Regardless of whether you love him, hate him, or are completely unaware of him, Tsui Hark remains the most important Chinese film director working today. He burst onto the scene as part of the Eighties New Wave1, and has since made 54 features, 31 as director, and produced blockbusters in every genre known to man. In the process he has lit up most of the stars in the Hong Kong heavens (John Woo, Chow Yun-fat, Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, and Ching Siu-tung all owe their careers to Tsui). After a long dry period beginning in about 2000, during which his movies fizzled at the box office, his 2010 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame became a critical and commercial hit, bringing new life to his career. He’s currently in post-production on his first 3-D film, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, a remake of his 1993 production Dragon Inn, which reunites him with Jet Li. The following interview was put together from Q&A sessions at the New York Asian Film Festival where he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award this past summer. The evening began with a screening of his 1983 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain2, a movie that invented the modern-day Hong Kong special effects industry.
We brought you in a little bit early and the last few minutes of Zu were still running. You seemed like you were in physical pain. What was it like to see some of this movie after so long?
It was a very strange feeling, because I haven’t been here for a very long time. I actually worked in New York 30 years ago, at the Daily News, and also for some documentary production companies. So this is a weird experience for me. This movie is from so long ago. Usually when I view something of mine from that long ago, I do it by myself in a very private place.
[Tsui Hark started in television, and then joined Cinema City3, an upstart production company that dominated Hong Kong’s box office in the early Eighties.]
You were part of what was called the Gang of Seven back in your the Cinema City days. It was you, your wife Nansun Shi4, Karl Maka, Dean Shek, Raymond Wong, Teddy Robin5, and Eric Tsang. How did you work as a group?
Cinema City was a very new company, and they were really aiming to do something new in the industry. That’s why they recruited me, Teddy Robin, and other people who didn’t have traditional ideas about film. We gathered every night at Karl Maka’s house, in a small room, just big enough for a table and the seven of us, to talk about projects. Every script, every story had to be reviewed by each one of us, and then we would talk about our viewpoint. For example, we’d have an idea like Aces Go Places6. There’d be the initial idea—this is a story about a policeman and a thief—and then each one of us in order would tell everybody his or her idea for what happened next in the story.
And would you still have these meetings during shooting and production to fine-tune the script?
So is this where you first learned how to survive with no sleep7?
Well, that’s why I was a little bit frustrated, because in the daytime you have to shoot, and then at nighttime we have to meet, and usually the meeting would go until sunrise. For us, sometimes, it was like hell.
So how did you live?
After the meeting, you went back home, got three or four hours sleep, and then went back to work.
With my first film, The Butterfly Murders10, I was shooting everything for real: real butterflies, real actors, real sets. And one day my friend came and watched me for a whole day of production and at the end of it he asked me why I didn’t use special effects. It had actually never crossed my mind. So I started to think, well, maybe I should try something like that. So when Golden Harvest’s Raymond Chow11 asked me what sort of thing I wanted to do next, I told him that I wanted to try doing a movie with special effects. And that’s how we ended up with Zu.
The novel is from the Fifties and it’s full of fantastic, crazy stuff, like the writer's been on drugs or something. You know, the clouds opening up and a big hand coming down. It’s like what we have now, with cartoon movies. Lee’s got a very strong visual imagination. My interest was how we were going to put a whole bunch of people doing this funny stuff on the screen, flying around fighting each other. We were doing something different from tradition, because these types of effects were always considered untouchable before12. For one thing, technically, it’s not easy. For another, the ideas can become comical. But at that moment, the industry was ready to break with the past. Psychologically, they were ready to see something that wasn't the same as before.
And how long was the production?
It was very long. It took more than six months. I remember once a reporter asked me what I would want to do next, and I said I wanted to retire.
Was there ever a point when you lost confidence about being able to complete the film?
Well, I felt that every moment, every day. The production seemed to last forever. I never really knew when to end it. Every day we were shooting, but then we feel like we were shooting more, and reshooting, and reshooting, and more reshooting13.
What kept you from just quitting?
