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An Exclusive Interview
with James Yuen Sai-sang
(Part I)



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 City.

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.

  James Yuen  

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 so late.

Cinespot: Talking about the actors, why would you like to cast Francis Ng, Eason Chan and Joey Yung?

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 to them.

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 process?

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 do.

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.

James Yuen   James Yuen

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!