Kaiju Shakedown: Dream Projects at HAF
Film festivals are full of financing forums where invited directors pitch projects to investors and co-producers, but as far as I’m concerned the best of the bunch is Hong Kong’s HAF (Hong Kong Asia Financing Forum). Why’s it so good? Because it’s been running since 2000, because the project proposals have to be in English, and because they put all the past and present proposals up online, making it an invaluable window onto the filmmaking process.
HAF has played host to a ton of projects that wound up reaching the big screen, and cruising through their archives you can see what these movies looked like at an early stage in their development, as well as their proposed budgets. Even more importantly, each one comes with a director’s statement which is often the clearest explanation you’ll ever read of their creative intentions. A few of the movies where you can compare the finished product to their initial proposals:
• Brillante Mendoza’s career-making Serbis
• Bong Joon-Ho’s award-winning Mother
• Ann Hui’s grim true-crime drama, Night & Fog
• Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata
• Wilson Yip talks a lot about the Tony Wong 1970s comic that provided the inspiration for his action film Dragon Tiger Gate
• Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s hilariously low-key proposal for his art-house thriller Invisible Waves
• Lu Chuan’s proposal barely gives a hint at the scale of his massive City of Life and Death
• Ning Hao’s hilarious Crazy Racer
• And Kim Jee-Woon’s Mainland Chinese western The Good, The Bad and the Weird
Echoes of the Rainbow
But far more fascinating are the projects that never came to fruition. Some of them are passion projects that directors carried around for years, desperately searching for investors. Others are scripts they had in their bottom drawers and whipped out just for the HAF. But almost all of them are movies that are so wild and crazy you really want to see them get made.
Mabel Cheung, director of Hong Kong’s nostalgia hit Echoes of the Rainbow, was at HAF four years ago looking for funding for her Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Red Rose and White Rose. The project’s an attempt to employ the craze for period dramas to deliver a subversive retelling of the Chinese classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, told from the point of view of the maids, princesses, and concubines who are barely mentioned in the book. Brian Tse, the man behind Hong Kong’s My Life as McDull, the successful animated film series about the morose piglet, wanted to make an animated feature film called Wee Wee the Poop about, in his words, “The life and dreams of a turd.”
Pang Ho-cheung, in particular, seems to have an endless supply of screenplays waiting for the right financier to come along. Two of his submissions to HAF are my favorite films he’s never made. Now Showing is about a famous actor who can’t find a maid. Everyone he hires wants to steal his dirty socks and sell them online. So he and his wife hire a foreign maid who doesn’t know anything about movies, and they pretend to be a normal couple so that she won’t figure out who he is. From the maid’s point of view, the husband is a lazy bum who never goes to work, and he and his wife come up with a cover story that plays into her scenario. Soon, their playacting starts to get out of control as the wife finds herself enjoying her imaginary life more than her real one.
Pang also turned in the harrowing The Bus, an amazingly complicated movie based on the real-life story about a series of rapes that took place on a long distance bus trip in Mainland China. Pang’s project is about a director in Hong Kong making an improvised film about the crimes called 40 Hours to Hell, but the shoot re-creates the tensions and power dynamics of the original bus ride a little too accurately, and in the name of “art” the movie turns into a sort of found footage Lord of the Flies. It’s a harrowing and fantastic read.
My Life as McDull
A lot of these dream projects are movies about movies, and I wish we’d get to see some of these meta-films. Joko Anwar’s HAF proposal is The Last Wedding on Earth about an aspiring director hired to shoot a wealthy family’s wedding video. Instead, he winds up documenting the family’s dark secrets and disintegration. Also from Indonesia comes the 2012 project (Un)Making the Betrayal an astonishing meta-documentary that bears similarities to Indonesia’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing. The film centers on The Betrayal, a 1983 movie made by General Suharto that justified his 1965 military coup, portraying his enemies as warlocks and evil doers who used black magic to control the country. Director Dain Said found reels of The Betrayal (which has gone missing) in an old studio, and tracks down participants in the movie to re-stage, re-explore, and re-interrogate what exactly happened during that dark time in Indonesia’s history. His onscreen guide is a 75-year-old woman who was a women’s-rights activist in the Sixties. She was depicted as a crazed witch in The Betrayal and was held in prison without trial for over a decade. Part of the movie is shot in the caves where she hid from the army for six months with her children, whom she hasn’t seen since.
Erik Matti’s On the Job played Cannes last year, but this hardcore Filipino drama about prisoners who are freed to perform gangland assassinations has nothing on Peng Tao’s 2:30AM, a Mainland movie about jailed prostitutes who are freed each night to turn tricks in nightclubs. HAF has been home to some of Asia’s best unmade action movies. Alexi Tan (Blood Brothers) had a project called Detour, a ticking clock hitman movie in which a desperate hired gun tries to take out his target in the middle of the worst traffic jam in Macau’s history. Dante Lam, currently Hong Kong’s best action filmmaker, has Wanted about a plodding career cop who goes to insanely unorthodox lengths to make an arrest when a chance to take down a bigtime crook comes his way. Japan’s most famous fight choreographer and stuntman, Tak Sakaguchi, has long wanted to make a werewolf samurai movie, Blood of the Wolves, and it’s come close, once with Sion “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” Sono directing, but it never started shooting.
