INTERVIEW: The Right Stuff; Ed Harris Paints "Pollock"
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE/ 05.03.01) -- "Los Angeles is a forbidden zone for cigarettes," Tsui Hark says to me with a smile. Indeed, one of the first things I noticed upon entering his Beverly Hills Hotel room was the carton of Marlboro Lights and their prominent placement on his coffee table. Also scattered about were books and DVD's, "The Twilight Zone" and "I Am Cuba" among them.
Tsui Hark has been called "the Hong Kong Spielberg" by Film Comment. And why not? Since his 1979 debut, "The Butterfly Murders," Hark has been responsible for over fifty features as writer, director or producer (and often times all three). He has launched a number of successful franchises ("A Better Tomorrow," "Once Upon A Time In China," "Swordsmen") and still found time to direct thirty-five films, including such seminal Hong Kong classics as "Peking Opera Blues" and "Dao/The Blade."
Hark was in town to promote "Time and Tide," his first film after a two-year hiatus and the first film to be fully financed by Columbia Pictures Asia ("Croucing Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). If John Woo is the Max Ophuls of Hong Kong action cinema, then Hark is certainly the Sam Fuller, a much more impressionistic filmmaker with more than a little bit of Godard-ian playfulness. Freeze-frame stills, varying camera speeds and gonzo POV shots (inside a gun barrel, inside an ice bucket, etc.) figure into the myriad of set-ups in "Time and Tide's" action sequences. Particularly noteworthy is the delirious finale, which lasts over twenty minutes and jettisons us from shootouts inside an apartment complex to a bustling train station.
Tsui spoke with indieWIRE about his prolific career, pace, planning and finding new ways to show and tell familiar stories.
TriStar Pictures will release "Time And Tide" in Los Angeles and Washington DC on May 4 and May 11 in New York.
indieWIRE: You've had a very prolific career. Do you like to take the time to do interviews, or would you prefer to just work through?
Tsui Hark: I would prefer to work, though sometimes I find it interesting when people ask me about something I have done after some time has elapsed. When I re-visit those things, I tend to be in a different mind-set than when I was actually making the movie, so I am forced to look at it critically.
iW: Because now you're two films later.
Tsui: Right, two films later. We are in post on "Black Mask II" and I have a few projects in my hand that I hope we can start very soon. So (with "Time and Tide"), I am going back now and thinking, I could've done this sequence different, or changed the pacing in that sequence.
iW: You're known for your frenetic pacing. Your 1986 film, "Peking Opera Blues" has been described as 120 minutes compressed into 90 and "Time and Tide" has that same sort of feel. Is this something you consciously try to achieve?
Tsui: Both conscious and unconscious. Sometimes the film is just too long and you have to trim it down to a shorter version. Sometimes however, to achieve the kind of energy you want, you go in and sort of boost it up. "Peking Opera Blues," when I look at it again, I think some of the pacing should be different.
iW: "Time and Tide" obviously differs a little bit, in terms of pacing and stylization from, say "Once Upon A Time In China."
Tsui: I think that is to avoid being too similar to the stuff I've done before. I'm always looking for alternative ways to tell a story, to shoot an action scene. So definitely, in production as well post-production, there is a lot of focus on making it different. So it's not so much me saying, I want this to be my style. It just turns out that way.
iW: There are hundreds of set-ups in your films. Do you have a precise shot list before filming starts or is your method more improvisational?
Tsui: Sometimes everything is precise. But when I'm shooting, sometimes I'll see something quite attractive and amazing and I tend to go in that area and explore, dig it up. Usually, I have some room to move in my shot list, some room to move in my script. There is a flexibility that you can make use of -- to create some interesting touches for the movie.
iW: How long did you shoot on "Time and Tide"?
Tsui: We shot for two months with an average of forty set-ups per day.
iW: I wanted to ask about your composition of shots. In your recent films in particular, I've noticed these really precise, beautiful compositions, though you may only hold on them for a few instants.
