New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Report 4 – CSB Interviews Tsui Hark, Director of Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame and Godfather of the Hong Kong New WavePosted on 07.12.11 by David @ 11:24 am
Tsui Hark should hardly needs an introduction in these parts. If you’ve seen any Hong Kong films in the last 25 years, chances are they were influenced in one way or another by Tsui. In the 80s and the early 90s, he redefined Hong Kong cinema, ushering in the New Wave, introducing modern special effects with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, and producing massively influential films like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, while helping to make stars out of Jet Li, Brigitte Lin and other luminaries. Even a partial filmography as director includes many of the greatest Hong Kong films ever to grace the screen, like Zu, Swordsman, Green Snake, The Blade, Peking Opera Blues, and the Once Upon a Time in China series, while, in close collaboration with director Ching Siu-Tung, he created A Chinese Ghost Story and New Dragon Gate Inn.
Last weekend, CSB’s David Austin had the opportunity to sit down with Tsui, in town for the New York Asian Film Festival, to talk about his latest film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The film - starring Andy Lau as the late seventh century detective investigating mysterious deaths by spontaneous combustion at the behest of Empress Wu (Carina Lau) - is a crowd-pleasing return to form and the voluble Tsui had a lot to say about future projects, the rigors of shooting the film, working with Sammo Hung, and why Empress Wu has gotten a raw deal.
CSB: Detective Dee is a historic figure who has been the subject of many legends. Was the screenplay based on a specific story or did you develop it from scratch?
Tsui Hark: There have been many Detective Dee novels and television series before. Ten years ago, I started writing my own Detective Dee story. Actually, I had my own Dee story and [writer/producer/director] Chen Guofu had his own Dee story. What we were trying to do was establish something different from what had been seen before, to create a world for Dee. Every detective has his own world. Like The X-Files. The X-Files would have Twilight Zone-style material or weird science fiction discoveries. You open up a dimension or a world for the character, and you take the audience into that world. We wanted to create a world for Detective Dee, because the world defines the detective. If a detective does not have a unique world, he will be like any other detective that we have seen. So we wanted to create something like that for Dee.
And it was not difficult, because the seventh century in China had the largest number of poets of any dynasty in China. There was so much creativity in that arena because China during that period was a mixture of different cultures. We had Italian, we had Indian, we had Turkish, people from Japan, Korea, Russia. It was a mix that resulted in a very unique culture of music, art, dance and performance, fashion and philosophy. Open thinking. You can tell by the way people dressed during that period, it was even bolder than what we have nowadays. Their thinking was freer, compared to now. It is odd to compare sixth century, seventh century China to nowadays. The people were more liberal and open-minded. From the seventh century to the 21st century, there has been a long period during which conservative forces have tried to move things away from what we had in the seventh century. After that dynasty, society became more conservative, perhaps because society had become too open, too liberal, perhaps because some thought society had become too complicated and needed to be simplified. The 14th Century had that kind of philosophical restriction. So to create a world for Dee uniquely in contrast to what we have now and in contrast to what we have seen before, was not difficult.
Dee was also connected to some very legendary figures in history. Empress Wu was the one and only reigning empress China has ever had, and she has been a controversial figure over the long run of history. A lot of people think she was really bad, a dictator. Some people think she was very great. The controversy around her has never settled down. But she did fantastic things, and she was an icon, leaving a wide historical record. She established a tombstone, very large, with no words, so that future generations could evaluate her from the perspective of a future world. This was something no emperor or empress had done before. After this female ruler died, we never had a second one. Perhaps the threat of power in the hands of a woman was a serious issue for the rest of the Chinese kingdom, and they became very careful about allowing authority to switch to the opposite sex. This was a big element of the world we created for Dee.
Another thing I thought was important was to have a special case for Dee each time. There are a lot of famous detectives, Sherlock Holmes for example. They always crack a case involving a murder, or a mysterious killer, or strange phenomena in London, or people dying in strange ways. For Dee, we wanted to create a world that was different. Dee was a real person and already had an authentic background. We wanted to blend it into a surreal background, to make Dee an interesting detective when stacked up against the other detectives on the same level. We wanted to create a case that was on a bigger scale than we had seen before. So we had the conspiracy to kill Empress Wu with the enormous statue of Buddha, and at the same time we had people spontaneously combusting. We wanted visuals that would be different than what we had seen before.
So Chen Guofu and I were both writing and exchanging ideas on and off. We talked about a meteor flying through the air and hitting the palace, and then a big hose, and then I had an idea where Dee was searching for a strange kind of phoenix that was killing people. With all of these elements, we were looking for some kind of X-File for Detective Dee, something with iconic elements. Four years ago, Chen Guofu asked if I would be interested in filming his script. Because, in my view, we should not have two Dees. The best thing was to collaborate and make one film, presenting Detective Dee in a way that would combine all of the elements from both of our scripts together to make it work on the screen. Instead of having two Dees, and possibly doing the same thing but with a result not as good as what we could achieve together.
CSB: Why has Empress Wu remained such a controversial figure? And what made you think of Carina Lau for that role?
Tsui Hark: Empress Wu is controversial because, according to the historical record, she used a lot of very harsh methods to fight her political opponents. So people take a very negative attitude towards her. But others have noted that we always condemn this female ruler for using very cruel methods, but we praise so many male emperors that used the same methods. Why are we discriminating against Empress Wu? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she was not supposed to rule that when she uses the same methods against her opponents we point our fingers? But, on the other hand, at the end of the day, using such cruel methods is an offense against human dignity.
