"Being queer has given me invaluable perspectives on life, and I always say, if there is a next life, I hope to be queer again."
Over his 30 year career, filmmaker Stanley Kwan has made his mark as one of the most important voices in Hong Kong cinema. He is celebrated for his transformative representations of women in films like Rouge, White Rose, Red Rose and Centre Stage, and for the acclaimed gay-romance Lan Yu. Moreover, as one of the few out-gay A-list directors in Hong Kong and Mainland China, he has inspired a generation. In his new film, First Night Nerves, two divas square off against each other in a delicious theatre of farce. CINEMQ caught up with Kwan ahead of the UK premiere at London's Chinese Visual Festival.
You have a reputation for creating fully realised female characters. Your new film, First Night Nerves, sets a cast of strong and empowered women against the theater stage. What was your inspiration for this story, where did the characters come from?
I knew I wanted Hong Kong City Hall to form the backdrop. Three or four years ago, the government planned to demolish City Hall to ease traffic problems. City Hall was built in 1962, and was one of the earliest public cultural facilities in Hong Kong. It is an important cultural landmark for citizens. It hosts theatre, art exhibitions, concerts and many other cultural activities.
First Night Nerves is about a new play staged at City Hall. The characters in film are rehearsing for the last week before the show opens. The two feuding lead actresses [played by Sammi Cheng and Gigi Leung] are creative partners and archenemies at the same time. The persistent conflict between them serves as the context of the story, and the powerful tension it creates lends texture to the narrative. Life has been especially hard for Sammi's character, as her cheating husband has just recently passed away. She has hit rock bottom early on in the story. On and off stage, in and out of the play, exploring the tantalising mental state of these two actresses and the people around them within the story, has been an extremely stimulating experience.
I knew I wanted Sammi for this part early on. As I was developing the character and the story, a lot of Sammi’s real-life personality and personal experiences inspired the characteristics of the main character. Soon after we made Everlasting Regret together, Sammi had been under a lot of pressure and had become heavily depressed for a long time. With the care of close friends, and eventually with the help from her new-found religion, Sammi was able to weather though her depression, and the experience transformed her into a brand-new person. To a large degree, I tailored the main character Yuan Xiulin for the resurrected Sammi Cheng.
Your first film, Women, was released 35 years ago. As an auteur who bought a variety of women from different generations and backgrounds on screen, how do you think the status of women in society have changed in the past few decades, and how has this influenced your work?
I was raised in a family and environment that had very conservative ideas about gender. But because my father died early and my mother was always busy trying to bring in an income, I became a sort of 'mother' role within my own family. I washed clothes, prepared food and took care of my siblings. When I first started to realise my sexuality, I think the confusion and repression I felt had nothing to do with being gay per se, but everything to do with the fact that I had been performing a traditionally 'female' role in my family. I felt silenced, because within that conventional dynamic, women often don’t have a voice. I have always been thankful for the fact that the film industry gave me the opportunity to create, express and reflect on my feelings and experiences, and storytelling has helped me in exploring a deeper and more diverse understanding of women and their gender roles.
There was a news story recently about a Saudi Arabian woman [18 year old Rahaf Mohammed] who stood up defiantly against the social, cultural and religious pressure her family imposed on her as a woman. She risked her life to flee her home and seek shelter, and has vowed to fight for women's freedom and rights globally. This was hugely inspiring, and would have been impossible a few decades ago.
I believe that the #MeToo movement is an inevitable progress, and its spirit is crucial and necessary. However, I wonder whether a diminutive slogan sometimes belies the multitude of different women's identities, struggles and social statuses. This brave young woman found a way out of her situation, and continues to fight for other women. Compared to labeling feminism with a catchy slogan and on social media, I think her use of real action for equality is much more powerful.
You are one of the few openly gay mainstream filmmakers working in Chinese cinema. In your documentary Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema, you link your being a maker of 'women's films' with your sexuality. Does your queer identity influence your work?
Yang ± Yin marked my public coming out. I’d never tried to hide my sexuality, but it wasn't my original intention to ostentatiously produce a film advertising it. Back then, I was one of a few directors around the world invited by the British Film Institute to make a film about our true, personal self. Thus for me, given the brief, there was no way I could be honest if I avoided talking about my sexuality. The core philosophy of this film was guided by my reflections on queer sexuality and alternative gender expressions that prevail in Chinese culture, rather than my own gay identity.
On the other hand, just because I am gay and am attracted to men, doesn’t mean I can easily understand female emotions or sentiments. Being gay doesn’t give me a female viewpoint or the ability to think like a woman, but it does give me opportunities to reflect upon ideas of sex, gender, and sexuality more objectively. My gay identity has provided me with a vantage point from which I can explore and examine sexuality and gender outside of a conventional framework. It allows me to depart from the traditional male perspective and male gaze, and enables me to create something unbiased, profound and human-oriented. My work has no fixed formula. Being queer has given me invaluable perspectives on life, and I always say, if there is a next life, I hope to be queer again.
Lan Yu was a milestone in Chinese cinema, and has influenced a generation of queer people. Do you have plans to make another gay-themed movie?
People say Stanley Kwan knows how to film women. As for being the No. 1 Hong Kong director of women, I’ve never said anything like that about myself. But I can never shut others down. For me, this label over-simplifies my creative process. You can't change how others label you, but you also shouldn’t succumb to limitations defined by others.
It's the same for queer films like Lan Yu. Lan Yu features a gay couple, but fundamentally it is a love story about humanity. I was touched by the original novel so I decided to make this film. I think being queer is a kind of spirit, more than a theme.
For example, in Hold You Tight (Kwan, 1998), the confusion Yue-Lin Ko’s character experiences towards sexuality, is a lot more queer than being labelled straight or gay. For me, thinking in terms of sexuality as well as sociopolitical issues, looking through the lens of my Hong Kong identity, I see a lot of uncertainty, volatility and creativity in the way people express their identities in different aspects of their lives. I think a lot of these gray, indefinable, and intersectional areas of experiences are all prime manifestations of queerness.
What would you like to say to our queer readers, and to aspiring Asian filmmakers?
As a queer Asian film worker, I am very grateful for amazing creators I encountered in my career. From working as an assistant director, to directing my own films, to now having become sort of a veteran in the Hong Kong film industry, so many people I met on this journey had shaped who I am today. They became mirrors for me, in which I saw my strengths, weaknesses, and who I aspire to become. They drove me to understand my identity, and gave me courage to pursue. Dare to express yourself, cherish every opportunity to communicate, and in turn find your strengths, shortcomings, energy and inspiration. I think this is vital in every life stage. I'm in my 60s now, and when I meet people in their 20s, they might still be a very good ‘mirror’ for me.
Interview originally conducted in Chinese. Images are from the internet.
Interviewer: Will Dai
Translator: Coco Li & Norton Cheng
CINEMQ is a queer short film screening + party series. It is run by a group of queers with too much on their mind to sit still for long. We’re publishing articles on queer cinema and screen culture every week. Want to contribute? Message our account or email email@example.com