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Interviews

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An Exclusive Interview
with James Hung
(Part I)


  Interview


Foreword

"If not a film director today, I would probably have been a fiction writer," said James Hung, an emerging film director in Hong Kong who has just released his debut film The Seventh Lie. It all started with his childhood love of telling stories with toys to his only audience - his sister. Now, at the age of 28, James is showcasing his directional debut supported by an all-star cast including Ronald Cheng, Josie Ho, Him Law, Philip Keung, to a vast audience from Hong Kong, the US, Spain and around the globe. The young director admitted the experience of releasing his first film full of excitement, nervousness, anticipation and uncertainty. Amidst a host of mixed emotions, The Seventh Lie catches the attention of critics for his strong personal style and experimental spirit. We recently sat down together with James for an interview in which he revealed more about his past, passion and dreams.

* The interview was originally conducted in Cantonese.

James: James Hung Ling-Ching, writer and director of The Seventh Lie
Janet: Janet Chan, art director of The Seventh Lie


Who is James Hung?

Perhaps a relatively new face to the Hong Kong film scene, James is an emerging film director in Hong Kong and a member of the post-80s generation. Having completed his formal film training in the US seven years ago, he is now ready to use what he called "techniques and languages of the America cinema" to tell stories about Hong Kong.

2001 15-year-old James moved to Los Angeles shortly after the September 11 incident, and later pursued a degree in film directing.
2007 Started his film career working at Technicolor' s post-production team, where he realized the power of film as witness to history
2008 Returned to Hong Kong and started working at TVB as a production assistant
2010 Started his own production company with friends
2014 Directed and released his first film, The Seventh Lie, an omnibus thriller told via
four stories, which delve into the human nature of lying, self-deception, betrayal and their consequences. The film has already won Grand Jury Prize Narrative Film at the 2014 Barcelona International Film Festival and Best Foreign Feature prizes at the 2014 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.


  James Hung  


Humble beginnings

Cinespot: We heard it took you four years to become a film director. Was it just four years?

James: It took more than four years. I started working at Technicolor upon graduating from film school in 2007. For almost two years I worked on grading, printing, behind-the-scenes and trailer productions. While getting more experience in post-production, I was also looking for opportunities to join film production companies in the US or other countries. When I was at school, I didn' t know much about post-production but thought writing scripts and filming can all be done by myself. Only until I joined Technicolor did I realize that the filming part is only one of the many steps of the whole production process, that film production is a collaborative form of art which must be supported by teamwork. At Technicolor, we also worked on restoring and re-releasing classic movies. This kind of work is very meaningful as it demonstrates the power of film as an important witness to history. Apart from telling stories, films can also document society and changes in communication, fashion and ambience of the time. Through restoration we can get a glimpse into the past.

When I first graduated from school, I believed strongly that film was a form of "fine art" and considered filmmaking a form of "art making". But then I realized that filming, scriptwriting and editing are each important step in the whole production process. Such understanding clarified my role in film production and reminded me that good work can only be done through a collaborative spirit.

In 2008, I joined TVB as a production assistant. At that time, they were hiring a lot of people so entering the industry wasn't that difficult. At TVB, I was responsible for dramas, props, scripts, make up, and rehearsals - everything fall on the responsibilities of production assistants. Other members of the team can perhaps delegate their duties but not for us. The most important lesson I learnt spending two years there was the essence of "mass production", which is very different from making "art". In the TV business, everything is produced for mass consumption, forcing us to be really sensitive about cost control and choice of actors. The role of production assistants is to coordinate with directors and all other members of the production team. The experience has greatly improved my communication skills.

Although in the TV business, I was always thinking about entering the movie industry. After several years of working at TVB, I felt that I was moving further away from my dream of joining the industry. I was not sure if I should stay or should I place a bet and leave? After two years, I decided to leave the company to start my own production company with some fellow production assistants. We did a great variety of stuff, including advertising videos, music videos and animation. After a while I realized again this wasn't really what I wanted to do, as my original intent of leaving the TV job was to join the movie industry. However, it all had to start from zero as I had no connections within the industry. Soon after some staff of my production company left, and I began to work on the scripts of The Seventh Lie. I was confident about this story (despite perhaps not my favourite one) and that it could be made into a good debut piece. From then I began to network with investors and professionals in the industry.



