A different direction
Adam Wong is credited with changing the course of Hong Kong cinema, but he had to go to the US to appreciate his home’s film culture
When Adam Wong Sau-ping presented the script of the film The Way We Dance to investors in the hope of securing funding for the project, almost all of them refused to take him seriously. No one believed there was a market for a dance movie in Hong Kong.
Today, the film is seen as having changed the Hong Kong cinematic landscape forever and has earned Wong a reputation as the new hope of the local film industry.
“I was desperate to find an investor, but nobody believed in my script. I really want to thank Golden Scene’s managing director, Winnie Tsang, for her support. I can still remember her saying, ‘I am interested in doing things that others think will not work.’ Her spirit really impressed me,” he says.
Wong has been a film fan since he was young, but he never thought of becoming a director until he was in Form Four, when he watched Dead Poets Society and a Japanese movie, Summer of 1999, during the summer break. “Those movies made me realise that films were more than just entertainment; the sheer creativity blew me away. I think movies are the greatest things on earth,” he says.
After secondary school, Wong enrolled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to study arts. “When I was at university in the 1990s, the school lacked equipment for video shooting and editing,” he says. “There was very little I could do about shooting a video. My chance to learn about video shooting did not come until I went to Iowa University in the US to study film as an exchange student.”
Iowa took Wong’s movie dream to a new level. “There were plenty of chances to work with cameras there. I would shoot everywhere I went and stay up all night to do the editing. The building that housed the editing room closed at 5pm, but I would leave a window open when I left. Then, after the security guard had locked the door, I would climb back in through the window to continue working,” he says.
It was in the US that Wong also discovered the beauty of Hong Kong production. “I was not a fan of local productions when I was young. But my experience in Iowa taught me that Hong Kong films play an important role in the movie world. Hong Kong culture is very special,” he says.
After graduating, Wong was hoping to land in job at a Hong Kong television station, but the poor economic situation in 1998 meant there were no job openings. Wong was forced to settle for an office job at a DVD distribution company. “I was very frustrated. This was not what I wanted to do. Then came the dotcom boom and I was offered a director’s position to provide video content for websites. I thought my chance to shine had come,” he says.
But Wong never took the director job – because his boss at the DVD firm told him not to. “He told me he was going to produce a movie and he wanted my help, so I stayed,” he says.
Wong never got to produce a movie for his boss, but he was able to prove that he belonged in the movie industry. His first assignment in video production, though, was rather awkward. His boss had a batch of music videos that he wanted to commission a production house to edit, but Wong volunteered to tackle the task.
“It was the kind of porn music video that you play in karaoke at a night club. I worked really hard on the job. Finally I had got to do something related to video production. My boss was deeply impressed with my work and his connections in the movie field helped me kick-start my career in directing,” he says.
Wong did not start out making commercial films. Instead, he was an independent moviemaker. His production, When Beckham Met Owen, made it to the big screen during the 2004 Hong Kong Asian Movie Festival, after being chosen as the festival’s opening movie.
Wong’s first attempt at a commercial film, Magic Boy, came in 2007. “I don’t really care too much about whether a film is independent or commercial. I want my productions to reach and inspire viewers and reflect my way of thinking. A director is not solely an artist, I think. He or she is also a businessman,” he says.
Wong took his directing to a new level with this year’s The Way We Dance. “I understood the role of a director. A good director is one who can make the crew, the actors and the cameramen understand what the script is about and inspire them to do their best,” he says.
“There is no point trying to control everything happening on the set. If a director can get his team to understand the production, the shoot will go smoothly. The key is getting every member of the whole team on the same page.”
Today, Wong is keen to share his success story with youngsters who share his dream. “I teach university courses on video production and that helped my directing a lot. When I judge students’ productions, I cannot just tell them whether they have done a good job or a poor one. I have to explain to them what went wrong and how to improve. That has made me better at communicating with my team, to direct them to do the right thing,” he says.
Wong advises young people planning a career in the movie industry to get involved in production in whatever way possible. “There are plenty of jobs, such as scriptwriting and assistant producer. One does not need to worry about making ends meet in the movie industry. Being a director is a different story,” he says.
Wong encourages youngsters who want to be directors to take part in various video competitions to try to make a name for themselves. “They should participate in IFVA [The Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards] and sign up for any kind of video competition to gain more exposure,” he says. “But this is more easily said than done. One probably needs time to rest to make videos while having a full-time job. It really comes down to how badly you want a career.”
THE DIRECTOR’S PICK
Wong reveals the films he has found most inspiring
DEAD POETS SOCIETY “In the movie, the teacher tells students to give up on textbooks and learn in their own way. It inspired me to think outside the box, to understand the meaning of being creative.”
SUMMER OF 1999 “This is about the relationship between four students. It is so simple, yet it tells so much. It left me thinking films are such great things.”
FIREWORKS “This tells the story of growing pains. The presentation is very romantic.”
BUFFALO 66 “The director is a genius. This is a low-budget film about an ex-convict. It is so simple yet so powerful.”
EIGHT AND A HALF “A very creative film with a very free style.”