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An Exclusive Interview
with James Yuen Sai-sang
Our first guest in 2005 is Hong Kong director / screenwriter James
Yuen Sai-sang. As a lot of people may know, Mr. Yuen's new movie Crazy n' the City,
featuring Francis Ng and Eason Chan, is set to release next week,
we are glad to have the opportunity to sit down and discuss it with
him. Moreover, we also talked about director Yuen's screenwriting
experience as well as his peculiar insight on the development of
contemporary Hong Kong cinema. We would love to thank him for sharing
his invaluable time with us.
Please enjoy the interview!
* Special thanks to Universe HK for arranging the interview.
* The interview was originally conducted in Cantonese.
Who is James Yuen Sai-sang?
James Yuen Sai-sang was born and educated in Hong Kong. He started his
career as a screenwriter, first at HK TVB, and then later in the film
business. He has worked for Golden Way and UFO, writing more than 30
screenplays and being nominated for Hong Kong Academy Awards several times.
Some of his notable works are Rouge, A Moment of Romance,
Tom, Dick and Hairy, Always on My Mind, Twenty Something,
He's a Woman, She's a Man, Whenever Will Be, Will Be.
In 1997, Yuen made his directorial debut with Wedding Days, The,
for which he also wrote the script. His career as director then began.
Up to date, he has directed about ten movies, including Your Place or Mine,
Clean My Name, Mr. Coroner!, Every Dog Has His Date,
My Wife is 18, Driving Miss Wealthy and the latest Crazy n' the
Apart from directing, Yuen also manages to continue his screenwriting
career. His recent writing credit includes the award winning Lost in Time and
Golden Chicken 2
If you want to learn more about his latest movie Crazy n' the City, please check out
our coverage on this page.
Crazy n' the City
Cinespot: First of all, let's talk about your new movie Crazy n' the City. We see Eason Chan and
Joey Yung wearing police uniform on the movie poster, does it mean this is a cops movie?
Yuen: Yes, but to a certain extent. Unlike other cops movies, we don't have any
thieves here! (lol) The story revolves around Eason Chan, a 30 year-old police who has been
serving for seven years. The cops in this movie do not possess any heroic quality, they are
totally different from those in say, Police Story. They are more like the adminstrators
of public affair in the neighborhood, resolving the quarrel of couples or showing road directions
to tourists. As a matter of fact, there is hardly any big case in Hong Kong now. If you look at
the newspaper, you'll notice that we don't really have that many serious criminal cases, moreover,
big cases are not handled by low-ranked uniformed officers. That explains why in this movie Eason
has lost his passion. He doesn't know why he has to be a cop, but on the other hand, he also
doesn't know what else he can do. At this time, Joey Yung joins the force and becomes his new
partner. As a new officer, Joey is enthusiastic about her job; As a native from the rural area,
she is also fascinated by this new environment in the city. She has a very strong desire to help
anyone around her, but she doesn't realize that not everything is suitable for police to involve.
She doesn't understand that police is only the law enforcer, but not charity officer. So Eason
becomes his advisor, telling her what she should not do. In the movie, there is a dialogue "The
more you do, the more you lose", that means doing more doesn't necessarily mean good.
Cinespot: How did you conceive this story?
Yuen: I am very interested in studying the work ethic of people. For instance, filmmakers
like us may lose our direction sometimes. We are not sure if we should work harder or just stay back a
bit. I think it is common in most professions.
Cinespot: How would you define this movie?
Yuen: I would like to tell a story in a relaxed tone. But certainly, there are ingredients of
drama, tragedy and also hope. I didn't want it to become a pure comedy. Because I have written
crazy comedies like Curry and Pepper before, I didn't want to repeat the same things. I didn't
want my audience to come out from the cinema without learning anything. I instead wanted them to
realize that there is hope and compassion in this world.
Cinespot: According to some previous interviews, it seems that you were quite dissatisfied with
the shooting schedule of your movies. What about this time?