So the issue circles back to a basic question of human rights – can we look back into history, understand the historical background, see people who were fighting a battle and using the strategies that were considered necessary at the time to win, and not interpret those actions through a modern viewpoint as if they were happening now? This debate has become everlasting in the context of Empress Wu because she was the only female ruler China had in history, and there were a lot of good and bad things about her. Empress Wu has become an iconic figure in our daily life. When we call some woman “Empress Wu,” it means she is a dictator. Like Cleopatra means something, implies something when used as a reference.
So, Carina Lau, this character was very difficult to cast. To my mind, the character needs someone with that kind of charisma in real life. A person with that kind of connection to the audience, so you will believe that actress and the actress will have the aura of Empress Wu. Carina Lau is the only actress left on that level that I could cast as Empress Wu. Before I cast Carina Lau, there was a lot of talk about casting Brigitte Lin. But Brigitte Lin is leading a very comfortable life, with her daughters and family. Playing Empress Wu was a very difficult task. In temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius … well, maybe not that high but very close … Carina was wearing this big headdress, thick makeup and many layers of costume, it was really hot. Really an ordeal for the actress. We were not really aware of the temperature until one day we had a scene with horses in a square. Carina Lau had her first appearance in the film and what happened was a horse got sunstroke and fainted, collapsed on the set. Then we realized how hot it was. And Carina was on horseback. It was really a tough job. Also, the character was so controversial that anybody who played her had to have enough charisma to overcome audience preconceptions.
CSB: I know you had Sammo Hung handling the choreography and there were a lot of elaborate fight scenes. Did you have any difficulties shooting the fight scenes? And did you consider putting Sammo in front of the camera, instead of just behind the scenes?
Tsui Hark: I was very tempted to use Sammo, because he is a great actor. Once, someone asked me who I thought were the greatest actors and actresses. I said Sammo is one of the greatest, he would have added something to the movie. But Phantom Flame was a very complicated production, so I was really tempted to use him as an actor but I was afraid. His health is not very good. I was really scared about what would happen if he collapsed in the middle of production. So I was being very careful and cautious about his health during production.
And the action was so complicated. Talking about the giant Buddha set, how the actors would fight from here to there. Figuring out how were we going to move from top to bottom and get out of the Buddha and into the palace in the 20 minutes before the sun rises. And how to hide Andy Lau from the sun in the shadow, how to design all these things in a way that we could get them into production. Sometimes it is easier to talk about something and design it, but during the actual production it can be very difficult. For example, six horses running is not something you can do in a very short time, especially when the sun has to be precisely in the middle of the sky so you can get the shadows exactly right. The schedule and the budget were all very demanding. So I would talk with Sammo about this – we were very lucky to get Sammo because he has so much experience – and he could handle things both in terms of action and acting, because sometimes, at the end of production, we would separate into an A unit and a B unit. I was shooting one of the units and he was shooting one of the units. So we had to commit that Dee would be doing a certain thing and his personality would be a certain way. I was lucky to have Sammo so we could share the production together.
CSB: Since you have done so much research, and you and Chen have both been writing for so long, do you think you have enough material to tell additional Dee stories?
Tsui Hark: Definitely. We have more than two stories. Actually, we are planning a prequel. The reason we want to do a prequel is because when we talk about Phantom Flame, we always end up talking about why Detective Dee ends up in prison [where he begins the film]. How did he get into the business of being a judge or detective? Why does Empress Wu take such precautions with Dee? So we wanted to go back and see how we got to where we are at the beginning of Phantom Flame.
But maybe this is only our concern - a lot of people are asking about the sequel. What happens in part two? (laughs) People ask if we have a follow-up to Phantom Flame and I saw we do, a prequel, and they say, “We want a sequel!” The reason we are doing a prequel is that we thought of so many things we want to show about Dee as a person in the earlier part of his career, his life. And we do have a story, it is quite interesting, about how he learned all of his detective skills and about his involvement in the judicial department in the early stage of his life.
CSB: Would you use Andy Lau and Carina Lau again or younger actors?
Tsui Hark: This project is still in the thinking stages. If we’re talking about ten years earlier, we will probably need younger actors, but we are not yet sure. We are trying to work it out.
CSB: You previously shot your own reinterpretation of King Hu’s Dragon Inn as New Dragon Gate Inn, and Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman as The Blade, and I understand that you are currently shooting a new version of Dragon Inn. I am curious what you have planned for the new version and if there are any other classic stories or wu xia films that you are interested in revisiting?
Tsui Hark: Actually, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is not a remake. It is a continuation of the story from the first film. It is really a pity when a new film replaces an earlier film, because if you have done the first film, why replace it with a new one? So Flying Swords is a continuation of the story from the first film, picking up three years later and showing what happened at that time. I had this idea in mind for quite a while, before finally starting the project. It is a very different kind of story than we had before.
Actually, I am not much in favor of remaking films, unless I find something interesting to remake. For example, in The Blade, I wanted to try a documentary style. The film was not very successful but I did try. I wanted to make it different from the kind of action films that had been seen before. Currently, I am thinking about doing another Once Upon A Time In China story. But a different attempt.
CSB: Returning to the Wong Fei-Hung story?
Tsui Hark: Yes, because one day I was sitting there and came up with a great idea for Once Upon A Time In China. But then I thought, how am I going to do it? So I am accumulating the elements and the people who can eventually create this Once Upon A Time In China world again. So I am thinking about it.
Thanks to Subway Cinema for arranging this interview.
© David Austin
Filed under: General and Movie News and Movie News: Hong Kong and Contributors: David and People: Andy Lau and People: Tsui Hark and People: Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Movie News: Interviews and Venues: Film Society at Lincoln Center and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2011 and Film Festivals: Japan Cuts 2011