Encounter with Tin Kai Man(Producer of the The Seventh Lie)

Cinespot: Who did you first approach?

James: To make my film happen, I started networking with gaffers, film producers, production managers and cinematographers whom I met at the time of my production company. It hasn't been very successful until I finally met Tin Kai Man. I was very fortunate to have been introduced to him through a photographer friend. I brought along the script of The Seventh Lie to meet him in person in Kwun Tong. Although we didn't talk much about the script in our dinner, I tried to provide some details about characters and the story, hoping Tin would find them interesting. The next day he said "it's a great script. Let's make it happen!" I was completely thrilled by his response and in disbelief that this could really happen. Tin is different from many other producers. He did not emphasize on budget or cast upfront and didn't worry too much about customizing the film to accommodate the audience's taste or make it commercially successful. Rather, he directly proceeded to discuss the plot and characters, stressing the importance of making the script right. He believed that it would be difficult for new film directors like me to maintain their personal styles if he/she focuses too much on commercial viability. Many times before meeting with potential investors, he advised me not to worry too much about being asked to edit the script. For the sake of keeping our originality, we at the end approached the Film Development Fund of Hong Kong and luckily were granted a subsidy that would cover 40% of the production cost of the film. The total cost of this film was about HK$5 million and the remaining 60% was supported by independent investors. That's how we started filming The Seventh Lie.



Cinespot: Was The Seventh Lie developed when you were working at your production company?

James: Yes. I have been writing scripts since my time with TVB and this is one of my favourite scripts.



Entering the film industry

Cinespot: You mentioned that in the process of realizing your "director" dream you have had moments of feeling lost. How did you persevere?

James: I tried to be more detached. Working in the TV business was one of my darkest times. You were told upfront it would take at least 10 years before you could become a director. It sounded like a long time to new comers like us and one of my colleagues even quitted immediately the day after hearing such remarks. I thought I shouldn't focus too much on climbing to that position but instead should work on getting more experience first. It was a time for learning, absorbing as much as I could, but not really about career prospects. Those who stay in the TV business may find the industry suitable for them, but to me it wasn't the case. Nonetheless, it was still a great opportunity to experience the lifestyle of working extremely hard and long hours for an extended period of time, perhaps you only take off for a weekend every two months. Even when you are off, you will be asked to organize your schedules for the next few months, so you ended up spending your day in the office.

I was working day and night and moving back and forth between production sites. It was a crazy time. Completing two years of tenure was in a way a proof of my perseverance. My experience at TVB has made me realized that the movie industry was perhaps different from the TV industry. Working in a TV company would probably provide you with a stable career. But in the movie industry, there are lots of passionate people who don't really care about how much they earn or how successful they can be. The level of passion it takes to survive in this unique industry is just incredible.

The movie industry is where I know I belong. As long as I can continue to work on films, I would be happy. That's how things work in this industry - if you don't have enough passion, you can't carry on. You don't get to earn much and will be always constrained by limited budget and short production timeline. The total amount of time spent on making The Seventh Lie was only 16 to17 days - which is crazy! It took me a lot more time just to make a short film while I was in the US.



Realizing childhood dreams

Cinespot: Have you always wanted to be a film director?

James: : I have always loved to tell stories. If not a film director today, I would probably have been a fiction writer. When we were young, my sister and I liked playing with toy figures. I always liked to create stories for my action figures and design camera angles to facilitate my storytelling. I guess I didn't end up being a writer because I am more fascinated by the sheer magic of film. People would buy tickets to spend a few hours in a dark room just to see how you tell your stories - I find that very magical. I also really like to tell stories through imageries - film as an art form really allows me to tell the stories in the way that I want because it encompasses a whole range of different art forms, from literature, music, editing to performing arts. Its diversity and versatility provide unlimited creative space for artists to harness. That's why I ended up studying film in the US.



