Interview: Chapman To, actor ‘La Comedie Humaine’

Saturday’s interview session at the Udine Far East Film Festival welcomed actor/producer Chapman To. The star of Infernal Affairs (2002) and producer of the new Hong Kong comedy La Comedie Humaine (2010) sat down to a chat with CUEAFS’ founder Spencer Murphy and shared his thoughts on festivals, Hong Kong cinema and future projects.

Spencer Murphy: How are you finding Udine and the Festival so far?
Chapman To: I really like Udine – the weather’s wonderful, the food is good and the women are beautiful. (laughs) And this festival is not like others I’ve been to. It’s better in my opinion, because of the whole atmosphere. And I love that it doesn’t have a “red carpet”. The whole experience is very relaxing and enjoyable.

SM: You started your career as an actor and now you are also a film producer. How did you get involved with producing films?

CT: Five years ago I invited some friends over to dinner at home and I said: “The way things are going for Hong Kong cinema, small directors have no future. The China market is open, but only to big directors and the others don’t stand a chance. I have a plan – to unite small and new directors in a sort of union and I’ll be the producer. The idea is for them to work as a team – while A directs B and C help.” So me and my friends continued our evening and the next morning I got a call from one of them, saying: “About what we discussed last night, I’m not interested right now”. And one by one they all said that. In the end it was just me and Pang Ho-Cheung (director, Dream Home [2010]) and we found the company “Not Brothers” (because not everybody is your brother). Together we produced Isabella (2006) and Trivial Matters (2007) and now for my upcoming film we’ll be working with a young new director. This is good because we’re making the budget smaller this way and at the same time we’re giving a new-comer a chance.
SM: Isabella is a very ‘local’ Hong Kong film. When you are making a film for a local Hong Kong audience, do you intentionally make it in such a way that it would be picked up internationally?
CT: Well, Hong Kong is the base. But take the Far East Film Festival for example. A film can be made for local audience, but other places and people will also like it. When I’m working, I’m concentrating on making a strong Hong Kong movie, rather than trying to please everyone.
SM: Your new film La Comedie Humaine has a very local (Cantonese) sense of humour, Do you make any considerations for the mainland Chinese market?
CT: Making a successful film for the China market in the style of Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) is easy. But comedy is strict, because happiness is a very strict, genuine feeling. Something is either funny or it’s not. It is not easy to make a successful comedy for the China market. For example, in La Comedie Humaine, there’s a scene where I’m nude and shot from the back. China doesn’t allow that in its films. My latest production also can’t be picked up in China, because it features a sex-scene, and Chinese films don’t feature sex, nudity or ghosts.
SM: One of the scenes in your film Trivial Matters features a prostitute from mainland China. Is it a conscious decision to make films, which are critical of China’s film restrictions?
CT: Making movies is my job. The fact is that there is prostitution, sex and someone told me there are ghosts (laughs). I’m not trying to be critical or anti-communist. A film is a film. We’re not making a fantasy production like Avatar (2009) – we’re trying to show what we really see.

SM: You have also starred in some massive Hong Kong films. If you’re offered a big role, would you accept it to be able to sponsor your own projects?

CT: It’s about balance. Actors are like prostitutes in a way. Sometimes we have good offers and sometimes – not so good. But this is how we earn our living. What can you do, sometimes you give in. The important thing is to balance it.
SM: You’ve worked with many directors. One of them is Herman Yau. What was that like?
CT: He’s the only good person among Hong Kong directors. (laughs) Directors are usually very strong characters. But he is just genuinely good, doesn’t yell and works fast. He doesn’t think about how well his productions will do in the box office, he just makes films. He is a bit crazy, but he is special and a very good friend of mine.

SM: So what are we to expect from you in the future? Anything with Herman?
CT: Oh, it’s not that easy, you have to queue and a lot of investors are involved. As an actor – I like to do comedy. It’s easy to act well, but it’s not easy to make people laugh. Life itself is not easy, so it’s better to laugh. As a producer – I’d like to work with new directors and give them chances.

The full video interview and podcast will be available on the CUEAFS website and CineVue soon.

Elena Rapondzhieva (CUEAFS)