Horror has popped up from time to time, most notably with Japan’s famed Sabu pitching Dancing Mary back in 2008 about a mid-level city bureaucrat who’s assigned to deal with an evil spirit haunting a municipal construction site. But action and science fiction seem to be the genres that directors are dying to deal with most, from Fruit Chan’s long-in-the-works sci-fi epic, Typhoon 101, to Ning Hao’s insane time traveling save-the-world comedy 7 Dreams. Then there are true head-spinners like Nonzee Nimibutr’s end-of-the-world nihilism fest, Secret of the Butterfly, about a plague that’s killing all the men on the planet.
But here are the handful of projects from across all the years of HAF that I most want to see. Each of them not only sounds audacious but far more compelling than a lot of what makes it into theaters:
51 Ways to Save the Girl: Takashi Miike pitched this prescient disaster story back in 2006. Two college-aged kids meet when a massive earthquake devastates Tokyo. The boy has to help the girl reach her family in the suburbs and prove his love to her with only a lighter, a handkerchief, one radio, and two cell phones.
Chang & Eng: Before he directed Beautiful Boxer, the movie about Thailand’s first transsexual muay thai fighter, Ekachai Uekrongtham directed plays, one of which was a musical about the life of Chang & Eng, the world’s first internationally famous Siamese Twins. This motion picture tells how “the conjoined twins eventually became U.S. citizens, fell in love, married two American sisters, and went on to father 21 children.” And did I mention it’s a musical?
A Taste of Honey: Seijun Suzuki really needs to make this movie before he passes away, because it would be a beautiful film to go out with. Set mostly in one room, it’s the story of an elderly novelist who falls in love with, and has a sexual relationship with, his goldfish.
Curious Grandmas: Indonesian director Lucky Kuswandi’s throwback to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple murder mysteries of the Sixties and Seventies, this is the director’s attempt to make a movie his mom would love. Four lifelong friends, now grandmothers, go to a resort for New Year’s Eve but wind up trying to figure out whodunit when the resort owner, an international socialite, is murdered.
The Maclennan Affair: One of Hong Kong’s greatest true crime stories, this movie from Eric Tsang’s son, Derek Tsang, and longtime Pang Ho-cheung collaborator, Jimmy Wan, would be the type of Oscar-bait that wins shelves full of awards. In 1980, a Hong Kong police inspector, John MacLennan, shot himself five times in the chest. It was ruled a suicide, but the last people to see him alive (and who maybe shot him and covered it up) were the so-called “Bum Squad”—a team of cops whose assignment to root out homosexuals in the civil service had turned into a blackmail cash machine when it wasn’t a witch hunt. It turned into a major scandal in the territory that reached the Houses of Parliament in the U.K., and a film version of the story would be like To’s Election meets Philadelphia.
So go cruise through the archives. Because after all, who doesn’t want to see Hong Kong’s Gordon Chan (currently head of Media Asia studios) shoot William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in the posh underworld of 1930s Shanghai? Can action maestro Ryoo Seung-Wan finally make his version of Death Wish about a stuntman searching for revenge in Russia called I Enforce? And don’t we deserve a movie directed by Hong Kong’s hardcore actor and all-around intense thespian who has helmed several edgy experimental movies, Francis Ng? His proposal for Bema’s Tear compares it to The Lord of the Rings and asks, “Why cannot we have our own Chinese-style fairy tale like England’s Harry Potter?”
Why cannot indeed? Come on, investors. Get your acts together!
A Girl at My Door
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Film Business Asia has been hitting it out of the park recently. First up, Derek Elley wrote a piece on the lack of Asian films in the Cannes line-up this year the lowest number since 1996. He pointedly asks:
“So are Cannes' selectors not working hard enough, or has East Asia, after a good run in the spotlight, just slipped back to its average levels of the '80s and '90s, as exotic icing on an essentially Western (and Euro/U.S.-dominated) cake? Can a region of the world whose film industry currently has double the growth rate of the global average, and accounts for 23% of global box office, only be worth representing with seven out of 70-odd features in the whole festival?”
Then they offer another slab of solid statistics, looking at the top-grossing Asian movies of 2013, a surprising list that offers a lot of interesting tidbits. Since Asian is the fastest-growing global film market, there’s a lot to be learned here.
… Then there’s their in-depth interview with Terence Chang, the producer of John Woo’s ambitious new movie, The Crossing, a $40 million two-parter about refugees in the 1949 War of Liberation. Starring Zhang Ziyi, Huang Xiaoming, Song Hye-Kyo, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Masami Nagasawa, it’s written by Wang Hui-ling who co-authored Lust, Caution and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The interview talks about the censorship process, shooting conditions, working with big budgets, and whether Hong Kong can sustain a director like John Woo anymore (short answer: no).
… Speaking of interviews: Bae Doo-Na is in Cannes for her new film A Girl at My Door and she talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the loneliness she feels in Hollywood and her new boyfriend.
… And finally, Jackie Chan is set to star in Civilian, a Hollywood film about “a salesman who finds himself in the middle of a terror attack at arms convention.” It’s directed by Peter Segal, the man behind the flop Stallone/De Niro boxing picture Grudge Match.
… You know what? I’d rather see Jack Neo’s Six Brave Warriors about a group of losers doing their mandatory military service who travel back in time (with their weapons), open a casino, and go to war with the mad King of Qin in 200 B.C.