Yuen: Thanks to the support of Universe, I got quite enough time (27~28 days) to shoot
this movie, and most importantly, I did not have to rush it for the premiere. The distributor once
suggested me to release the movie in September last year, but I refused, as I still hadn't
finished the editing at that time. The post-production of this movie took me a lot of time, merely the editing
took more than two months. So I would prefer to have everything tightly finished before we could
nail down a release date. Furthermore, we also needed to take the movie to the censoring department
and negotiate a release date for the mainland market. Filmmaking is really a very complicated
process, sometimes it is not easy for the audience to understand why a movie comes out so early or
Cinespot: Talking about the actors, why would you like to cast Francis Ng, Eason Chan and
Yuen: I picked Francis Ng because I didn't want to the story to focus on Eason and Joey
only. There are two storylines in the movie, apart from Eason and Joey, Francis's role as a psychopath
also plays a big part. His sickness is not only the responsibility of an individual, but of the
society. One of the interesting parts is that at first glance you wouldn't notice he is a psychopath,
he looks rather like an ordinary guy who loves to help the others without considering the
consequence. Moreover, Ng's storyline is crucial as it propels another love plot.
Cinespot: Francis Ng and Eason Chan are quite similar types of actor, they are both very rough and
masculine. How would you distinguish their traits?
Yuen: In my opinions, they are quite different (lol). Francis is very emotional and nervous, and
he is able to engage in his role easily. As for Eason, rather than reenacting his usual vigorous
character, he is more low-keyed this time.
Cinespot: Transformations... It appears that you were also able to bring out something new from
Ekin Cheng and Lau Ching-wan in My Wife is 18 and Driving Miss Wealthy. This time,
how did you direct the acting of your actors?
Yuen: No matter directing or screenwriting, I always want to know who is going to play
the role in my movies, it is because I have to first get to know the personality of this actor,
and then I can tailor a role for him. I usually have some communications with the actor, try to
understand his concerns, and at least see his recent movies. For instance, I have seen
all of Eason and Joey's movies, and certainly Francis's movies too. In fact, I have worked with
Francis and Eason before. I remember that's Eason's first movie (Rumble Age). Therefore I have
a clear idea of what they can do, or like to do. One problems of HK cinema is that the audiences are
very easy to form a fixed image of certain actors, regardless of what roles they play. Therefore, not
all actors are flexible enough to play whatever roles you want them to play, especially for those
actors who are not full time, like Eason and Joey who also have to maintain their singing career.
Contrary to this is Francis. He is a very attentive actor and he only works in one movie at a time, that
is why he can tackle with any roles in the most engaging manner. In conclusion, I believe that it is
important for me to understand the ability and personality of the actors before I can assign the roles
Cinespot: There are many supporting actors in this movie. Are you afraid that these roles might
steal the show?
Yuen: The reason why we needed so many supporting characters is that I didn't want the story
to focus on three characters only. I wanted to widen the scope of the diegesis a bit. In order for the
actors to develop the chemical effects, it is important for them to work with people they are familiar
with. If you find some extras to act with them, it is impossible to generate any chemical effects.
In the movie, even the minor events play an important part to the emotions and attitudes of the
protagonist, that's why I needed some experienced actors to be the "conduit". For instance, Francis's
sub-plot has Wai Ying-hung, while Eason's has veterans like Sam Lee, Hui Shiu-hung and Liu Kai-chi.
Supporting roles are important and we should not ignore them. I remember when I was writing Lost in Time,
I was also very concerned about the role of the mini-bus station manager. Since this role has an important
dialogue, I would certainly want it to be carried out by an experienced actor.
Cinespot: There are quite some social problems being discussed in this movie. Is it related
to your background in political studies at the university?
Yuen: Absolutely not! Political science in college is not related to contemporary society
at all. What I have learned has nothing to do with what I am doing now. Moreover, I didn't take any
courses on social works or sociology at all, so it is totally unrelated.
Cinespot: What about the love plot? Is it a kind of nostalgia of the heyday of UFO?
Yuen: No, again, it is not related at all! (lol) I never look back! Every movie has its own
life, there isn't any nostalgic feeling at all. I think your question is too hypothetical, haha.
