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An Interview
with Patrick Tam Ka-ming
(Part I)



After winning the Best Director Award at HKFAA, vertern director Patrick Tam brought his award winning masterpiece After This Our Exile to San Francisco to take part at the namesake film festival. During his stay in San Francisco, director Tam generously shared his filmmaking visions as well as his views on Hong Kong cinema in various public events and media interviews. We're glad to get the authorization from the man himself to compile and reprint his insightful remarks.

Please enjoy the interview!

* The interviews were originally conducted in Cantonese and English.

Who is Patrick Tam Ka-ming?

Patrick Tam, born in 1948, is one of the pivotal figures of the Hong Kong cinema's New Wave era during late 70s and early 80s. He is known for his highly stylistic and experimental touch in filmmaking.

Patrick Tam grew up being a cinema fan, and started to write movie reviews when he was at high school, submitting his writings to various youth magazines. He graduated from high school in 1967 and entered HK TVB. Starting from the bottom, he used to be a grip, cinematographer and director. In 1975, he was assigned by the company to further his studies in filmmaking in San Francisco, and later returned to Hong Kong and began making TV drama in 16mm film format. Some of his works at that time include Seven Women, CID and Social Worker. The rich cinematic language he demonstrated quickly earned him enormous reputations in the field.

In 1977, Tam left TVB and started his career in the film business. He finished his first film The Sword in 1980, starring Adam Cheng and Chui Siu-keung. Starting from there, he went on to complete six other films, including Love Massacre, Nomad, Cherie, Final Victory, Burning Snow and My Heart is the Eternal Rose. Most of them were critically claimed and received various nominations at the HKFAA.

Apart from directing, Tam is also a susccessful editor, production designer and music designer. His editing works for Wong Kar Wai's Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time impressed a lot of audiences.

In 1995 Tam was invited to a teaching position in Malaysia, where he stayed for several years. Later in 2000, the Creative Media School of City University of Hong Kong invited Tam to come back to Hong Kong, and from that on, Tam remained as a full time faculty at the school, teaching moving images (cinema).

In 2006, Tam finished his latest work After This Our Exile, a big success in Hong Kong and overseas. Not only did the film garner major awards at Golden Horse Award in Taiwan, it was also a big winner at HKFAA this April 2007, grabbing most of the big awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Script, Best Supporting Actor and Best New Actor.

In April 2007, Patrick Tam brought After This Our Exile to San Francisco, the seventh stop of his festival rides around the world.

  Patrick Tam  

After This Our Exile

Cinespot: How did the production of After This Our Exile begin?

Tam: When I was still teaching in Malaysia in 1995, I began to collaborate with my student, and then in 1996, the first draft of the script was done. But it was not until 2003 that we began to push the production. In 2004, there was a short pause though. We were managed to secure our current boss in 2005 and so we actually began the production process in September, and the shooting started in November. But since I was still teaching at the university at that time, we had to postpone the work in early 2006, and resumed it in March that year. The production took really long, but it is not easy to make a good film, and it is pointless to reluctantly start a project.

Cinespot: Compared to your previous works, what is the difference this time?

Tam: There are big differences. First of all, compared to the past in which I spent more time on film "form", I put all the emphasis on the characters this time. The script is much more solid and fruitful. Moreover, I tried very hard to capture the genuine quality of the emotions. Perhaps now my passion in filmmaking is even bigger than before, but it is displayed in a more mature manner. The creative process of a filmmaker always transcends with his age, the underling principle is that my love toward cinema never changes.

Cinespot: Can you talk about the casting choice of Aaron Kwok and Ian Iskandar?

Tam: I consider myself lucky to have Ian participating in our film. Although her mother,a former actress, used to star in my previous film, I never knew she has such a brilliant son. We gotta know each other through my producer's recommendation. As for Aaron Kwok, I saw his film Divergence and his performance was very impressive. He successfully threw away the burden of an idol and treated filmmaking seriously. He worked very hard and understood his role very well, that's why he could have a breakthrough.

Cinespot: Have you thought of using After This Our Exile as an example to remind the film business of the importance of creativity?

Tam: I didn't think about it before. Individual effort is always limited. When I was making After This Our Exile, my only concern was that, since I haven't been making films for a long time, and now I got what I needed and I got people who trusted me and followed my direction, I should try my best to finish the film. This was my only concern during the creative process. As for a message, I don't think I am that influential, moreover, everyone in the business is mature and professional, they all know how to think and find their own directions. It is just that After This Our Exile managed to win some applauses and did pretty ok at the international film festivals. However, no matter there's award or not, my view on filmmaking never changes.
But then, if you say the success of this film helps to encourage the business, especially when the subject matter of the film is rather non-mainstream, I would feel happy, because it means choosing a subject matter isn't the most important, the crucial point is whether you can touch the heart of the audiences.

Cinespot: How come there are two versions of the film?

