Interview with Stanley Kwan

Stanley Kwan, one of the leading exponents of the Hong Kong Second New Wave, agreed to answer some questions about his film career and on his personal life.

As children we all have a dream to fulfil, but often circumstances force us to change our plans. Was it your dream to become a director? When did you realize that you wanted to pursue this career?

When I was little, I loved watching films because I grew up next to a big multiplex. I’d save all my pocket money up so I could go to the cinema on weekends. I usually bought the cheapest front row seats. I loved watching all kinds of movies, but back then I only thought, a director is someone of great importance. Later on, I did a year of talent training course at TVB where I got to know more about production and things behind the scene. I was one of crew members in the production department, working alongside with Ann Hui, Patrick Tam and Yim Ho at TVB. Only then did I realize that production is interesting. Then they introduced me to work in the film industry where I became their assistant director from late 70s to early 80s. Even when I was working as an assistant director, I never thought I’d become a director one day. To be someone with professional work ethics, who could offer help to the director, was all I ever wanted back then.

One of the leading exponents of the so-called Hong Kong Second New Wave of the mid-80s, an enterprising and innovative director, an author of great sensitivity, one of the first Chinese public figures to come out, Stanley Kwan agreed to answer some questions about his film career, on his personal life, and on how these, over the years, have inevitably become deeply intertwined.

You started from television in a period of great renewal, where social issues become fully relevant and traditional genres are modified or even subverted in light of the changes of modern society. How did you experience the transition to the big screen and its different production methods? Even considering the fact that you and other colleagues of yours were planning to make films other than the usual commercial films that guaranteed safe revenues in the studios.

I always tell myself that I’m lucky. I worked in the production department when Hong Kong television was at its golden era. It was a time of great spirit. I had the chance to work as Continuity and Assistant Director. The works of those directors I mentioned earlier are very different from the TV shows and movies earlier, as there was more attention and focus to the social issues at the time. In terms of film language, they were also very different from studio films (such as the ones made by Shaw’s and Golden Harvest). There was often a sense of realism as if the films were close to the Hong Kong audience were familiar with. These films connected on a deeper level with our daily lives. That’s why I’m always grateful that I could help these young directors at TVB during that time. These directors who started out in the TV industry were used to not having to satisfy the conventional idea of commercial concerns, so they had more creative freedom. However, Hong Kong movie industry has always been commercial-oriented. When they transitioned to the movie industry, we also had to make changes. That’s why directors such as Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Tsui Hark or even directors who started in the mid-80s like us, we opted to use a lot of movie stars in our works. That can be seen from movies such as Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, and my movies Women, Love Unto Wastes, Rouge.


Rouge was produced after 1984, the year in which the agreement to transfer the sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain to China was signed. From this point of view, can the film be seen as an attempt to exorcise the fears and uncertainties of a people that had to face a historical change, to show that in the face of the reality this change can also be accepted to move forward?

 was made in 1987. The joint declaration was signed in 1984, and it was decided then that Hong Kong must be handed over to Mainland China in 1997. Rouge was a movie that Golden Harvest asked me to make. As we were facing such a drastic change, a lot of movies at the time, such as Alfred Cheung’s Her Fatal Ways series, portrays a sense of uncertainty and anxiety towards changes and the future. Rouge has exactly the same kind of sentiment. It is not about accepting reality and moving forward. On the contrary, it reflects a sense of uncertainty towards the future and nostalgia for our glamorous past.

Love Unto Wastes
Love Unto Wastes

Even your previous film Love Unto Wastes reflects the concerns of the period, in this case those of young people. Certain settings, the insistent use of reflective surfaces, made me think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in particular in the initial sequence, where the shots of empty rooms remind us of what the Italian master often used to convey the emptiness of existence. The two images compared above, the first from your film Love Unto Wastes and the second from Antonioni’s film L’Avventura, say a lot. Do you recognize yourself in this description?

It’s true that the empty shots in the opening sequence of Love Unto Wastes was a conscious choice. When we first started shooting, it was already written in the script. I wanted to use the empty shots to depict a feeling of desertedness and absence. Love Unto Wastes was filmed in 1986. Referring back to the previous question, it was a time when we knew that Hong Kong was about to be handed over to Mainland China. The city was filled with a sense of uncertainty, as well as a desire to find our identities in a place we grew up in. The opening sequence is to show that we feel anxious and disturbed towards this change. We couldn’t see what future would bring for us. To some extent, when compared to RougeLove Unto Wastes has a much more vivid portrayal of this sense of melancholy.

Hold You Tight

In general, I notice in your films the special attention you give to the city in which the story is set, be it Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. Often the landscape becomes a character, reflecting the many changes that your country has had to face. In Rouge is the Yi Hung Brothel replaced by a kindergarden, in Hold You Tight is the old and new Hong Kong airport, in Lan Yu is the beautiful final sequence in the car on the streets of Beijing.

