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To Create Heaven in Inferno: Peter Chan's Filmmaking Career between Art and Commerce

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

"Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

After working as a film producer for a while, Peter Chan finally returns as a director with Perhaps Love, the closing film at the Venice Film Festival 2005 and Hong Kong's 2005 submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. In recent years, despite the decline of the Hong Kong film industry, the circulation of Chan's works continues to expand in Asia. In retrospect, he has indeed made many high quality films that generated decent box-office returns in the 1990s.

From Producer to Director

Peter Chan was born to a filmmaker's family. His father Chan Tung Man, a Thai Chinese, worked in the Hong Kong film industry in the 50s and 60s - but not finding much success he soon brought his family back to Thailand. Peter Chan went to the States for his undergraduate study, and returned to Hong Kong during summer. With his father's connections, Peter Chan joined Golden Harvest, a famous film company in Hong Kong, as a summer intern and never returned to college thereafter. In 1983, through his Thai connections he helped John Woo on the action movie Heroes Shed No Tears which was set in Thailand. He then served as the line producer for Jackie Chan's Armour of God (1986), and afterwards received an invitation from Eric Tsang to join his company where Peter Chan produced News Attack (1989), Whampoa Blues (1989), and Curry and Pepper (1990). During these years Peter Chan acquired hands-on experience as a producer, who need not be creative but must know how to allow for greater creativity in the face of practical constraints.

Chan made his directorial debut Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye in 1991, which won Eric Tsang the Best Actor at the 11th Hong Kong Film Awards. In the same year Chan, Tsang, and Claudie Chung founded the United Filmmakers Organization (UFO) and produced a number of acclaimed urban romantic comedies. Peter Chan served as the producer of Yesteryou, Yesterme , Yesterday (1991), The Days of Being Dumb (1992), Twenty Something (1994), Over the Rainbow, Under the Skirt (1994), Happy Hour (1995), and co-directed with Lee Chi-ngai Tom, Dick, and Hairy (1993) and He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother (1993). These films appealed to the rising middle-class in Hong Kong, focusing on the "yuppie" population, and resulted in many box-office triumphs. UFO productions were also critically acclaimed for adding new depths to established genres.

New Elements in Mainstream Ideologies: He's a Woman, She's a Man

In 1994 Peter Chan directed and produced He's a Woman, She's a Man, which became UFO's and also his own representative work. In the film, songwriter Sam (Leslie Cheung) and singer Rose (Carina Lau) have been a perfect showbiz match in Wing's (Anita Yuen) eyes. To get in touch with her idols, Wing cross-dresses as a man but Sam soon finds himself in love with the "young man" Wing...

The film continued the motif of cross-dressing and homosexuality from Swordsman II (1992). Towards the end of the film, Wing reveals her real gender to Sam, and Sam claims that he will love her regardless of her gender. Sam's statement recognizes same-sex love without offending the heterosexual audience – for it's a male-female relationship after all. Some critics condemn the film for conspiring with heterosexual hegemony, while others praise it for a more liberal stance towards gender stereotyping. Though the film possesses commercial calculations, Peter Chan still deserves merit for the meticulous portrayal of a romance and his innovations in handling gender issues in films. Anita Yuen took home the Best Actress statuette at the Hong Kong Film Awards for this title and the theme song "Chase" by Leslie Cheung was the Best Original Film Song of the year.

Later on some UFO productions (including The Age of Miracles, directed by Chan himself) failed to become box-office successes. Chan therefore agreed to make a sequel to He's a Woman, She's a Man, starring Anita Mui in addition to the original cast. Though less acclaimed, the film grossed HK$ 20 million and Chan thus had a chance to make a film he had long wanted to: Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996).

Striking a Chord of Resonance: Comrades, Almost a Love Story

The story of Comrades, Almost a Love Story spans a decade. Li Xiaojun (Leon Lai) moves from Mainland China to Hong Kong in 1986. He and Li Qiao (Maggie Cheung), also a new immigrant from China, fall in love but their romance fails to work out. In 1990 they decide to stay with each other, but at the last minute Li Qiao follows her triad boyfriend Pao (Eric Tsang) to flee to the States. Before long, Xiaojun, feeling guilty for his infidelity to his wife (Kristy Yang), leaves Hong Kong for New York. In 1995, Li Xiaojun and Li Qiao listen to the news about famous singer Teresa Teng's death on the same street corner in New York...

The film swept the 16th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards Ceremony, winning a record-breaking nine awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Maggie Cheung was crowned Best Actress at the Golden Horse Awards at which the film was also the Best Picture winner.

In the film Peter Chan continued with his meticulous depiction of the development of a romance. But instead of putting that into the context of gender issues as in He's a Woman, She's a Man, the love between Xiaojun and Li Qiao comes with the theme of diaspora. With numerous people immigrating from Mainland China to Hong Kong in the 1940s and 50s and emigrating elsewhere to escape the 1997 handover, love between two sojourners easily strikes a chord of resonance within many Hong Kong people. Love brings about a feeling of being at home to those in exile, and in the past few decades songs by Teresa Teng have provided a culture for overseas Chinese to identify with, despite any internal differences. An in-depth exploration of a "Hong Kong identity" and a touching romance between the protagonists may account for the film's artistic as well as commercial success, which was magnified by the effect of the two megastars and a craze for Teresa Teng's song during the period.

