Film director Jessey Tsang finds a sense of place
Hong Kong is not known for treasuring its rural past. In cinema, the great kung fu and gangster films, and those of Hong Kong New Wave directors such as Ann Hui On-wah in the 1980s, were all set in the city and told the stories of generational conflict and cultural contradictions in an urban setting.
Since the early '50s, the image of Hong Kong as a modern metropolis was reinforced by foreign films featuring the city as a location, including The Man With The Golden Gun, The Dark Knight Lara Croft Tomb Raider and other Hollywood blockbusters.
Director Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan is trying to break this mould and bring to the screen the natural beauty of the New Territories and the past traditions of indigenous villagers, while exploring the lives of the Hong Kong's émigrés and the meaning of home and community.
Tsang graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, majoring in sound design, and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in media design and technology from City University in 2005.
Having grown up in Sai Kung's Ho Chung village, she turns to her life experience for inspiration, with a desire to share her memories and feeling of belonging with a larger audience. "I have become a filmmaker because of the village," says Tsang, a multi-award-winning director whose latest film, Flowing Stories, will be screened in agnès b. Cinema in January and February.
For the past 10 years, Tsang has been an independent filmmaker and her own producer responsible for funding. Her first take on Ho Chung was an interactive online piece, All About My Ho Chung, followed by a documentary entitled The Life and Times of Ho Chung Village, and Big Blue Lake, a feature film set in the village.
Flowing Stories, a full-length documentary, delves deeply into the history of the village.
"The film's topic has no commercial consideration. It is an expensive diary - not only about the village, but everything I am concerned about," she says. "It is also a social diary and a historical recording. It shows how to learn about the world, and care about time, space and memories."
Ho Chung is special in many ways. The riverside village at the foot of steep mountains was a marketplace for hundreds of years. Its Che Kung temple, believed to have been built in 1878, still attracts hordes of worshippers praying for prosperity during Lunar New Year.
Once in a decade, the villagers and its diaspora from around the world come together to observe the Tai Ping Ching Chiu ancestral ritual and festival, and to pray together for the clan's peace and prosperity. This celebration offers the occasion for Tsang to dwell on the past in Flowing Stories.
In the film, Yu Tam-kiu, Tsang's feisty 80-year-old childhood neighbour, talks about her life in Ho Chung. Her six children and many grandchildren allow us glimpses into their homes, thoughts and lives in Britain and France, as Tsang travels to film them and explore their history and the meaning of home and family ties. About half of the village's population of 1,000 left Ho Chung in the '60s and '70s to live abroad, .
"History is important for me. Not that social activism thing - my films are not that hardcore, [they] just show the effects," she says. And the effects can be shocking, such as the way the once-beautiful Ho Chung River, where children used to play among the ducks, birds and goldfish, has become a polluted cement-lined canal.
Tsang believes that if people do not know their history and traditions, they become too materialistic and spend their lives just saving up for a little flat. "Society makes them not care about anything but money," she says, explaining that is why she wants to point out the importance of community and relationships.
"We need bonding, love and healing," she says. "I want to share my very personal interest with the world. It's a life project." In creating the film, she hopes people will pause and think of their family, harmony and diversity.
After 10 years as an independent filmmaker, Tsang took on her first commercial project, Scent. However, she says the Korean-Chinese love story is not a big departure from her earlier films such as Lovers on the Road.
"I don't want to limit myself - to be labelled as independent or commercial - I just want to make good movies," she says.