Tsui: A lot of preparation goes into many of those shots. You can't just go in and place the camera on scaffolding or hanging off a cliff. In "Time and Tide," for example, inside the apartment complex where a lot of people are living in close proximity to each other, the camera moves very freely around this small area. Yet those "free" movements have to be mapped out very carefully. There was a whole network of wires in that open air between the building so we could hang the camera out and control it by remote control. Then long cables went from the camera to the video monitors where we could actually see what we were shooting, but all that must be prepared beforehand.
iW: And your creative use of POV shots?
Tsui: Sometimes I think that if you're looking at something through a weird angle, it gives a nice touch to the sequence. I believe in a playful way of telling a story. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I find it fun to put the camera in a place that is almost impossible in real life.
iW: Out of all the projects that you obviously could have chosen, what attracted you to "Time and Tide"?
Tsui: I wanted to try something different from what I've done before, structurally, as well as the story itself. I sort of wanted to see how I would function after my period in America, going back to Hong Kong and shooting. I was quite curious about that. Something I already had in mind was to explore the information that is not in frame, shooting something out of the normal way you see all the time. In "Time and Tide," a character gets hit with a gun, you know he gets hit with a gun, but I don't show it. Or when you can see inside a gun, where a character believes he sees a bullet coming out of the barrel. I think this is interesting to see how it all fits into the movie. I'm constantly searching for a new language to use to tell a story.
iW: You were one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave in the early-'80s and you set up your own production company, correct?
Tsui: In 1984, I realized I needed my own company to make films a certain way. Other companies had their own theories, their own way they believed they should make films. So in forming Film Workshop, I could go the way I wanted.
iW: Film Workshop played a key role in the evolution of the careers of many Hong Kong stars and filmmakers such as Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, John Woo. Could you describe the atmosphere in Hong Kong at that time?
Tsui: Before 1984, Hong Kong filmmaking was not that well respected and Film Workshop's chief emphasis was to allow the director to have his own style, build his own trademark. At that time, the theatrical circuit needed a certain amount of movies to fill its schedule, X number of action films, X number of comedies. With Film Workshop, I wanted to explore some of these things you've seen hundreds of times before and look at them in new ways, new ways to look at gangster movies or political satires through a period action film, etc. These were the intentions of Film Workshop, to find a unique way of looking at the filmmaking situation in Hong Kong at that time. Actually, we were pretty romantic about the whole thing.
iW: There was a two year period between "Knock Off" and "Time and Tide," a normal break time for most filmmakers, but not at all normal for you. What did you do during this time?
Tsui: I think I was searching for a different sensitivity, something that encompassed my ideas at the time, the way I looked at movies. The two years after I finished "Knock Off," I felt like I needed that time to step back and look at my work, look at my environment.
iW: Did the hiatus have anything to do with the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong?
Tsui: Not at all. I know there was a lot of speculation and anticipation about the difference in filmmaking in Hong Kong, but in 1997 almost overnight, you woke up and realized that nothing changed. The industry is exactly the same.
iW: What were your experiences with Hollywood filmmaking? Is there something in particular that you took away from it?
Tsui: Hollywood is a big pool of professionals and talent while Hong Kong is a very small market and a small industry and because of that, we have to share the talent and wait for schedules to match up, etc. There is also a great system here in Hollywood, established for many years, a way of doing things, though sometimes too fixed of a way of doing things. In Hong Kong, you have less time to prepare, less time to shoot, so people who are working often work many jobs on one production. The preparation period is shorter than anywhere else in the world, so the people have to be flexible in adapting to situations as well as finding creative solutions to problems that happen on set.
iW: Yet, most Hollywood filmmakers can't be as prolific as you.
Tsui: My experiences with the people I worked with on the two movies in Hollywood is that they would leave the problem unsolved rather than trying to find a creative solution.
[Ryan Mottesheard is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]