I have always loved observing landscapes, especially Hong Kong. I was born and raised here. I always joke that Hong Kong is the only city where I know my way even if I was blind. So naturally, I have an urge to use my films as a vehicle to record the urban landscape at its various phase. As for Shanghai and Beijing, they were more influenced by the narratives. I went filming in Shanghai for the first time for Center Stage. I think Shanghai gave me a very different vibe than Beijing or other Chinese major city. I spent over a year there researching and looking for biographies of people in the 30s, but more importantly, as I was scouting for location, I looked for signs of changes in Shanghai. They all helped me shape the style and narrative of my film.

A turning point in your professional and private life is the documentary you shot for the British Film Institute, Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, with whom you told the history of Chinese cinema and your personal one. How difficult was it to take this step and how liberating was it?

Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema
 is part of a series in celebration of the centenary of cinema. A lot of directors from all over the world made movies about what cinema is like in their region. British Film Institute (BFI) strongly encouraged each of us to create something personal. In the end, Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema became my ‘come-out’ movie. I think I was finally honest with my choice of sexuality, so I co-wrote the script of this documentary with Edward Lam. Its angle had nothing to do with BFI, it was just a natural move for me. Growing up, I often tried to search for my sexuality through movies, for example, Chang Cheh’s wuxia films, often portray the concept of comradeship and male bonding, and how men sacrifice oneself for another. They made a huge impact on my journey in search of my own sexuality. In the first chapter “Absent Father”, I mentioned that I was the eldest son in the family. My father thought I had to be a role model to my younger siblings, so he was especially strict to me. I thought my father didn’t love me, which results in longing for his love and care.

Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema
Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema

In this documentary, citing Ang Lee and his film The Wedding Banquet, the issue of filial piety is addressed. Times have changed, even Hou Hsiao-hsien emphasizes how important it is today to first and foremost respect one’s own self before one’s own parents. Even your mother seems to have serenely accepted your way of being. What does Chinese society look like today? Do you think they managed to reach the right balance between these two instances?

Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema
 is a personal way to explore my identity through different Chinese films. There’s a sense of honesty and acceptance. In The Wedding Banquet, I feel that Ang Lee is trying to address the understanding between parents and children over the issue of filial piety. Respecting yourself is crucial. Whether we should respect ourselves before our parents, I think these two concepts are interconnected. Perhaps we only learn to respect ourselves because of how our parents raised and educated us. I think as a Chinese, it’s inherently difficult to put oneself before our parents. I’m my mother’s son so I’m sure she’s always known my way of being, and probably was only waiting for me to tell her. I think Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema happened at the right time so my mother could understand me more. I believe my mother was happy to see that I was honest to myself.

Conquered, submissive, governed by more foreign powers, Hong Kong is a place where its inhabitants have had to struggle hard to mature their own and defined identity. The borders are constantly uncertain, changeable and this has also influenced his cinema; countless are the films that play on the confusion of genres using female characters played by men and male characters played by women; many directors, even from the past, have told this kind of stories. Was there and is there, therefore, a desire to stage certain repressed feelings, such as the sweetness and the weakness that a man can experience, while having to prove his integrity, or the strength and the pride of a woman, who must nevertheless be subject to certain conditions and restrictions?

I agree that Hong Kong is a very unique city. Under the colonial rule of law, it gradually became an international city where Hong Kongers could enjoy some extent of freedom and economic prosperity. That was part of our identity. In the late 70s and early 80s, when we knew we had to be handed over to Mainland China, a lot of young TV and movie directors began exploring the identity of Hong Kong and our feelings towards this city. That’s when I started to feel that our distress and worries towards the handover only existed because we had such a strong identity. As for the male characters in my movies, I didn’t consciously make them a bit weaker or less tough than the female characters. However, strong female characters often moved me, so my female characters tend to be resilient and tough, therefore comparatively, the male characters around them often seem slightly less tough.

In your case, the female universe has been the protagonist of much of your filmography. You had the merit of knowing how to portray women in their multiple nuances, their emotions and their ambitions. Can you say that for you it was a natural instinct? Or maybe also because you grew up in a predominantly female environment?

My preference towards female characters only came from my personality. Of course it’s related to my sexuality too. I felt more sensitive towards female characters and I often find myself admiring and observing them. Perhaps I do that more often than other male directors. It could also because I grew up in a more female dominated environment. As I mentioned, my father passed away when I was a teenager. I was the eldest son, and I have three younger sisters and one younger brother. I came from a big family with predominantly females who are usually resilient and tough. For example, my mother had to play the role of our father. She had to be the breadwinner, and she never got remarried. She was the one who raised all of us.

