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Jacob Cheung - The Conscience of Hong Kong Cinema

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Hong Kong, a city-state of only 1,100 square kilometers, was once the third largest film industry in the world. During the golden era of Hong Kong Cinema in the eighties and early nineties, the territory produced over 200 films per year. Entering the new millennium, business began to slow at alarming rates. By 2005, Hong Kong was down to around 50 films per year, and the age of Hong Kong films had become a nostalgic memory. In 2006 a familiar name of the past appeared in movie theaters again - Jacob Cheung. Best known for social dramas like Cageman and The Kid, Cheung returned in 2006 with the period blockbuster A Battle of Wits, a historical war epic with a pacifist message starring Andy Lau.

Moviegoers did not have to wait another five years for Jacob Cheung's next work. In 2008, he premiered his new film Ticket at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, and spared some time to talk to YumCha! about his latest work and his experiences in filmmaking over the last two decades.

Ticket to the Heart

After making period blockbuster A Battle of Wits, Ticket can be seen as a return to the Jacob Cheung humanist drama. Based on Taiwan writer Lee Chia Tung's short story, Ticket follows a young woman's cross-country search for the parents who abandoned her as an infant. "Back in 1998, my friend recommended Professor Lee Chia Tung's story to me, and I wanted then to make it into a film," Cheung said. After getting the writer's permission, Cheung searched in Hong Kong and Taiwan for a female director who could make a humanist film, but was unable to find the right person. In the end, he himself directed Ticket.

To appeal to the greater Chinese market, Cheung transported the story from Hsinchu, Taiwan to Yunnan, China. "Our production needed to shoot at a location with a cathedral, and in China there are only two places where cathedrals can be found, Harbin in the northeast near Russia and Yunnan in the southwest border region," Cheung explained. "In the end, we chose to shoot at the largest Catholic church in Tibet, Yanjing Cathedral." From the Meri Snow Mountain and the Ancient Tea Horse Road to Nujiang River and Bingzhongluo, Ticket takes a sweepingly beautiful journey through Yunnan, Dali, and Tibet, bringing the audience eye-opening scenery of some of the most beautiful places in China.

Other than the original story of orphan girl Zeng Yu Tong's (Zuo Xiaoqing) search for her mother and identity, Jacob Cheung added two additional intertwining stories - one about a husband and wife (Chin Siu Ho and Liu Sitong) whose child is born with heart disease, and the other about a widowed father (Fan Wei) raising an autistic son. These additional threads explore the value of life and family through different perspectives and parent-child relationships, strengthening the film's narrative and themes. As the father of four himself, Cheung also experienced many mixed feelings while shooting Ticket.

Cheung's camera not only captures the natural beauty of southwest China, but also the difficult lives of rural people in China. The images of Zeng Yu Tong's mother's barren home, Hui people carrying heavy tiles up the mountain, and farmers pulling oxen bring out the labor and dedication of poverty-stricken parents whose only hope is that their children can have easier lives than them.

The most memorable part of the film for Cheung is the scene of Zeng Yu Tong crossing the river on a mid-air rope-pulley bridge. "The rope is 200 yards (183 meters) long, but it only takes two minutes to cross the river. One can imagine how fast the pulley goes!" Cheung was very concerned about the actors as there was no safety net, and the river rapids below were very dangerous. It took two days of continuous shooting to successfully complete this daring scene, but the efforts were well worth it. From this scene, the audience can see the kind of determination necessary for a mother to undertake the grueling journey through rivers and mountains to deliver her infant daughter to a better life.

For the cast of Ticket, Jacob Cheung originally considered Intimates' Charlie Young for the leading role, but that fell through for various reasons. In the end, Cheung regular Nicky Wu was paired with Mainland Chinese actress Zuo Xiaoqing for this cross-country root-searching journey. Award-winning actress Cecilia Yip, who collaborated with Cheung for Beyond the Sunset (1989), portrays Zeng Yu Tong's foster-mother nun from middle to old age, and Wu Ma plays the amusing tour guide, forming an interesting cast of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan actors.

Ticket around China

Yanjing Cathedral Meri Snow Mountain
Nujiang River Yanjing
Ancient Tea Horse Road Mountainscape

Twenty Years of Filmmaking

Jacob Cheung was nominated for Best Director at the 8th Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA) with his very first film, Lai Shi, China's Last Eunuch (1986), a historical drama based on the turbulent life of China's last royal eunuch. Though he lost out that year to Stanley Kwan, Cheung would become a regular at the HKFA, winning Best Screenplay in 1989 for Beyond the Sunset, which depicts a mother-daughter relationship, and sweeping Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in 1992 for Cageman, a social drama about the struggles of the lower class.

Looking back at all his films, Jacob Cheung has an especially strong impression of the following works:

The Returning (1994)

"This is a lesser known film. The first half focuses on psychological fear while the second half emphasizes images. From this film I learned that ghosts don't actually need to appear in a ghost film. Having the image is enough."

Whatever Will Be, Will Be (1995)

"I wanted to make a film similar to The Sound of Music. This is also my first film with child actors; I really like it. I plan to make a musical again in the future. One idea is to film China's The White-Haired Girl story, and bring out a feeling similar to Carman."

