[This interview first appeared in indieWIRE’s sister publication covering film in the Bay Area, SF360. For additional coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival, visit the SF360 website.]
For years a joke has been circulating online that a Chinese law exists requiring Daniel Wu to be featured in every Hong Kong film. Currently one of Hong Kong’s most prolific actors, Wu has starred in an astounding 40 films since his impressive 1998 debut as an uneasy gay policeman in Yonfan‘s terrific arthouse film “Bishonen.” The 32 year-old came back to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he grew up, to show off his directorial debut, “The Heavenly Kings,” a Cantopop boy band mockumentary, at this year’s 50th San Francisco International Film Festival. Just before the film’s premiere Friday, SF360 caught up with Daniel Wu and the rest of his fictitious boy band, Alive (Andrew Lin, Terence Yin, and Conroy Chan), at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in San Francisco.
SF360: I remember when you began getting leading roles I met your parents at the 4 Star Theater out on Clement Street. Actually, I think it was a Daniel Wu double feature of ‘Hit Team’ and ‘Cop on a Mission.’ How cool is it now to bring your first directorial effort back home?
Daniel Wu: I think it’s an honor that they’ve invited us to be part of this festival. I’m pleased also to be back home and it’s kind of a very good closure for this project. Our official closure was last week when we won [for Best New Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards]. I say ‘we won’ because it’s actually a group effort. But then coming here is like the cherry on top of the sundae. To be able to come back home and take my best friends to see all the places where I grew up and then all my friends from high school and everything are coming down to see the premiere tonight. So I’m pretty excited about it.
SF360: Tell us about this project. In the film varying accounts are given, some tongue-in-cheek, about how the film came to be.
Andrew Lin: Three years ago I came up with the idea to film a boy band. At the beginning, I always wanted to do a movie about the Hong Kong industry, basically a boy band spoof like ‘Zoolander.’ Mostly talk about how the business is in Hong Kong and how Hong Kong is a star-making machine. So we’d been talking about it for a while and trying to come up with ideas of how to do it. About a year later Daniel said why don’t we just become the real boy band and that way we can get into the character more realistically and also it will save us money.
Wu: I was thinking if we make this spoof then we have to have concert scenes with an audience of thousands. Even Zhang Yimou‘s movies don’t have that many people. So it got me thinking how can we do this without paying that much money. We had to do it independently, and, finally, I realized if we really do it then there are really people there — a real fan base.
SF360: Seeing as most Hong Kong film stars release at least one album, you must have had some exposure to the industry. What were your impressions of the Cantopop world before you formed Alive (the film’s fictional band)?
Conroy Chan: We’re in America right? It sucked! We’ve all got filtered down from our mums and dads still playing Cantopop in the house. There were superstars back in the day — Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung. They were internationally acclaimed, too. But now the rubbish they produce is very disheartening. Now we’re in the industry, and we know most of the people. There are a lot of people that have heart in the industry, but they don’t have that environment to really do what they want to do.
Wu: I think growing up in the States and Australia we were exposed to a lot of different types of things. I used to go to Gilman to watch punk shows, and it’s a complete different environment — you were inspired by so many different things, whereas in Hong Kong there is nothing for anybody. For bands, it’s even harder because rent is so expensive you can’t have a band room — you can’t afford it. Or to rent by the hour it’s 50 bucks so how can teenage kids afford that? It’s not like you can just do it in your garage.
Chan: They don’t have a garage!
Wu: We come across friends like Eason Chan who have all this talent and interest in doing other stuff and then the record company doesn’t let them. And they’re thinking about it all the time, like something more funky, or more rocky, or whatever and they can’t because the record company doesn’t allow it. If you’re a really good singer you have to make so that everyone can sing it so people can sing it in karaoke otherwise it has no value.
SF360: So you became a real band with music videos and concerts, the works. After the film was released did you get any hate mail from fans that felt betrayed?
Wu: Not really, because once they got it, once they understood it and saw the movie, then they were like, “Okay, cool,” we were part of this whole performance art thing. It was like this huge performance art piece. It wasn’t just the movie, it was like if you went to the concert, you were part of the whole thing. And if you were at one of the events that we showed up at, you were part of the thing and maybe you got into the movie as well.
We got a lot of calls from people within the music industry. It’s like ‘You just said what we wanted to say for the past ten years but were not able to.’ Because we’re on the outside, we’re not in the business, so we can make that comment and not get hurt by it. Those other people are putting their reputation or their businesses at stake by saying that.
