"IT'S OBVIOUS THAT THEY ARE POINTING
THEIR GUNS AT OUR HEADS"
2020 INTERVIEW WITH FILM DIRECTOR CHAN TZE WOON
CHAN TZE WOON © m.R.so photography
Accompanying the film series "Sundays of Hong Kong" by the Berliner Festspiele,
I interviewed filmmakers from Hong Kong including Chan Tze Woon. We talked about his beginnings as a director as well as his most recent works, about fake and truth and the meaning of subjective truth. Chan Tze Woon describes how the protests have changed his working method, his style and why he thinks it is important to deal with the history of protests in Hong Kong.
Dear Chan Tze Woon, please tell us about your background and how you became a film director.
When I finished my degree in Politics and Administration, my classmates began to work as bureaucrats or politicians. I was worried about my future, I wanted to become neither a bureaucrat nor a politician, so I decided to study film. In the beginning, it was just escapism. But then I found a motif for my films: the civil society and political movements in Hong Kong. Since then, I have produced a series of films so it has now become my career.
You grew up in Hong Kong, how would you describe your relationship with the city?
Hong Kong is a city of immigration. People who escape from China come to Hong Kong, searching for freedom and opportunities, but most of them see it only as a temporary place to stay. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. It is the place that gives me all my creative ideas and it is quite unimaginable for me to leave my home city for another place. If I would have to leave Hong Kong, e.g. due to the deteriorating human rights situation, I would really have to think long and hard about what to do as a filmmaker elsewhere. Most of my ideas come from my personal experiences and observations. Last years‘ protests in Hong Kong are the topic that changed me the most.
© "YELLOWING", BY CHAN TZE WOON
In your first two shorts, you play with conspiracy theories about water, filmed in a mockumentary style. In “The Aqueous Truth”(2013), which we will screen as part of our online film festival, you develop the idea that a tranquilliser has been added to Hong Kong’s water supply to pacify the population. Furthermore, “Being Rain: Representation and Will” (2014) raises the suspicion that the authorities were controlling the weather to curtail civil unrest, e.g. by disrupting the protests with heavy rain. Where does your interest in making films about these theories derive from?
It was on the 1 July 2013, while I was working on a documentary. Originally, it was the day to celebrate the handover of Hong Kong, but now it became a regular protest day. I remember a very heavy rain on that day. Also, the first Google search results on that day claimed the notion of “artificial rain”. The reason why I wanted to make these first two short films is because we don’t believe in our government anymore. The government only follows the guidelines issued by Beijing, although they have no official mandate to do this. Even if it looks like we have state transparency, Beijing stops people who want to reform our political system and try to progressively achieve democracy.
© "BEING RAIN: REPRESENTATION AND WILL", BY CHAN TZE WOON
You often work with voice-overs and the viewer follows your thoughts in an open form. Is the use of your own voice a crucial element?
In my mockumentary shorts, the voice-over is a fake-informative “voice of god” narrator, which draws people into the story. It is mostly because the audience is already familiar with this format by from TV documentary programmes and they fully trust it. In my first feature, “Yellowing” (2016), the voice-over resembles a diary. You can listen to my thoughts and emotions at certain moments. It is important to me that people have a unique experience through my eyes and my voice.
© "THE AQUEOUS TRUTH", BY CHAN TZE WOON
A deep distrust seems to characterise the political attitude among Hong Kong society. In what way do you work with the precarious situation, how does it help if the spectator believes the film is about Hong Kong, since so many things are to be questioned there anyways?
Some people in my films are normal people, some are politicians. But quite a few people play a fictional role. What I wanted to try was to bring real people into a fake story. And by letting people talk about this fake topic, it easily provokes them to reflect and talk about the current political situation in Hong Kong.
To what degree is your film shaped by emotion and improvisation? How strictly did you follow a plan?
This is my graduation film and I remember that the production was quite chaotic. We just followed a loose collection of ideas and then randomly filmed some footage of the improvisation with the actors, who are non-professional actors. Then we filmed the interviews with real people and experts. At that time, I really thought the audiences wouldn’t believe in it, but at the screening, the lights turned off and the audience suspended their disbelief. It’s because they are extremely worried about the actual water problem in Hong Kong and it’s more likely to be true because we just can’t trust the government anymore under this crazy “one-country-two-systems-principle”.
In some situations, it’s easier to fall for a well-constructed fiction than to believe in someone who claims everything he or she reports is true. What do you think of the concept of truth?
When I do documentary-films, I always think about truth. What I believe is that there can be only subjective truth.
Can you describe the reactions to your two first documentaries?
Some audiences thought it was comedy, some thought it was a thriller, but at least they all knew that it was fake.
© "YELLLOWING", BY CHAN TZE WOON
After the two first films, you worked on your first feature, “Yellowing”. Please tell us about this film in comparison to your earlier works.
Something real happened on the streets that was far more dramatic than a fictional film and I really wanted to contribute to the movement with my camera. Yellowing became a more personal and a first-person-perspective film. It is a documentary that gives the audience the chance to enter the occupation area of the Hong Kong protests and experience what really happens inside. My interest in conspiracy theories decreased as the control from the government became more obvious and direct: The brutality of the police had a direct influence on the politics as well as on the elections in Hong Kong. Our basic constitutional law became a big joke to us. In 2020, we don’t need conspiracy theories anymore, because it’s obvious that they are pointing their guns to our heads.
The movement was extensively covered by the main stream media. How do you consider the role of mass media in the Hong Kong protests 2014/2019?
Most of the mass media was bought with money from mainland China and they went into “red-modus”. It is obvious that they want to control our thinking and ideology. The younger generation actually don’t watch TV and they don’t read traditional newspapers anymore. However, it still affects the older generation, which is actually an important reason why they support the government so much more. The young generation reads more new media like The Stand News instead.
According to research published in January in The Lancet medical journal, nearly 2 million adults are estimated to have shown symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) during the Hong Kong protests. 2 million is a third of Hong Kong’s population. It causes sleeplessness, irritability and traumatic nightmares.
I think all of the people in Hong Kong more or less have these symptoms. In my new project “Blue Island”, I filmed some people who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests from 1989. I can see that they are traumatized even worse. I want our generation to know that we are not the first ones who are experiencing this and that we have to continue our fight.
© "YELLOWING", BY CHAN TZE WOON
After all, it was not sedatives that banished the protest from the street for a short period, but a virus, the coronavirus. What do you think about the current situation regarding Hong Kong and the protests?
According to some polls, the numbers of people supporting the protest are still solid. There will be legislative council elections later this year and it seems that the government wants to pass article 23, which is the national security law. The protest is still alive.
Are you working on new projects?
My project “Blue Island” is a about three old men who experience different important parts of Hong Kong’s history, including the 1967 riot, a 1970s escape from China to Hong Kong and the 1989 Tiananmen protest. And I wanted to see how their experience and memories affect their lives. It is also a documentary with a fictional element because I cast some young people to act in the film. They reenact the past of my protagonists, but at the same time, those young people have new experiences in the current protest.
2046 will be the final year before Hong Kong will officially lose its status of self-regulation. Everything seems to be going much faster now. What do you think will happen?
I really have no idea, but Hong Kong people will keep on fighting for freedom and democracy until the end.
Is there anything else you would like to add to the interview?
I am happy to show my film in Germany and I hope the coronavirus crisis will end soon. Stay healthy, everyone!
Berlin / Hong Kong, 8 April 2020
© "BLUE ISLAND", BY CHAN TZE WOON