Intimates (1997)

"The film I am most satisfied with to date. Be it in directing technique, shooting, or editing, Intimates is my most developed work, even more so than A Battle of Wits. The story is very meaningful, and the characters gave the actors a lot of room to perform. The whole film is like a stage play, and the circumstances are very realistic."

The Kid (1999)

"Back then, I borrowed HK$2 million to make the film. I actually only finished paying back the debt last year (2007)... Leslie Cheung contributed a lot to the film; he participated with kindness and sincerity. He only received a nominal fee of HK$1 for acting in the film, and patiently taught the child actors not only about acting, but also about life. Later when I came up with the idea for A Battle of Wits, I originally wanted Leslie to participate, but sadly he's not here anymore."

Midnight Fly (2001)

"At first, I wanted Midnight Fly to continue Intimates' exploration of a woman's emotional world, to be an Intimates Part 2. Intimates was set in China during a conservative era. Midnight Fly's story was moved to modern-day Europe to bring out a different, uninhibited atmosphere. In the film, Anita Mui stays to help her romantic rival Junna Risa, representing the camaraderie between women. I think that amongst people, being able to give to your enemy is more admirable than giving to your lover. Thus, I changed my original idea; instead of being Intimates Part 2, Midnight Fly became an independent story."

A Battle of Time

After Midnight Fly, Jacob Cheung joined a film production company, and took up an executive position. The great pressure he experienced at the position led him to understand that he only and simply wanted to be a director so he left the film company to work on his own. Cheung started planning A Battle of Wits back in 2000, but encountered many obstacles in the financing process. During this time, he also filmed two television series, Seven Swordsmen and Hero on the Silk Road, but the collaborations were not happy experiences, making Cheung wary of television productions. Things began to look up for Cheung in 2003 when he met producer William Kong and Japanese investors. After five years of waiting and uncertainty, A Battle of Wits was finally confirmed for production in 2005, and completed in 2006.

Set in the Warring States Period, A Battle of Wits revolves around pacifist war strategist Ge Li (played by Andy Lau) who helps defend the small city-state of Liang from the massive Zhao army. Though filled with dusty battles, Jacob Cheung's take on the period war epic is not one of bloody battlefields and grand heroics, but one that celebrates the Mohist philosophy of peace and universal love. "If someone asked me in the past, I would definitely not have the courage to film A Battle of Wits. I'd be afraid I wouldn't have the drive to complete a war epic!" he laughed.

In story, production, and subject, A Battle of Wits seems to be a departure from Cheung's previous works and completely different from Ticket, but in Jacob Cheung's eyes, they may not be so different after all. "A Battle of Wits and Ticket, both works are ways to talk about love. In Ticket, because Zuo Xiaoqing's mother loves her daughter, she believes that her daughter can only attain happiness if she leaves her. In anti-war film A Battle of Wits, Ge Li uses what he believes to be the most peaceful method to save the people of Liang from harm," he explained.

In 2009, Jacob Cheung is preparing his new film Matouqin which, like A Battle of Wits, is again a grand war film with an anti-war message. The matouqin, or morin khuur, is a stringed instrument that symbolizes Mongolia, and there are many stories and legends connected with it. Cheung's film details the turbulent life of a Mongolian slave who escapes from his owner and ends up leading an army of slaves in battle for Genghis Khan. The battlefield turns him cruel and ruthless until one day he is awakened to the tragedy of war by his comrade's sacrifice. Matouqin will be shot in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region with an estimated budget of HK$80 million.

No More Hong Kong Films

During the interview, Jacob Cheung revealed that he has many projects in development. After Matouqin, there's The White-Haired Girl musical. He is also formulating a story about Chinese laborers working on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and a social drama about philanthropy and discrimination similar to the Hollywood effort Crash. Following his experience with A Battle of Wits, Cheung doesn't want to wait anymore. If he has a good story, he wants to start shooting as soon as possible. But in a declining industry that produces barely 50 films a year, what future is there for Hong Kong Cinema and Hong Kong filmmakers?

"Even though Hong Kong films have been on the decline in recent years, Hong Kong still has many talented film workers, and they're all over the world. Some are in China, some in Taiwan; some are making films in Asia and Hollywood." Following the trend of the times, Cheung believes that soon there will be "no more Hong Kong films." But Hong Kong filmmakers can now also draw from resources around Asia to make Pan-Asian films with better budget and production values. If the language barrier can be solved, then it will soon be possible to make films that truly belong to Asia.

In twenty years of filmmaking, Jacob Cheung has had his share of ups and downs, but the one thing that hasn't changed is the strong sense of passion, sincerity, and humanism in his films. Be it small mother-daughter relationship dramas or big-budget pacifist war epics, Jacob Cheung films always come with a conscience, a cause, an earnest appeal to the human spirit. In an era of fewer and fewer Hong Kong films, we are fortunate to still have Hong Kong filmmakers like Jacob Cheung.

Interviewer: Garden

Special Thanks to 2008 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

Jacob Cheung Filmography

Published May 25, 2009

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