Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Cheuk Cheung

My Way (2012) Movie Poster

James Mudge recently sat down for an interview with Chinese filmmaker Cheuk Cheung, whose documentary “My Way” recently won the 3rd Prize Jury Award at the Chinese Visual Festival, and is scheduled to play screen this Sunday at 3pm. Visit the Chinese Visual Festival website for more details and tickets.

JAMES MUDGE: Congratulations on My Way winning Third Prize at this year’s Chinese Visual Festival. What inspired you to make the film?

CHEUK CHEUNG: Wong Haowai in the film was my classmate from Film Academy, he passed this story to me. In 2004, Wong made a homework documentary of 12 minutes with a few other classmates. It was about the 11 years old Winglun Tan who wanted to become a male Dan (note: leading actress in Chinese Opera). In 2009, I planned to make a film about Chinese opera and talked to Wong about Tan. It was then I learned that Tan had given up playing Dan and started playing Sheng. I was quite curious about this change. When I saw Tan later, the light from his face and in his eyes was gone. All that’s left was fatigue and sadness. I then decided to follow up on Tan’s story and continue Wong’s homework piece. When I was going through my research, I realised Wong actually played an important role in Tan’s life, so I invited Wong to be another protagonist of the film.

JM: The subject of Dan performers in Cantonese Opera is a very interesting one, and the idea of males playing and singing female roles probably seems quite strange to audiences from other cultures – can you tell us a little more about where the practice comes from?

CC: The tradition of males playing and singing female roles in Chinese culture can be traced back to 14th to 15th century. Because women are not allowed on the stage, all operas were played by men. This tradition had prolonged until early 20th century. There were two male superstars playing female roles, Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu. There are different kinds of operas in China, male Dan is popular in some areas, like Peking Opera in Beijing. Mei Lanfang is the most famous male Dan in history. However such practise was not popular in South China, like in Cantonese opera. On the contrary, female playing male Sheng role was more of Cantonese opera tradition.

JM: Through the decline in popularity of Dan performers, the film seems to be about the fading of traditions and the ways in which some people try to keep them alive – what do you think the film has to say about modern Hong Kong society?

CC: Actually the film is not about a tradition because male Dan was never a tradition in Cantonese opera. Instead, the film is more about those who go against mainstream. Why most professions and education institutes never tell people to go against mainstream? Why there is little tolerance of someone different? I think the society is afraid of “someone different”. To a certain degree, to work in art and culture is “different” in Hong Kong. Many people will question why you choose such a “different” profession. Any job which is not rewarded with a high salary is marked as “different”. “Money” is the only criterion of value. Yet can we really calculate value of art and culture with money? I seriously doubt it.

JM: At the same time, as suggested by its title, My Way is also the very personal film about the lives and journeys of two young men. How did you meet them, and did you also follow other Dan performers in making the film?

CC: Like I just said, Wong Haowai was my classmate. Winglun Tan was introduced by Wong. There are only 3 male Dan in Hong Kong, which does not include Tan since he had changed to play Sheng. I did not film the two other male Dan because I am more curious about Wong and Tan. So I focused on them.

JM: Though they share a love of Cantonese Opera, the two seem to be quite different in terms of personality and background – what do you think drove them both to have such a desire to play Dan roles?

CC: This question was on my mind all through the filming. But then gradually I realised this was not important at all. When you cannot reason your “love” for something, and you just love no matter what you encounter, this just proves your love for it. I can see this love in both of them. They love Cantonese opera most, not playing male Dan.

JM: Even as someone unfamiliar with Cantonese Opera, I love the fact that the film is filled with music, colour and some amazing costumes – before making the film, were you a fan yourself?

CC: Before the film, like most Hong Kong people, I don’t know much about Cantonese opera. Many people will tend to ignore their own culture and gets more attracted by non-local ones. Luckily through making this film, I get to learn more about this wonderful traditional art.

JM: When making the film, and in your own film making in general, who or what have been your main influences?

CC: When I was making My Way, I re-studied Grizzly Man, a wonderful film about characters. The film was about a passionate grizzly bear researcher who in the end was killed by grizzlies. The protagonist’s passion was hard to get by most people. The tragedy caused even further speculations. The director edited the footage the protagonists made before his death and interviewed the people who knew him. The documentary was like a door showing the way to the protagonist’s world. The film was not trying to make a conclusion but was to introduce an angle or multi angles to audience to understand this maniac. I was hoping to achieve the same thing. I hope my film could be a door or window for my audience to understand the world of the two protagonists, and to re-understand them for those who already know them.

JM: I believe My Way is your first full length feature, though you’ve also worked on some short films earlier in your career which won prizes – what were these about, and do they have any similarities with My Way?

CC: I made a few films about children before. There was a film about a boy looking for his mother and a girl looking for the one who wrote her a love letter. I think the similar thing is they are all looking for something and there is always someone besides them accompanying and supporting them.

JM: I read that in 2009 you took part in the first ever Golden Horse Film Academy of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival – what was the experience like?

CC: That was a programme to have young Chinese language filmmakers to get together, learn and exchange. It is quite close to the Asian Film Academy provided by Busan International Film Festival. 16 young filmmakers from all over the world gathered together in Taipei and spent a fortnight together. We were split into two groups to make a short film of 20-30 minutes. From filming to editing, sound mixing and sound track making, everything was done in this fortnight. The final works were shown in Golden Horse Film Festival. I got to know Chinese language filmmakers from various backgrounds. We all believed in films but we all stick to our own way. Some worked in film, some worked in commercials, some focused on fiction films, some focused on documentaries. Each one of us chose our way based on our interest. It encouraged me to go my way. It encouraged me to start my film career with documentaries.

JM: What else are you working on or planning at the moment?

CC: I am planning my next documentary and am doing fund-raising. It will be also about opera singers, but the film will be set in mainland China, where things are very different from Hong Kong. I hope to document operas with my video, I believe my film can make society care about the reality and future of this traditional culture.

JM: Congratulations again on My Way, many thanks, and good luck with all your future projects.

Visit the Chinese Visual Festival website for more details and tickets.

My Way (2012) Movie Poster