I think this sort of thing happens like a curse—you never escape from a curse. As soon as you’re damned by something, you just have to continue on with it. Until you die.
How did you keep Golden Harvest and [producer] Raymond Wong satisfied during this process?
Well, we had a pretty free hand. I think he was trying very hard to make it work, with the intention of keeping me at Golden Harvest. After Zu, I went back to Cinema City and he was not very happy. He was actually very upset. And so, many years later, that’s why I did Once Upon a Time in China14 for Golden Harvest.
Your movies are incredibly fast, there’s no fat. Can you talk a little about the Hong Kong tradition of midnight screenings and how it's shaped your editing style?
The tradition in the Eighties and the Nineties was that every time we released a movie, we showed it one week ahead at the midnight show, where the audience was usually very direct. They would yell, scream, throw chairs, stuff like that. Sometimes it was worse, and they would wait for the director at the end of the show, and the director would get really scared to go out into the hall. There were a lot of incidents. The midnight show is a testing ground to see the audience reaction. For A Chinese Ghost Story15, there was a scene preceding the final fight with about 10 minutes of drama. Before the film was released we seriously discussed what would happen if the audience felt very negative about the ending. Ching Siu-tung16 asked me what to do and I said, “Let’s keep it that way and see what happens. If the audience really hates it, we can run away.” So we kept the ending. But sometimes we get very nervous, and we have very fast-paced cutting.
How much can you actually change a film in five days?
We can actually recut the film entirely.
So you have enough time to make a new edit and new dubbing?
See, if you have like maybe 40 theaters showing the movie, then you have people driving a van with the editor in it from one theater to another to cut the film. That’s exactly what would happen.
So besides the midnight previews, what else accounts for this extremely fast editing technique you use? I mean, your movies really do scream along17.
We are very nervous people. That’s why our movies go faster than other movies. I think we were a little bit faster than normal people in those days because we felt like we had to tell a longer story in a shorter time.
Speaking of A Chinese Ghost Story, can you talk a little about why you made it?
At that point in my career18, I had a very serious moment in which I thought about why I kept making movies. So I turned back to look at something that I got really excited about when I was a kid. One of those movies was Lee Han-hsiang's The Enchanting Shadow19 , which I saw when I was 5 years old. I wanted to put something on the screen to re-create the energy I felt when I first saw it. So that’s where A Chinese Ghost Story came from.
[In the early Nineties, Tsui Hark could do no wrong. His Once Upon a Time in China series made Jet Li a megastar, his company, Film Workshop20, was making hit after hit, and when he wasn’t directing he was producing movies like the Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman21 series.]
What’s your approach to producing? How involved are you? Because a lot of movies you produce really look like the films you direct.
I think this situation only applies to some of my movies. For example, for Dragon Inn22, I was actually involved in the shooting. I shot something like 80 percent of the movie because we were in the situation of having to meet the talent's schedules. We were caught in a tight schedule on location in Dunhuang23 as well as in Hong Kong. So we had to operate with two units at the same time. But like A Chinese Ghost Story I worked with Ching Siu-tung, but most of the time I was on the set. And we were talking about how to make these scenes work, and I would always suggest things. Sometimes he would act as the camera person, sometimes I would act as the camera person.
Dragon Inn is a classic of the Nineties wuxia pictures, and I wonder if you can talk a little about it.
It was a very dramatic situation when we started the project because at the same time there was another film called Dragon Inn being made in Hong Kong and that film was supposed to star Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, and the investor was a very powerful gangster24. So that meant we had to compete in the marketplace with them. One morning, I pick up the phone and it's my brother asking, “What do you think of the death of that investor?” I said, “What? Are you joking?” He said, “No, the news is that the investor was killed at eleven this morning, four bullets in the head.” We went on to do our version. We were on a very tight schedule, and so we were shooting in two units: one was in Dunhuang shooting exteriors, and the other was in Hong Kong. I was the person who did the shooting in Hong Kong. We had to arrange all the schedules, with Brigitte Lin25, Maggie Cheung26, and Tony Leung27 traveling between Dunhuang and Hong Kong. We sent Brigitte over to Dunhuang pretty early. When we finished in Hong Kong I immediately took a plane to Dunhuang, where I met Brigitte, crying, at the airport. During a scene in which she was being shot at with arrows, she failed to block them with her sword and one of them slashed her eye. She was being sent to a hospital back in Hong Kong.
