By taking inspiration from her friends’ genuine problems, Barbara Wong got on the path to a successful career in the film industry
One of the reasons film director Barbara Wong Chun-chun is never short of ideas is because, as a good listener and sensible adviser, she is often the person her friends turn to when they need a spot of relationship advice.
“I get straight to the point; I don’t know how to tell white lies. I have listened to so many stories and that inspires me to write movie scripts on relationships,” Wong says, whose latest film, the romantic drama The Stolen Years, was released this month.
Wong discovered a love of acting at a young age but didn’t think about becoming a director until she went to New York to study film. “After graduating from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, I went to New York University to continue my film studies. I really enjoyed my stay in New York. Every day, my classmates and I would brainstorm ideas for movies. We breathed and ate movies, it was so amazing. It was then that I made up my mind to be a director,” she says.
After graduating in 1998, Wong stayed in the US in the hope of kick-starting her movie career, but was unsuccessful. “That was the most difficult time of my life. No investors were interested in my scripts. I did not have a career and I took some bad investment advice from a friend and almost became broke. I decided it was time to go home,” she says.
She returned to Hong Kong in 1999 and continued to present her scripts to various investors, but still struggled to drum up interest. “I wouldn’t give up. Then one day, [film producer] Raymond Wong Pak-Ming rang me and said he thought there might be a chance for my script, Women’s Private Parts. That was my starting point and all of a sudden, people began to recognise me as a director,” she says.
On September 11, 2001, Wong was in New York getting ready to attend the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, where Women’s Private Parts had been nominated for best international film. The festival never took place because of the World Trade Centre attacks, but Wong’s film still scooped the award. This helped her seriously launch her director career – a career from which she continues to take considerable enjoyment.
“The excitement [I feel] when going to a movie set is like a girl sitting on her doorstep waiting for her boyfriend to come and pick her up for a date. If the car comes at 7am to take me to the set, I will be all dressed up and ready by 6.45am, waiting eagerly for the car to come. That is how much I love movies,” she says.
After her award-winning debut, Wong enjoyed directing a string of further successful movies until she hit an obstacle with the movie Break Up Club, which focused on youngsters’ attitudes to love.
“The script was a groundbreaking piece. I had created a whole new way to present a relationship, but unfortunately, no investors were interested because they found the script hard to understand,” she says.
“I didn’t want to give up because it was a great script. I invested a little on my own and asked around for friends to help, and finally the movie was completed. The box office was surprisingly good. I was really happy to achieve something that nobody believed in. It was an important life lesson for me – if you want to achieve something, don’t stop trying until you get it.”
After having spent so much time investigating local relationships for her movies, Wong thinks that the stereotypical image of the spoiled Hong Kong girl only tells one side of the story.
“I see there has been a lot of criticism of local girls having a ‘princess syndrome’, demanding that men take care of them. I think some of it is true, but I also observe Hong Kong girls being loyal when finding true love. Mainland and Taiwanese girls often don’t end up marrying the love of their life because of pressure from their families that they have to be married before a certain age. Local girls have less such pressure. They are committed to finding Mr Right and that is adorable,” she says.
Wong also thinks the media is too harsh on women. “A female boss who gives her staff an earful is often portrayed as a bitch. This is not fair. Male bosses also scold staff, but you don’t see them being criticised as much. In the entertainment news, there are often reports about wives or girlfriends spending too much money or being control freaks who try to take over the lives of their boyfriends and husbands. I can’t understand why women have to be the target,” she says.
Having also worked with actors and investors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland, Wong thinks the three places should be regarded as one. “We are in the era of globalisation. Movie production is also merging and the three [territories] are blending together. I used to have people telling me I couldn’t have a couple made up of a Taiwanese actress and a mainland actor because it is not realistic, due to the fact that they speak Putonghua with different accents. Now there is no such concern. There is a very good chance of a Taiwanese and a mainlander having a family together. Our world is becoming one,” she says.
Although she is a graduate of a prestigious film school, Wong dismisses the importance of having structured film-making training. “If everyone is trained at university, then they will probably create the same style of movie. Diversity is very important in movie production. I could not have made the Young and Dangerous triad movie series because I am not from that background. It is great to have people from all walks of life making their own style of movie,” she says.
Wong hopes local films can follow a similar course. “The Way We Dance [released this year] is like a breath of fresh air. It’s time to move on from sex-heavy Category III films like Sex Duties Unit and Hardcore Comedy,” she says.
WHAT LOVE IS, IF THOU WOULDST BE TAUGHT
Barbara Wong gives a rundown of her five favourite romantic films
Leaving Las Vegas “This tells the love story between an alcoholic and a prostitute. It does not have your typical ‘living happily ever after’ love-story ending.”
One Day (pictured) “This movie inspired me to treasure the people around me and not take them for granted.”
500 Days of Summer “The director tells bits and pieces about a relationship to tell the story. I love its creativity.”
Power of Love “This taught me the true meaning of love – to let your loved ones do what they love doing, not what you want them to.”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind “When you break up with a person you love, it is so painful you want to delete it from your memory.”