demolished by the government. The story follows the Chu (same pronunciation as pig) family, an obese family that sells roast pork as they develop an obsession with beautiful mainlander Tong Tong (Zhou). She seduces the father and the eldest son while developing an innocent friendship with the youngest son. Another resident equally obsessed is young wannabe pimp Wong Chi-Keung (Wong Yau Nam), who is seduced by an online ad for Hung-Hung (Zhou), and had a one night stand with her in an underpass between the village and Plaza Hollywood, a posh apartment/shopping complex where she resides. Soon all the men obsessed with her beauty realized that this prostitute is not what she seems, and is undoubtedly the power broker in this game of seduction.

Many fans of Chan found this film odd even by Chan's standards. It is different to the 'realist' social commentary films he has been making, yet no one can deny that this can only be the work of Fruit Chan. The film, set in a shanty village about to be demolished, is about people living in a forgotten place, a part of Hong Kong on the verge of being destroyed forever. These men might have received the punishment they deserved, one can't help but to feel their desperation comes from their hopes of fulfilling an impossible dream. The hyper-reality, the absurdist comedy (a hand being chopped off has never been so funny or ridiculous), the seductive and affecting performance from Zhou Xun, make Hong Kong, Hollywood a strangely engaging and touching experience.

After the two films of the trilogy, Fruit Chan takes a break from the trilogy and embark on a strange experiment into the world of public toilets. Public Toilet (2003) is a series of stories connected with public toilets, possibly the most indiscriminate and non-hierarchical place in the world. In a public toilet, everyone is equal. Shot on digital video, it travels around the world's public johns, and this is a film that intrigues even his most loyal fans. Fruit Chan's next project after Public Toilet seems like the inevitable has finally happened. The champion of Hong Kong independent filmmaking agrees to helm Dumplings (2004), Hong Kong's representative in Three...Extremes, a sequel to Three. In short, it is Chan's first commercial film since Made in Hong Kong.

Dumplings provided Chan with vastly more resources to craft his film, and the finished product, thankfully, never swayed from the usual Fruit Chan quirkiness. With a star-studded cast of Miriam Yeung, Tony Leung Ka Fai and Hollywood actress Bai Ling, Chan also employed a strong and creative technical crew that includes world-renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle and production designer Yee Chung Man. A tale of an aging woman obsessing over youth and the actions she will take to fulfill the dream of being young forever is billed as a horror film. But unlike the usual horror/gore features, it does not even feature a ghost or any supernatural forces. While the concept of eating human fetuses prepared as dumplings is fantastical and gross, the real horror of the film is the ugliness of human behaviour and obsession. The film is shot beautifully, yet there is always a tone of murkiness and uncertainly, it does not feel right. Miriam Yeung's performance is a revelation: she portrays a sad woman who ultimately becomes mad as she pursues the dream of ideal beauty. The film's characterization is also extremely true to life, as one walks out of the theatre knowing the premise is undoubtedly fictional, one cannot help but think that somewhere, someone is willing, and probably is, eating such dumplings to 'stay beautiful'. Chan captures the stress women feels in a society obsessed with youth and beauty, and in the end, they loses their sanity, mind and soul for something that ultimately is hollow.

Fruit Chan has managed to make films that challenges, provokes, and portrays Hong Kong only a resident who feels passionate about his city could. His humanism, compassion and unique sense of humor makes him one of the most important filmmakers working in Hong Kong cinema today.

Published November 1, 2004

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