How long was she off the shoot?
She never made it back to Dunhuang. When I arrived we only had about 10 days left to stay on location and finish the rest of the movie. But it took longer to treat her eye, so her scenes were actually never finished. I was sitting with the producer, Ng See-yuen28, and I asked him if we were going to wait for Brigitte. About four days later, Ng See-yuen brought in a double. I said, “Look at her! Do you really think that she looks like Brigitte?” But actually, the double did bear some resemblance at certain angles, so I had to live with that.
[After the high times of the early Nineties, things got tough later in the decade. Before going to Hollywood to direct two Jean-Claude Van Damme movies29, Tsui Hark directed The Blade30, a remake of Chang Cheh’s landmark 1967 martial-arts film31. A box-office bomb, it heralded the end of an era in Hong Kong for Tsui Hark.]
The Blade didn’t do well at the box office for several reasons. I think one of the reasons is we didn’t use really big stars in the movie32. But I really like those actors, they were very authentic to me. And it was a little bit different from what I’d done before, it was a different style of action33. This style created a very threatening and ugly image of life and death. I was influenced by Kurosawa. I think he shot Seven Samurai in a very powerful way. I wanted the audience to look into themselves, to see why we have so much hatred in our world, so much fighting, so much violence. After The Blade, actually, I wanted to continue using the same style on the next project but instead went to Hollywood to do a movie there.
At the time, I had a studio in Hong Kong where I shot The Blade. It was in the New Territories and we had a street set, and we also had a set made up of some buildings—it was so much easier for us to shoot something in our own studio. But according to the government it was illegal to have something like that on our land and we were forced to tear it down.
[Next came a period from 2000 to 2010 when Tsui Hark’s movies just didn’t seem to find an audience.]
Are you happy with the movies you made in the 2000s? Because a lot of people feel like they weren’t connecting with the audience in the same way.
This was a very interesting period in my career, because I got back to Hong Kong from the States, and I started working on Time and Tide34. And in that period of time, I was thinking I should do something different rather than repeat myself. So I started projects unlike anything I had done before. At the same time, I was writing Detective Dee. Throughout those 10 years I was doing different things, but at the same time, I was also doing the same thing.
But when you look at a movie like your 2002 remake of Zu35 are you happy with it?
For me, it’s a disaster. I think the bigger problem was in the post-production. We were caught in a dilemma during the production and we had to look for a way out. We relied too much on the post-production house. As it turned out, those special-effects shots were not acceptable, but we had to live with it.
I think Seven Swords36 did pretty well in mainland China, but I know for a lot of your movies from the 2000s the box office was not so good. How did you keep going as a filmmaker?
It’s simple. If you get a chance, you take it. You take every opportunity possible. There’s no other way.
You’re shooting The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate now, with Jet Li and Zhou Xun37, and you’re doing it in 3-D. Everyone’s making a 3-D movie now. How are you approaching the technology differently?
I think the fun thing is seeing how to combine 3-D with something traditional. We always see 3-D in science fiction, we see 3-D in Western action movies, but we haven’t seen anything from our heritage, from our tradition. That’s why I want to do this, it’s an exercise to put myself on a new page of creativity. Because it definitely affects your thinking. Shooting 2-D you look for new things, a fresh way to make a story, a new story, new characters, a new style for your movie. I’m the one audience member who sees my movies first, so I have to entertain myself before I can entertain other people. So I’m very, very anxious going into 3-D because I think it can change some of the things I’ve usually done in the past.