Center Stage

The character I’m most fond of is that of Ruan Lingyu in “Center Stage”. I had seen his splendid interpretation in “The Goddess” and when I looked for information about her, I discovered that at the age of 24 she had taken her own life, unable to bear the slanders that had spread over her. I read that you initially cast in her role Anita Mui (who at the time was living in a similar situation as she was continually persecuted by the tabloids and discredited by gossip and insinuations), but in the end she gave up because she refused to return to work in China after the facts of Tiananmen Square. The part then went to Meggie Cheung, who, I believe, managed to perfectly embody the character of Ruan. What was it like working with her? And how is your work with the actors in your films in general?

I think it was fate that Maggie Cheung played Ruan Lingyu because Anita Mui declined the role after the 1989. Anita made a statement that said she wouldn’t work in Mainland China anymore. At the time, we had already started our preparation and location scouting so there’s no way we could film anywhere but Shanghai. We could only use Maggie Cheung instead. I think it’s important that actors are willing to make sacrifices for their roles. For example, women in 1930s usually had very thin brows, so we tried to convince Maggie Cheung to shave her brows. Maggie refused at first because she heard from her friends that some people couldn’t regrow their brows afterwards. So we could only use glue to make her brows look thinner. Later on, we did a scene in Shanghai for camera testing, Maggie was there too. She was speechless after watching playback. When she went back to her room, she decided to shave her brows completely. It’s also worth noting that at the time, Hong Kong actors often played in several movies at one time. But she rejected all other movies so she could focus on Center Stage in Shanghai for 3 months. That’s why I think she deserves all the achievements she got from this movie.

I mentioned the Tiananmen Square affair which in your 2001 film Lan Yu constitutes a very important moment in the narrative. Despite its seriousness, the Chinese government has always continued to call it “an accident”, something to be forgotten at all costs, a form of blindness that over the years has also adopted in the face of the recognition of equal rights to homosexuals. A film like Lan Yu certainly can’t be seen kindly by government authorities, right?

Lan Yu hasn’t had a chance to be theatrically released in Mainland China, that goes to show that the issue of homosexuality is still a questionable subject. But I believe public acceptance is slowly improving.

Lan Yu

Historically, the Hong Kong government has never shown particular interest in investing time and resources in the development of the film industry. After the 1997 handover, the co-productions between Hong Kong and mainland China have rekindled the hopes of the sector. How do you survive under these conditions and above all how do you manage to do your job according to your will and not submit to the laws of the market?

Hong Kong government actually has put more effort in supporting the film industry recently. There are now programs such as “First Feature Film Initiative” that helps young filmmakers. Hong Kong Arts Development Council also decided to invest extra resources and funds in the industry, resulting in the emergence of more promising young directors lately. It is true that a lot of young filmmakers don’t have as much resources at first, but if they perform well for their first films, they often receive more funding from financiers or even job offers for China-Hong Kong co-production afterwards. This is something we’d love to see. I was one of the first filmmakers to make films in China, with Center Stage and Red Rose White Rose in the early 1990s, but I didn’t get any Chinese funds back then. Because of the films we did in Hong Kong in the 80s, we started getting a lot of attention from Chinese financiers and audience. We had a competitive advantage. After 2000, a lot of Hong Kong filmmakers migrated north to work.  It was understandable that a lot of Mainland Chinese financiers thought Hong Kong filmmakers were not grounded, but the commerciality of Hong Kong films, to some extent, influenced some Mainland Chinese filmmakers and shaped how Chinese audience appreciate films, and even changed the way some genres are formed in China. But if I had the opportunity now, I would love to use a smaller budget and less resource to film in Hong Kong too.  

First Night Nerves
First Night Nerves

Your last film, First Night Nerves, once again talks about women, about the relationship between truth and fiction, about the conflict between tradition and modernity. How did you manage to mediate between nostalgia for a past in which it still made sense to believe in certain values and the need to adapt to a constantly changing present? In a film by Ozu it was said “I think that ‘being new’ is ‘not getting old’, really new things never get old”.

Besides those female characters, First Night Nerves also has a very important spatial character, and that’s Hong Kong City Hall. Hong Kong City Hall is a landmark especially to people from my generation. It is our collective memory. When I was young, I often went there for film festivals, dramas and concerts. I think even an old object can carry lots of sweet memories. There’s always a sense of warmth and familiarity when we went inside. That is already a way to quantify the value of the past. At the same time, the world is constantly changing, so we have to develop a new way of thinking. First Night Nerves also aims to explore how these changes can affect our current state of living. I think what interests me about movies is its blankness. I’d like to leave some room for the audience to think. Providing that room for thoughts has always been something I’m trying to do with my movies.

Interview by Elisabetta Orsi
Many thanks to Pearl Cheung, Distribution Manager at Golden Scene Co. Ltd

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