Tam: The longer version is 160 mintues and the shorter one is 120 mintues. We need a shorter version because the box office business believed that the original cut was too long, they're afraid that the audiences might not be patient to sit through the film, that's why they decided to screen the shorter version. But at that time, two art-house theater was showing the longer version, and the responses were very good. It shows that no matter the audiences know my work or not, they tended to feel that the shorter version is simply not enough, it just gave them an impression that the story was not fully developed. So in some senses, the shorter version is a compromise. Although both versions were edited by me and both could be called "director's cut", the only and definitive version I approved is the 160 minutes full version, and it's the only version being screened at film festivals worldwide.

Cinespot: When will the DVD of the complete version be released?

Tam: I am still working on the color and lighting adjustment. Hopefully it will come out very soon. It will be a 3-discs collector's edition DVD.

Cinespot: How do you feel coming to San Francisco International Film Festival?

Tam: If you have tried your best to make your film and feel satisfied with it, I am sure you'd enjoy sharing it with audiences from around the world. San Francisco is the seventh stop of my festival rides, and everytime I tried to stay in the theater and watched the film with my audiences, paying attention to their reactions. I discovered that no matter in France, Italy, Tokyo or Korea, the feeling of the audiences tended to be quite similar, and it was exciting and encouraging. San Francisco is a very special place to me, as I used to live here for a while, making my second feature film Love Massacre. As for sharing with the audiences, taking part in any festival provides a good opportunity for you to learn about your audiences' response and thoughts.

  Patrick Tam  

Insight on Hong Kong Cinema

Cinespot: In your opinion, what is the reason for the recession of Hong Kong cinema in these few years?

Tam: Although Hong Kong cinema is suffering in these few years, I don't think things would remain unchanged. For instance, we all know that people are having different lifestyle now and a lot of the audiences tend to watch DVD or VCD at home, rather than going to the theater, it actually affects the business quite a bit. But then, the most important question should not be ignored, that is, the quality of the film itself. Are the films really good? Are they capable of touching the audiences? It is somewhat associated with the creativity of the filmmakers. The recession right now, to a certain extent, is the side effects accumulated from bad practices in the past.
Moreover, after 1997, there were many China / Hong Kong co-productions, and these films really weaken the identity of Hong Kong cinema. Local characteristic and style are very important to any domestic film industry, and they should not be ignored. However, through the conglomeration with the mainland market, a lot of compromise are inevitable, and that is actually a kind of abuse to cinema.
One more reason is that, right now most of the active individuals in the film business are at least 40 or over, younger and influential filmmakers (20~30) are very scarce, so there is a gap in between. But it is also related to the question of supply and demand. Since the market is shrinking, from a few hundreds films to about fifty a year, the demand has become much smaller, and also film companies tend to hire people they know, so it is very hard for newcomers to break into the field. New talents need to have a strong portfolio and influence to let people believe in their abilities. In these years, I always try to introduce some of my best students to my fellow colleagues in the business, and let them intern as assistant production manager, editor or even scriptwriter. So far most of them are doing well. I hope what I am doing can help the business a bit.

Cinespot: From what you see, among China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which market has the biggest advantage?

Tam: I think mainland China has bigger advantage in these few years. But then, Hong Kong cinema used to have very nice history and tradition. Although we are suffering at the moment, we still have the potentials to fight back. The question is how to release these potentials and raise the overall standard of filmmaking. Looking back at mainland, some of their best directors are aligning themselves with the international perspective and leaning toward the Western audiences. To me, it's not a good sign, because it means that filmmaking begins to have a purpose now. I believe the purpose of filmmaking is solely filmmaking, but not anything else. How to perfect your film and touch the audiences are the most imporant, other issues like politics might shift the balance of the film. That's why aiming at an international market or breaking into Hollywood might not necessarily mean good.
Hollywood itself has a very sophisticated work system, director is only part of the system and may not be able to take charge of the creative process. In my opinions, many Hong Kong filmmakers were wasting their talents in Hollywood, if they chose to stay in Hong Kong at that time, their achievement might be much bigger, and their works might be more impressive. Certainly, from a production budget standpoint, what Hollywood can offer is irresistable. But budget is not the determinant factor of a good film.

Cinespot: Just now you said those China / Hong Kong co-productions tend to weaken the identity of Hong Kong cinema. So could the filmmakers find a balance between the two?

Tam: Talking about balancing, if a film has to please the audiences of both places, first of all, the filmmaker needs to understand very well the similarity and difference of both audiences, and it requires long and profound research that may take years to accomplish. It is a goal that cannot be achieved by just making one or two films. What I think is that, many Hong Kong filmmakers are using a Hong Kong perspective to analyse the mainland market, they believe they understand the market well, but in fact they don't fully understand it. They try to make films they believe the mainland audiences would enjoy, but without deep research or understanding, their films are destined to fail. However, since the censorship systems are quite different, there must be some kind of restrictions.

Cinespot: Does it mean filmmakers would become more passive now?

Tam: It depends on the creativity of the filmmaker. For instance, if you couldn't make erotic or violence films, does it mean there is nothing else you could make? What about family topics? As a filmmaker, creativity is very important. It doesn't mean you have to keep making the same kind of film every time. We all know there are topics that could not pass the censorship no matter what, and filmmakers should have very strong apprehension when choosing subject matters.

In part II of the interview, director Tam talks about his teaching career as well as a brief retrospective on his filmmaking career. Please click here to go to Part II!