Cinespot: How did you know about camera angles when you were little?

James: I didn't know anything about camera angels or perspectives at that time but thought those were important elements in telling a good story. Now I know more about the art and technicalities of angels and perspectives... but as always I just wanted to tell a story in my own way and find that a satisfying experience.



Cinespot: Who was your audience?

James: My sister. If she was not around, I would play alone. I just enjoyed that intrinsically and didn't think too much. Now I have a lot more concerns, such as feedback from critics/audience and whether I can make a living out of making films. Sometimes these practical concerns would distract me from my original intent of making good movies. But the realities of the industry at the same time remind me that if there is no risk, perhaps there will be no gain. This is one of the reasons why I love filmmaking.



Surviving in a deceptive world

Cinespot: So now you have finally released your first masterpiece, what inspired you to create this story?

James: Lying is a universal language. We all lie but the idea of lying doesn't really get any serious attention. Perhaps people won't even admit that they ever lie - that in itself is a lie already. I want to explore the topic through a film. Audience can interpret the film using their own background and experience. Art is full of ambiguity, waiting for the audience to fill in the gaps as they see fit.

The year of 2001, shortly after the September 11 incident, was my first time to land on the Los Angeles international airport. The atmosphere, fraught with anxiety and mistrust, left a great impression on me. Only until later when I had a better understanding of the incident was I able to make sense of such collective anxiety. When I wrote the script of The Seventh Lie, I didn't start with creating the plot; instead, I designed the characters first. For instance, Song is bisexual; Uncle Bing, who is willing to break the law in order to have a son to carry on his family line. I have seen people like these before and wanted to place them in a world of deception where everyone has their own secrets. In a way, it is also reflection of reality and the world we live in.

I have gone through quite a lot in the past few years. When I was fresh out of college, I thought of myself as an artist who could spend days and nights in my own room writing scripts, filming and editing my own work. Only until I got my first job did I realize that this doesn't work. Even if you have great ideas and scripts, you won't be able to bring it to life if you just work on it alone.

I started to gradually change myself and give myself a new "image". I began to explain my scripts to different people and talk with strangers. That is me, but not entirely. To a certain extent, I am lying to myself. We all actively construct our own image or identity by wearing certain types of fashion and styles. We tell ourselves who we are and what role we play in society. To survive and to get what we want, we lie to ourselves. This is just like Officer Liu in the film, who is a policeman, but also a kidnapper faced with mounting debts, a person with multiple and conflicting identities. Through this movie I wanted to let people know there is a lot to be explored and discussed about "lies".



Cinespot: It seems that you have a high level of self-awareness about the role you play in life. Do you think characters in the film are also aware of their own lies?

James: In the film, Song is the driver of the boss. I intentionally make him wear the same clothes every day, trying to make him look more serious. He also follows a routine every day, as if it is the way he is destined to live. In fact, he doesn't need to repeat the same tasks every day. Like many of us he has predetermined for himself a certain path or direction, forcing himself to fulfil his destiny. It seems a bit ridiculous but it is reflecting our reality.



Cinespot: Why is the driver's apartment so clean and beautiful? It doesn't look like a typical Hong Kong flat.

James: Is that not very Hong Kong? In some ways, my film contains some American influence.

Janet: The apartment is clean because it is exactly what our apartments are like. To a certain extent, every film provides the audience with a glimpse into the film director's world.

James: You can see a lot of "me" in the film. For example, I deliberately make the character Song look and dress shabby rather than smart. I intentionally made him look more experienced and contained. Him, who plays Song, asked if I wanted to make the character look like myself. I think to a certain extent, I am projecting myself onto this character.


  James Hung  


In part II of the interview, James Hung continues to talk about the creative process of The Seventh Lie and reveals his upcoming project. Click here to check it out!