Interview: Teddy Chan, ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’

CUEAFS founder Spencer Murphy met with legendary Hong Kong action director Teddy Chan at this year’s Terracotta Film Festival to talk about the state of Hong Kong cinema, young blood entering the industry and Mr. Chan’s latest award winning effort Bodyguards and Assassins (2009).

Spencer Murphy: On behalf of Coventry’s East Asian Film Society, thank you for your time. We met earlier at this year’s Far East Film Festival in Udine. What are your thoughts on that festival in general? Did you enjoy your time there?

Teddy Chan: Yes, definitely. Nice food, nice people and most importantly they liked the film.

SM: In regards to the film, Bodyguards and Assassins, this is one of your first partnerships with Peter Chan as producer. And now there are talks of this being the beginning of a series of production collaborations with him and his company. In relation to that, would you say that Bodyguards and Assassins is targeting an international audience or was it made specifically for the Chinese and Hong Kong market?

TC: Actually, when I first started making films I told myself: “Every story in a film could happen all over the world”. In my mind stories are universal and for every film I make I think it could be understood anywhere in the world.

SM: In terms of the scale of Bodyguards and Assassins (which was 10 years in the making), how did you keep going through such an extended period of production?

TC: I think it’s because every year, when I read the script I realized I still fall in love with it, I still like it. What really slowed the production was that many investors came back to the production each year, but didn’t build the set. It’s too expensive and I turned them down. If I want to make a film I want to put it together and build a set. So every year we come back from China and from the States and we say: “Let’s do Bodyguards and Assassins”, but there’s just no set.

SM: How do you see Bodyguards and Assassins – as a Hong Kong film, as a Chinese one, or as a co-production?

TC: I think after Warlords (2007) this is one of the best co-productions between China and Hong Kong. Yes, the story happened in Hong Kong, but it’s such a good collaboration. Casting, production, script, ideas – it’s all a result of the work of a mixed team from both Hong Kong and China.

SM: Considering the strict censorship in China, is it difficult to make the film you want to make, when you’re aiming at the mainland China market? Take Warlords for example: there are two alternative endings to the film – one for the Chinese and one for the Hong Kong market. Is that a difficult thing to do? Do you have to make a lot of concessions?

TC: China is a new market – it has only been open for the past six or seven years and it’s difficult for them to open up completely in such a short time. For example, I have a film about a serial killer. That will never be distributed in China. So I’m not going to push them to allow me to. I’m simply going to distribute elsewhere, like Europe and America for example.

SM: And what about the language in the film. When it’s a Hong Kong film, does it necessarily have to be in Cantonese?

TC: Well, if you have a story of a Cantonese-speaking guy and a Beijing girl, let him speak in lousy mandarin for the purpose of communication between then and to make the film more realistic.

SM: On the subject of the casting of Bodyguards and Assassins, you have a huge star like Donnie Yen, but you’ve also cast a debut actress, Yuchun Li (the winner of China’s X-Factor equivalent ‘Super-girl’), as a leading character. Was it a gamble to give her that role?

TC: Well, I’ve had many films with newcomer actors and actresses. For example I worked on a film in 1993, called Twenty Something – it starred only newcomers. So I actually like working with young actors. This is also a somewhat commercial campaign – Bodyguards and Assassins is a big budget film and we want a large and varied audience, so we’ve cast some famous faces, which are not usually on stage – a basketball player for example. But anyway, when I saw Yuchun Li, I picked her because she was so much like the character in the film.

SM: There seems to be a trend in the Hong Kong-China market to make films about this period in which Bodyguards and Assassins takes place. Why do you think that is?

TC: Because when you’re making an action film it is very important to pass the censorship. And with kung-fu fights and swords, placed in a historical context, it’s much easier to do that.

SM: You’ve mentioned one of your future projects is about a serial killer. What else can we expect from you?

TC: I’m currently working simultaneously on two projects – I’m the producer in one of them, working with Derek Kwok. The slogan for it is “when a magician needs a husband”. It’s a bit more dreamy and involves topics such as friendship.

SM: Since you mentioned Derek Kwok, what is your view on the contemporary young directors of Hong Kong?

TC: I don’t mind working with young directors, whether they are from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. What is important is whether they can tell the story properly. And I think Derek Kwok can.

The full length video interview with Teddy Chan recorded by CUEAFS will be available in the near future on the CineVue site.

Elena Rapondzhieva (CUEAFS)