Cinespot: This movie will come out in mainland too. Do you see co-production (in which the
story has to fit the taste of the audiences from mainland) as a form of restraint to your creative
Yuen: Honestly speaking, the case for every movie is different. For Crazy n' the City,
the entire movie was shot in Wanchai, HK, the only requirement was to have some mainland actors, which
I had no problem at all. I am not really interested in depicting violence or gangster activities, so it
has little to no effects on me. Talking about the taste of the audience, I believe that the reason why
they want to see our movies is because of our unique Hong Kong style and touch. Like, when we watch
Korean movies, what we like is their touch. The same also applies to movies from China, Japan, ... So
it is not necessary to force ourselves to fit the taste of mainland audiences. As a matter of fact,
nobody can fully predict the taste of the audiences! The most important thing that defines a good movie
is that it is doing well at the box office. I believe that it is impossible for a HK movie to do well
in mainland if even we, the HK audience, don't like it.
Cinespot: But obviously, some movies, like Infernal Affairs, have to be re-cut in order
to come out in mainland. As for Jiang Hu, it was even banned. Wouldn't it be inappopriate to say
the impact is not huge at all?
Yuen: I don't really want to make a judgment by looking at one or two examples. Let's change
the perspective a bit. Is there any movie that does extremely well in HK but fail in mainland? I don't
think so. About the cases you mentioned just now, the compromise, which is widely accepted by filmmakers
now, doesn't really change the overall quality of the movie. Again, nobody can really predict the
market, for instance, A World without Theives did pretty well in mainland, but the responses
in HK was less positive. But sometimes it is not wrong to say that in order to fit the market of
mainland, certain kind of sacrifice is inevitable.
Cinespot: So how do you tackle with the rule of this game?
Yuen: It is the question I have been thinking over the year. If compared to Hollywood
production, it is impossible, as their budget and professionalism are at another level. In order
for HK movie to compete in overseas or mainland market, the first thing to do is to win the
domestic market! If the domestic market doesn't like your product, I don't see how the people
outside would love it (unless the target audience is not the domestic audience). That's why HK
audiences have to watch HK movies. But the priority is that the movie has to have some kind of
attachment in which the audience can feel the intimacy or recognition. That explains why some
good foreign movies cannot do well in HK, because they lack the kind of attachment for the
audience to resonate! If Hong Kong movies want to gain international attention, the most important
criteria is the attachment of intimacy and recognition, and also the production factor.
Cinespot: Let's talk about your collaboration with Derek Yee Tung-sing and Henry Fong Ping,
how did you guys begin to work together?
Yuen: We began by chatting, haha. We talked about everything and then we gradually came
together. It is actually quite interesting as we are very different people, no matter our ideas,
backgrounds and filmmaking approaches, are utterly the opposite. We're able to work together
because we are considerate enough to listen to the opinions of the others. We understand that nobody
is perfect, and we can think from each other's perpective. We appreicate the virtues of each other
despite that we hate each other in certain aspects. We would give advice to each other
occassionally and make our own decisions independently. Right now, I already got used to this
"collaboration system" and I also appreciate them for giving me great freedom to do what I want to
Cinespot: Ok, what is your expectation of this movie?
Yuen: To me it is very simple, since I already have faith to do comedy,
I have tried to incoporate some positive messages in the movie so that it does not
appear as a no-brainer comedy. I hope the audience can learn something after they
have seen it. Perhaps there are many misfortunes in our life, like, the tsunami
in South Asia, or other accidents and disasters, we should learn how to face and
discover hope from them.
Morever, I always try to emphasize the 3 aspects of movies: artistic, entertainment and
cogitative values. The aspect of artistic value is easy to understand, that means
the camera works, visual design, and even the storytelling approaches. The idea of
entertainment value is also straightforward. While by cogitative value, it is initiated
by the question of whether we can learn anything from a movie. This is very important
as it explains why we would want to see a movie. On the other hand, it tells us why
a movie has to exist.
In Part II of the interview, director James Yuen Sai-sang talks about his screenwriting
career and his insight on the development of contemporary HK cinema. Please click here to go to Part II!