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An Exclusive Interview
with Derek Kwok
(Part I)



Earlier this year Derek Kwok directed a motivational badminton-themed movie called Full Strike. The work is yet to be released but the title of the film has been changed to something even more "striking". The director laughed as he talked about the new title of the film.

To Derek, it is all about having fun. Handling a subject (sports) that is less frequently covered in Hong Kong films is a challenge he takes up for himself. After the very successful Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and As The Light Goes Out, directing a film on this special topic is a testimony of his "never give up" attitude. His unrelenting willpower & dedication are evident throughout his work - regardless of how bad the situation might be, his characters always work painstakingly hard to get through it. The director is interested in examining and provoking thoughts about the idea of perseverance among the general audience.

Seemingly a very positive person, Kwok admitted that he is an optimistic pessimist. In this interview, he talked about his old & new works and explained his philosophy of life. Perhaps there are many Hong Kong people who are like Derek, who never give up, regardless the situation they are in.

* The interview was originally conducted in Cantonese.

Derek: Derek Kwok, film director

Who is Derek Kwok?

Although described vividly by his own newspaper column as "Film director of 12-million-box-office film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and avid action figure collector", Derek thinks such description doesn't tell who he really is. During this interview, we didn't intentionally ask for a better definition.

Derek began his film career in 2000, after completing a screenplay course organized by City Entertainment Magazine. Attracted by a star cast of instructors of this course, including Wong Kar Wai, Gordon Chan and Derek Yee, Kwok gave up his full-time job as a designer and attended the course in order to join the film industry. He started as a production assistant and have thereafter taken up roles in art direction, screenwriting while struggling to make ends meet. During his miserable and penniless early career, he often had to find excuses to get a bite to eat by meeting with established filmmakers such as Wilson Yip, Teddy Robbin Kwan or Leon Lai. What might sound hardship to a lot of people, to Derek they are fond memories. The level of passion he has for things that he loves seemingly transcends all basic needs - instead of spending his very small salary on food or daily necessities; he would spend it on expensive toy figures (most are movie characters).

He first got his name out releasing his first film Stray Dog, and gradually attracted more attention as he and Clement Cheng won the 30th Hong Kong Best Film Award with their co-directed film Gallants in 2011. His status has been further recognized as he was invited by Stephen Chow to co-direct Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons last year.

Apart from directing films, Kwok also directs music videos for different types of Hong Kong singers and artists. His works include Don Li's Ten Girls, Matt Chow's 40 Year-old Uncle, Miriam Yeung's Taboo and Shawn Yue's Memorized Your Broken Heart. He was also a co-host of the radio talk show Sub-culture.

  Derek Kwok  

Sports being a "hopeless" topic

Cinespot: What have inspired you to create the film Full Strike?

Derek: Before filming Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, Jessie Ho mentioned she was interested in making a motivational comedy and asked for my views. Apart from being a fan of kung-fu, I also love playing the badminton. So I told her there is a topic that is "promised to fail" in the Hong Kong cinema - sports. It turns out she is also a badminton player, so it worked out.

Badminton is an interesting kind of sports. It requires high speed, and you will never know who wins until the end of the game. Unlike other sports, badminton games often allows "laggards" to catch up or even overtake the situation. Gallants is a film about this type of absolute determination you need to change the situation, and in Full Strike I am shedding lights on the fact that we can all change the current situation if we want. No matter how bad the situation is or whether we have enough resources, as long as we grasp the right opportunity, we can make a difference.

Cinespot: Can you talk a little bit about the characters of the story?

Derek: Jessie Ho plays a woman who is extremely good at playing badminton. Because of an incident happened 10 years ago, she ends up living and working miserably at a Poon-Choi shop in Yuen Long. Ekin Cheng, Edmond Leung, Wilfred Lau and Andrew Lam play a group of thieves who decide to live normal lives after spending some years in jail. Due to some unexpected circumstances, they end up choosing to play badminton. Ronald Cheng plays a troublemaker/prankster in the village. The story is about this handful of characters and their journey from being beginners to the sports of badminton to finally competing in a professional battle.

Cinespot: How long did it take to complete the scripts? How did you resolve the risk of choosing sports as the film subject?

Derek: It took a long time. After finishing the script of Full Strike, I went on to film Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and As The Light Goes Out. It was only after completing these two films that we got the financing settled to begin filming Full Strike. The film is produced by Jessie Ho's 852 Films production company. The reason why I repeatedly emphasize the "hopelessness" of sports as a topic in Hong Kong films is because our market does not really appreciate films of three particular genres: science-fiction, sports and music. For films related to sports, only those about boxing, perhaps are the only ones that will ever become successful.

To me, I have always tried to find a common theme regardless of the genres. Full Strike is about a group of outcasts in society trying to achieve something seemingly impossible. Throughout the journey, there are lots of jokes and areas which touch the hearts of Hong Kong people. It is a strange film in the sense that it is funded partly by Mainland investors but does not really seem like a typical co-produced film. Apart from having two professional Mainland Chinese badminton player Chun-lai Bao and Lin Wang appeared at the end of the film, the entire movie was made in Hong Kong. It permeates a rich sense of Hong Kong flavour, not to mention the local New Territories "Wai-Tau" dialect that we feature in the film.