Comrades, Almost a Love Story caught the eye of Steven Spielberg and he invited Peter Chan to Hollywood. Like Teresa Teng, who wanders among different Asian countries, or Li Xiaojun and Li Qiao moving from Mainland China to Hong Kong to New York, Chan moved to the States after residing in Thailand and Hong Kong for years. In Hollywood he directed The Love Letter (1999), adapted from a novel but encompassing greater subtlety than the original work.

A "Pan-Asian" Direction: The Eye and Three Series

Unlike many Hong Kong people who settle in the States, Peter Chan soon returned to Hong Kong and produced Twelve Nights (2000). In 2000 he set up the company Applause Pictures with Teddy Chen and Allan Fung to pool together talent and investment from different Asian countries, and to produce quality films targeting the "Pan-Asian" market. In November 2005, Chan pointed out at the Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum that local audiences alone would not be able to support Hong Kong's film industry, but the joint forces of different Asian markets could become even more influential than Hollywood.

After the box-office failure of One Fine Spring Day (2001), Applause Pictures lined-up Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr and Hong Kong actress Christy Chung to make Jan Dara (2001), which was well-received in various places. The experience contributed to the success of The Eye (2002), directed by Danny and Oxide Pang, two Hong Kong people working in Thailand, starring popular Taiwanese singer Angelica Lee who originated from Malaysia, and funded by Singaporean money. Peter Chan said that the film was packaged as a local production wherever it went. Later Three (2002) and Three... Extremes (2004) each consisted of three episodes, with each episode directed by and starring personnel of a different country. The locally produced episodes allowed the films to claim themselves as "local productions", and the other two episodes helped to promote films from other Asian regions. Apart from attributing the success of these titles to the horror genre, which was more adaptable to different cultures, Peter Chan also pointed out that "ways of distribution can affect the reception."

The Eye's commercial and critical success led to Chan's collaboration with the Pang brothers in The Eye 2 (2004) and The Eye 10 (2005). He also served as the producer for his old pal Samson Chiu's Golden Chicken (2002) and Golden Chicken 2 (2003), the two films together providing a history of Hong Kong from the 1970s. Both films achieved great popularity, but neither received widespread applause from critics.

Marching into Mainland: Perhaps Love

In 2005 Peter Chan finally directs another movie himself, Perhaps Love, aiming at the Mainland market. As Peter Chan said at the Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum, a film going "Pan-Chinese" does not necessarily mean that it is less "Pan-Asian", for Mainland China has great potential due to its large population. The cast of Perhaps Love indeed shows a "Pan-Asian" inclination by featuring popular Mainland actress Zhou Xun, Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung, popular-in-Japan Taiwanese singer Takeshi Kaneshiro, and also Korean actor Ji Jin Hee, best known for his role in the Korean drama Dae Jang Geum - which incidentally found popularity all over Asia.

Takeshi Kaneshiro stars as Lin Jiantung, a film-student-turned-actor who first encountered Sun Na (Zhou Xun) 10 years ago at film school. Sun Na is now famous director Nie Wen's (Jacky Cheung) girlfriend - apparently in exchange for a better career. She keeps forgetting her past, while Lin Jiantung indulges himself in remembering his romance with her ten years ago. Now all three of them have to work together on a musical, the plot of which is amazingly similar to their own experiences!

In the film Peter Chan also experiments with an art form, namely the musical, which very few Hong Kong or even Chinese directors dare try. As a musical film, the director needs to interweave a lot of singing and dancing scenes into the piece, yet he must not overdo it to the extent of interrupting the narrative or the depiction of the relationships. Yet, beneath all the enchanting singing and spectacular dancing scenes indeed lies the theme of romance, which seems a recurring motif in all Peter Chan films from Comrades, Almost a Love Story to Perhaps Love.

However, the love between Sun Na and Lin Jiantung/Nie Wen is far more pragmatic than that between Li Qiao and Li Xiaojun/Pao. Love in reality only exists somewhere in between Sun Na's pragmatism and Lin Jiantung's obsession. In a way, this point is relevant to filmmaking: a healthy development of Hong Kong or Asian cinema may come somewhere in between emphasizing only artistic values and allowing commercialism to dominate. Peter Chan demonstrates his own artistic taste as a director, yet simultaneously in his capacity as a producer he rationally calculates market demands. Not every single movie of his can attain both superb quality and great sales, but at least he seems to be moving between art and commerce with ease. Borrowing Calvino's words quoted in the beginning, although Peter Chan may not be able to create a heaven within the inferno, at least he can make quality films endure, and give them space.

(Originally published in a.m. post Issue 20. Reprinted with permission.)

Published January 23, 2006

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