Such as the way you tell a story. Usually we have fast-paced cutting, but in 3-D you cannot do that. Because if you’re cutting too fast you would cut away the depth, the space, the volume of the subject on screen. And that’s exactly what 3-D should do—create the volume, and the space, and the room on screen. It generates some sort of a different effect for the audience’s experience, they live in the movie by seeing the story on another level.
A lot of your films employ new technology, new camera techniques, new effects. Are you more interested in finding a new narrative or a new way to make movies?
I think I can answer that in three ways. The first is that I think we’re all looking for something new in ourselves. I think a filmmaker is only trying to make something about themselves, their feelings toward the world, toward their life, the values they have, something they get from living in their time. You finish one film and suddenly realize something’s missing in yourself, and you want to express that in your next project. This is the thing that we’re all looking for. Somebody asked me, “When are you gonna finish?” meaning is there a possibility that one day I’d have nothing left to shoot. I said that if someday I find nothing in myself that I feel is missing, then I probably wouldn't have anything to shoot anymore. But I think in living our lives, we’re always looking for something. That’s the part of us we look for in our stories, in the movies.
The second way to answer that question is that I think we’re getting more demanding according to our experiences with media. As movies evolve, they are getting more and more realistic, and getting closer to our lives. Even with a fantastic, surreal story, the visuals are getting more realistic in a way that you feel like it’s happening right before your eyes. So technically, or on a narrative level, you feel like you’re looking for a more demanding method with which to make the story more powerful, more realistic, more memorable. This is the thing we’re always trying to get at. For example, you make a movie and at the end of it you feel like, “Oh, I didn’t do this well enough.” And so you wait for the moment on a future project when you can execute it better.
The third way to answer the question is . . . if you do something constantly throughout your life, you’ll always be looking for something more exciting to do. I imagine if I was a chef, if I had cooked a certain cuisine for 50 years, eventually I’d look for something new and interesting to cook, to try it out, to see what it’s like. It wouldn't be for everybody, just for the cook himself, to excite him, in order to keep him in the business.
One thing that happens over and over in your movies is people having to say goodbye, people being torn apart. Shanghai Blues38, Peking Opera Blues39, Once Upon a Time in China 240, A Chinese Ghost Story—your movies almost always seem to end with people being pulled in different directions. And I have to imagine you’re doing this on purpose, film after film. And I’m just curious as to what you’re getting at with this, or what this means to you, this idea of people forever saying farewell?
Actually, I’m not really aware of this. [Laughs] But in '8441, when I made Shanghai Blues, my purpose was actually to explore the immigrant psychology of the Chinese people during that period. I think that the Chinese have this tradition of migrating from one place to another. They don’t see this as very special, but all this migration is usually for political reasons. And in making Shanghai Blues, in ’84, there was a big thing going on in Hong Kong. We saw a lot of people migrating to other places because of the return of Hong Kong to China. So I made that movie because I felt like, once again, we were repeating the same pattern. I was raised in Vietnam because my parents migrated from China. And then I migrated to Hong Kong, and then I had to migrate from Hong Kong to somewhere42. We are caught in something like a migrating curse, moving from one place to another. This is something real. For me, it’s very ironic. So I made the movie to tell people that maybe we should stop and think about it. Other movies, too, such as Swordsman, or even now Detective Dee, in which Detective Dee hides underground because the Empress Wu43 is in charge of the Tang Dynasty, and at the end of the movie he is literally forced to go down into the underworld, never to return to the surface again. This also applies to the idea of separation as you say, but I don't think it's the same thing. But who knows? I’m the person least aware of it.
You’ve said a few times while you’ve been here that you’ve wanted to make a movie about the Asian-American experience. Can you just talk about that briefly?
I was a documentary filmmaker in New York City 30 years ago. Not exactly a filmmaker, I was actually assisting people make documentaries. And I envisioned myself as a filmmaker in the future. In later years I became a director in Hong Kong. Coming back to New York City again, I do wish that I could work on a documentary about Asian-American history, in order to leave a record of our ancestors, to relate what they've done for us so we can know how to connect history together. And so that people can learn from what was created for us in the past and that, maybe, we can do the same for those in the future.