The only other backlash was from the print media, who took offense. They thought we were attacking them. There’s one section in the film where we feed false information to the entertainment news reporters just to get noise. They took offense to it in a weird way. They thought we were attacking them. But really we were trying to prove a point, which is in Hong Kong we tend to blame the media for writing bad things about celebrities all the time, making up lies and passing on gossip. They are notorious for that. But at the same time there are celebrities who milk that system, just like there are here; like Paris Hilton right? We were trying to show that that’s what happens sometimes and that the regular person should be aware that it’s happening. We don’t normally do that; we just did it in the movie to prove a point. But we were trying to side with the media. We were trying to say you’re not always the only one to blame. You have to be smart enough to judge what’s real and what’s not, and it’s pretty easy to tell now.
SF360: Danniel, do you plan to continue directing, and if so what are your plans for future directorial projects?
Wu: Definitely. I mean I was always planning on making another movie too in the next two or three years when I have time in between working as an actor to slip it in there. It’s harder because it takes a lot more time than just being an actor — a lot more commitment. I have a couple projects in my mind right now. I don’t think I’ll be doing mainstream work and I probably won’t be acting in my own movies from now on. It’s too much work, too much work! Independent in spirit at least and probably non-commercial just because I do a lot of commercial films as an actor and there’s a lot of that out there. So I kind of want to present a sort of oddball or out there kind of idea. Plus we have a production company from making this film so we want to keep doing productions. We’re talking about now funding some new directors to work on projects. Sort of promote newer younger directors and new types of filmmaking in Hong Kong.
SF360: Anything specific in the works right now?
Wu: Not specifically yet. We’re starting with doing some short films now that will be on our website. We’ve hired a couple directors to do some music videos for these independent bands. And then we have a four independent concept for four short films that will be on the site too. So we’re starting slowly and then as we’re getting warmed up and getting our feet wet and then pushing in a feature later.
Terence Yin: We’re also trying to build the community. We call it the artistic community. It’s gonna take some time to get all the people we know in Hong Kong that fit the spirit. And to us this isn’t just a Hong Kong thing. We would also very much like to connect these independent Hong Kong artists with their Asian American counterparts here or like other artists in Asian regions. So with the website what we’re thinking is that if we are able to group these artists together and they begin interacting there’s a better chance of just collaboration. And doing it on our website will allow not only for the artist to communicate but also their fanbases will also communicate. And the fan if they are a fan of one particular artist they will have access to all the artists and get to know more about them. Our focus is not so much on the celebrity angle but more so on the creative side. We are encouraging the users to actually communicate with the artist about their craft. So the communication on the website is a little bit more meaningful than just ‘oh you’re so cute’! We’re thinking with the original alivenotdead.com were able to build a sizeable fanbase and all the way through we kept thinking is there something we can do for these fans that have followed us.
SF360: is that where the ‘not dead’ comes in?
Wu: Alive after this project we wanted to kill Alive but then the site now represents Alive is not dead. The boy band is dead but the spirit of what our project was about we hope that continues.
Chan: I think we were one of the first entities as a group to kind of explore this Internet medium. When we first launched the website we had 500,000 hits the first day. And then when we got to the end of the first month it was 20 million hits. It was quite a buzz for us. Terence and I were sitting around when we got a call — it was Yahoo saying we want to come out and meet you. So Yahoo comes out to meet us and he gives us a piece of paper with the top 20 music websites in Asia and we’re at number 19 at that time. It was quite crazy. Sony Japan was number 15. Mind you the difference between Sony Japan and us is quite large! All the things we’ve been trying to do let’s bring it out into the open.
Wu: And the other thing is trying to flip the publicity that was going towards Alive the boy band that we really didn’t need, actually, and turn it into something that was more creative — actually create a cross-cultural creative community, like a lab, where there’s a lot of weird chemistry going on. And hopefully it’s something where we can have creative projects come from that even if we’re not totally involved with it. If it comes from that site we’ll be totally proud of it. I think the whole idea from the movie and the website now is because through our 20s we were kind of complaining about what we didn’t have in Hong Kong and now we’re in our 30s we’re mature people now let’s do something about it, let’s stop complaining and make it happen. I think the previous generation and our generation are completely different in the way we think our influences are completely different. So we would hear all these things from our friends and colleagues in the business as well so we thought okay let’s just do something about it and let’s make a change.
SF360: What actually inspired you to start a career in Hong Kong?
Terence Yin: My parents were actors. My father was an actor/director and my mom was an actress in Hong Kong. I guess in that sense for me it was less of an accident. I just moved out to Hong Kong after college and one thing led to another.