I didn't really think sports as a topic in Hong Kong film is completely hopeless. The process of making a film, the fun and playfulness in it, are to me more important than any commercial or box office successes. People often questioned why I would decide to make Full Strike after Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and As The Light Goes Out, which are both quite commercially successful. I just wanted to try something new and take a chance.

New Title Beating Full Strike

Cinespot: Why did you name the film Full Strike?

Derek: Perhaps the film title will be changed but I wanted to call the film something that can bring out the spirit of working extremely hard to achieve a goal. Knowing that it's a film about sports, perhaps a topic which is less frequently covered, I tried not to make it sound too "sporty". The title has now been changed to something like "Kickass", which sounds very stupid but in a hilarious way.

Cinespot: The new title sounds even more striking...

Derek: Full Strike is a more formal description, about working hard and taking things seriously to achieve a goal. But Kickass is crazier, like sticking out your tongue while you deliver a full strike with your badminton racquet (mimicking a full strike). I think the new title is even more interesting.

Modern Comedy x Vintage Comics

Cinespot: The movie poster seems to convey a sense of nostalgia. What is the setting of the film?

Derek: I love vintage stuff but the setting of the film is contemporary. The cost of making this film is around 10 million Hong Kong dollars, representing a medium-sized production. It contains a lot of elements that I like. Perhaps in the future I won't have the opportunity to experiment with such diverse types of elements.

Cinespot: Did you experience in art direction somewhat influence the style of this film?

Derek: Art direction has always been very important in my films and it doesn't really link back to my previous role as an art director. I have forgotten most of my prior role in art direction long ago because I didn't really enjoy it. Nonetheless, my passion in cinemagraphy and art never fades. For instance, in As The Light Goes Out, I made efforts to enhance the beauty and style in various ruin settings. For Full Strike, a more drama-focused film, I also wanted to create something special. Unlike Gallants, which is unpolished yet with some delicate parts, Full Strike deliberately uses a vintage style. When filming Gallants, our budget was very small so we intentionally handle the imageries by washing out the colours. This time I used a lot of earth-tone colours to bring out the style of comics and old Japanese dramas such as Youth Sparkles, Swimming Heroines and Tennis Amazons.

Cinespot: You mentioned you invited Andrew Lam to be part of the cast because you were his fan. Is that true?

Derek: Yes. I really admire Andrew and his works during the 1980s and 1990s. He is a lyricist and also a comedian. It is hard to find multi-talented artists like him. His jokes are always ridiculously stupid in a hilarious way, which is so full of creativity. I met him one or two years ago when filming Paul Nero Joe and some music videos, and we immediately became close friends. In the past, he always took part in films as guest appearances instead of taking up a full role. I wanted to create a lead character for him that allows him to showcase his humour and attitude.

He is a very important character of the film, leading the story from start to end and bringing life to every chapter of the story. As the story unfolds, he can be motivating, funny or touching. The characters played by Andrew Lam and Ekin Cheng are equally important in the story.

Cinespot: Can you share anything funny incidents during the filming process?

Derek: The team had a lot of fun in the filming process. One of the scenes involved Andrew vomiting. We stuck a tube into his mouth trying to create a big vomit. We experimented a few times but didn't get the results we expected. At the end, Andrew was so tired that he couldn't even close his mouth. He played with the tube and took many funny photos (including pretending it's a catheter) with it.

Cinespot: It seems to be an enjoyable process! Do you have very high standards for actors, and are you a strict director?

Derek: Whether I am strict or not need to be answered by the actors, but I am a very easy-going person. It's a comedy and it's important to keep a sense of humour in the filming process. On the other hand, when filming As The Light Goes Out, we were all under a lot of pressure. The film involved a bigger cast, larger-scale settings and props, and there were many stunts, wire and explosive scenes. Full Strike is a relatively less stressful piece of work. The most difficult scenes were those actual badminton game scenes. We also had more time to complete Full Strike - it totally took around two months to finish it. It's fun to have more time to test and experiment.

Cinespot: Do you prefer making blockbuster or low budget films?

Derek: I like both. To me, the scale of production doesn't really matter because my first concern is how to handle the subject. I like epic, heroic films regardless of the scale of production. My state of mind and effort I put in are the same when working on any films, no matter it's big or not, just like making your own toys. Some toys require more people to work together but some do not. To me, it's the same. Blockbuster may involve more investors but it doesn't mean that low budget films are easier. I like low budget films which are fun and versatile. I work equally hard on both types of films.

Cinespot: It seems that you haven't direct any "wuxia" (Chinese martial arts) movies?

Derek: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons kind of falls into the "wuxia" type. If you are talking about the very classic wuxia films, I haven't yet found an interesting new perspective to create a film of that type. I always decide to take on a new challenge only after I found new insights or perspectives to see something. For instance, in As The Light Goes Out, I intended to film smoke instead of fire; In Gallants, I didn't just talk about kung-fu but also the importance of mental strength. This film I used the subject of badminton to explore the idea that we must continuously change ourselves no matter how bad the current situation is. If I find any new insights, perhaps I will create a film on the same subject. It will depend on whether there is potential to bring in new insights.

  Derek Kwok  

In part II of the interview, Derek Kwok continues to talk about his filmmaking philosophy and the motivations that help shape his career. Click here to check it out!