Interview: A Tale of Three Cities director, Mabel Cheung

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A Tale of Three Cities director, Mabel Cheung talks to Arthur Tam about her latest work and reveals the true story behind the film and how the production process ended up putting Tang Wei in the hospital

Mabel Cheung is one of the most important directors in Hong Kong. She’s won multiple awards and places a strong emphasis on history. Her films often look to the past for situations that are relevant and parallel to the present. Her greatest hits include An Autumn’s Tale (1987), The Soong Sisters (1997), City of Glass (1998) and her previous film, Echoes of a Rainbow (2010) – all of which involved her longtime partner and scriptwriter, Alex Law. Each of Cheung’s films in some way focus on Chinese heritage and migratory experiences. The same goes for her latest project, A Tale of Three Cities, based on Jackie Chan’s parents and their experience of escaping to Hong Kong from China in pursuit of greater opportunities.

Cheung became good friends with Charles Chan (Jackie Chan’s father) when she was working on the documentary Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family. She listened to him and felt compelled to retell the story of a generation that had witnessed the tragedies of a war torn China, in a tribute of sorts.

However, the film almost didn’t come to fruition. Right before the crew was to begin filming in 2012, funding was cut and the entire production was halted for more than a year, until Cheung’s producer could find another investor. Finally though, the money came through and her beautiful, nostalgic re-imagination of pre-Communist China was realised.

We meet director Cheung for a cup of coffee and a chat at the Harbour Plaza Metropolis. She’s been rocking the John Lennon  glasses for a while now: and it totally works, augmenting the sense that one is in the presence of a truly artistic mind. She begins our interview by lamenting about how she wished she could have listened more to her parents’ stories…

How did you come across the story for this film?

Jackie Chan’s father Charles and I were good friends, so he told me his story. I actually wanted to film the story based on my own parents, when they were alive, but I was too busy and I didn’t have time to listen to them. Now they’ve passed away, so I missed the chance to know exactly what happened when they came to Hong Kong. That generation of people […] They came from China in the 50s like many of that time. This film is a collective memory of all of them. It’s the story of a generation that provided the foundation for Hong Kong’s future prosperity.

Do you think people nowadays have an appreciation for the cultural significance of that period?
Well, I don’t know what the audience reaction will be, but I write a story that moves me, firstly, and hopefully the audience will be moved later. [Charles Chan] has already passed away and luckily I made the story about him. Fortunately I listened to his story at that time.

Have you shown the movie to Jackie yet?
I heard that he has seen it and that he cried from beginning to end. But then, it’s his story. I don’t know how other people will feel about it. Throughout the creation of the movie I didn’t consult him. I wanted to have poetic license on the whole production. The story should represent a whole generation, not just his parents.

How did you and Charles firstbecome friends?
I made a documentary – Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family – and afterwards we became good friends. From time to time he invited me to his place for dinner and he told me a lot of stories like hiding in a bamboo forest from the Communists when there were lots of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were worse than the bombers he said, because they would bite you and you couldn’t hit them or else the noise would attract attention. He told me stories of the Japanese beheading people, and how he met his wife while he was working in customs and she was illegally selling opium.

And that was how the romance began, right?
Later the romance began. The part of how Lily [Chan’s wife] escaped from China to Hong Kong on the boat is true.

How much of the film is based on the true story?
Basically the story is all true but we had the liberty and the poetic license to dramatise.

Was it difficult to shoot at so many different locations?
Big action scenes are not difficult for me. The biggest challenge is having the right cast with the right chemistry to act out the scenes in a way that makes it moving to an audience. Also, it was a challenge to organise Sean Lau and Tang Wei’s schedule to film according to the seasons. But they made it happen for me, so I am very thankful.

What was collaborating with them like?
I think it was a blessing working with such good actors, because they had such good chemistry and charisma. They worked very hard, especially when it came to learning the instruments they needed for their roles.

Also, I had no idea that Tang Wei has a fear of water and can’t swim well. By the time we shot that scene, she was at the side of the pool, she physically couldn’t move because she was so frightened. The first time we tried to shoot the scene, we couldn’t do it because she physically couldn’t move an inch.

How did you convince her then?
I told her that I needed her to be there for the close up because I couldn’t use a stand-in the whole time. Sean helped a great deal in this matter because he told her, “Now, I’m going to go down with you and I’ll hold your hand. You have to put your concentration on my hand and don’t think about the water. Just think about grasping my hand.”  A trust developed between both of them. We shot the scene a few times but it still didn’t work. By the last day, which happened to be Sean’s birthday, I said ‘please, give me a close up’ and Tang Wei held her breath underwater as long as she could and we got the shot. Afterward she told me that she had nightmares for a week because she was so frightened.

There was another part during the shooting that I have to thank Tang Wei for. In one scene, she had to carry all her belongings and a child, which probably weighed 80lbs altogether. I asked her if she could do it and if not, there are ways we can work around it. But she was very committed and wanted everything to be authentic. So she carried this load for three days and then her lungs gave in and collapsed, and she was immediately hospitalised. We were extremely worried about her and thought she wouldn’t be able to continue with the shoot, but she came right back as soon as she could. She couldn’t fly because of the air pressure, so she took a train. I felt so bad about what happened, but also so thankful for her commitment.

That’s so intense…
Yes. They said about 90 percent of the bubbles in her lungs popped.

What are you working on next?
We are taking a further step back down in history, to the 19th century. My next movie will be about the first Chinese prostitute in America. [Alex and I] have  already done a lot research on the topic. When we were at New York University, we went to the library and found a book called The Madams of San Francisco. We discovered that the first was actually from Hong Kong, and not only was she a prostitute, but later she became her own boss and started opening up her own brothels along the railroad that was being built at the time by the Chinese labourers.

How far along are you?

We’ve finished the script and are ready to do it any time, we just need find the money now. The story of our lives!

Do you find it more or less challenging to make and finance films in Hong Kong these days?
Actually, for us it’s more or less the same. Our films have never been mainstream, so even during the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, financing was difficult. The only difference is that more investors are from China now. For the upcoming film, we are trying to have it co-produced and possibly funded from overseas.

It seems that all your movies deal with a migrant experience or have something to do with Chinese heritage? Is there any particular reason for that?

My movies reflect all my thoughts and experiences I’ve had during these years in Hong Kong. Things are quite turbulent right now and we have experienced unexpected changes in the city. It’s like everyone doesn’t know what will happen to them in the future. Things are unpredictable and it’s like Hongkongers are kind of rootless, just like the people in A Tale of Three Cities. But, however uncertain things may be, we should be happy that we have the freedom to move around. 

A Tale of Three Cities Opens Thu Sep 3

SEE ALSO: Interview: Sean Lau - A Tale of Three Cities

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