Andrew Lin: My career was an accident. I went back to Hong Kong in ’96 to try to promote special effects. I was doing special effects in L.A. and back then there was a great need for special effects in Hong Kong films. So I went back there and met with all the directors and producers, and I guess one of the producers he liked my look, so I got my first movie and so on!
Wu: I went to Hong Kong in ’97 to witness the handover after graduating university and then I was gonna backpack around Asia and then come back here and look for a job. I went to Japan first after watching the handover and that was a big mistake because Japan’s really expensive and I spent my whole budget there. I came back to Hong Kong — my sister lives there and I have family there — and I said ‘I’m gonna have to go back,’ because I ran out of money. And my sister was like, ‘Well why don’t you try part time modeling?’ which is what she used to do. So I went and saw some companies and did it and it was kind of boring. But I made money, and a director saw a print ad I did and cast me in my first movie and it snowballed from there.
Chan: Um I actually was a supermodel! It was quite funny when I first started working I was a supermodel, yes. And after that I tried to do some film in Hong Kong. It was that natural progression like Fabio, you know: model/actor type stuff! But you know then in Hong Kong it’s such a tough market that once they see you in a certain arena they’ll typecast you and then they saw me and said ‘Ooh, lover boy.’ I didn’t mind because I got to play with all the hottest female leads in Hong Kong but for me it wasn’t very challenging. So I actually stopped acting for a while and, funny enough, because I’m from Australia, I started promoting extreme sports. And when this project came along I jumped at the opportunity.
SF360: Did you have any major transition issues — like a yearning for U.S. sports and burritos? Anything you miss from home?
Wu: No, we have a burrito place now! There’s a good pizza place. I miss the Bay Area — the kind of laid back lifestyle. Because in Hong Kong you’re going like 90 miles an hour, which is fun when you’re young. It’s great, it’s really great, but when I’m 50 I don’t know if I can handle that. I mean right now I’m learning to slow things back down a little bit and to go at my own pace. But what I miss from the States, I guess, is going to museums, and to see small rock shows in small bars. We don’t have that in Hong Kong. Unfortunately because the property market is so high, all rent is so expensive, they can’t afford to have a rock music bar because those things don’t make a lot of money and they’re paying a lot of rent. The economy’s good but it’s hard for those kinds of businesses to survive in Hong Kong.
SF360: I know you were a fan of Hong Kong Cinema before you became a participant. What surprised you about working in the industry?
Wu: The pace. I had no reference because I never worked in the States but we turn it over quick! One year I was doing six films in one year.
Chan: There was one situation where I was on the set of one of Wong Jing’s movies and I hadn’t even got my script yet — and I looked over and there was this fax machine just churning.
Wu: That surprised me, that just ‘go and do it.’ It was hard for me at first because of coming from the States and I also have an architecture background, like process is so important. In some movies in Hong Kong, process wasn’t as important.
Lin: It’s harder for young actors to start off. Without a script you can’t really prepare for your role but it’s kind of good training in a way. It forces you to improvise and think quickly and memorize quickly, too.
SF360: For a variety of reasons Hong Kong film output has dwindled considerably in the past decade, but efforts to strengthen the industry continue. What are your hopes for a better tomorrow?
Wu: Right now it’s interesting because we’re seeing a lot of injection of money from China so that’s actually saving the Hong Kong film industry right now. Because of that we have co-production which means we can also go into the Chinese market box office. So the revenue from movies is better now — it’s not as big of a risk as before. The only problem is middle range budget movies are lacking now because no one wants to invest in those. No one’s investing in them because the return might not be as good. It’s either the high budget and you get everybody, or low budget and you break even or make a little bit. I think it’s a good thing. If we didn’t have this injection of money from China we would be in really bad shape right now.
It’s interesting because the low budget range now you’re seeing people try to experiment more which is going back to the early 90s or the golden era where you had all these crazy different weird things. Now we’re seeing younger directors who are willing to experiment more. I think in the later ’90s early 2000, it was just an older generation of directors working and things started getting a little stagnant. Especially because people weren’t sure who they were making the movies for — was it the China market or Hong Kong or selling it to the States? That was the other issue where everyone was trying to make a big budget movie to sell to the States and the problem with that is trying to copy an American big budget movie is pointless. Those are kind of boring movies anyway and you don’t have enough money to put into CG and all that stuff and then you get all these weird kind of hybrid movies that no one really watched — you know what I mean. Who was that for? We weren’t really sure.