Industry veteran chooses strong stories for Hong Kong audiences.
Winnie Tsang Lai-fun likes to be low-key, staying behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, but her continued success in the movie industry can't help but make the entertainment world take notice.
She is a quiet mover and shaker as managing director of the city's largest independent film distribution company, Golden Scene, which she started in 1998 after spending 20 years in the legendary halls of Golden Harvest Entertainment. Defying the risks of starting a business at the height of the Asian economic crisis, Golden Scene soon developed a reputation for getting behind unique, quirky movies and turning them into box office gold.
Along the way, Tsang has expanded Hong Kong's film viewing culture and diversity, while never letting such lofty ideals become a detriment to Golden Scene's bottom line. She turned her marketing smarts and genuine interest in good storytelling into compatible business assets, while demonstrating enough astuteness to champion art-house fare that resonates with audiences.
For every Twilight or Step Up franchise that Golden Scene has picked up, it has also acquired niche movies outside the mainstream and made them popular. The diverse roster of hits includes critics' favourites such as The Hurt Locker, The Tree of Life and Shame, and daring Asian imports such as South Korea's The Host and the Japanese horror classic The Ring.
This willingness to take risks and choose films based on their intangible merit rather than commercial bankability is what defines Tsang's bold vision.
"To me, I just look for films I really like. I don't care whether it makes big money or small," she says. "I really don't mind dealing in big or small films. I like to see films with new concepts and a good message. I don't want movies where, after you watch it, you walk out of the cinema and forget all about it.
"Actually, I have found more freedom after starting my own company, which I didn't expect. Because it's just me, I can just find whatever I like, and I don't have to think about commercial value all the time. The biggest challenge as an independent is that you don't own any cinema that you can rely on for support."
Prior to starting Golden Scene, Tsang was general manager of Panasia Films, running Golden Harvest's international distribution arm from 1989 to 1998. It's quite a career trajectory, considering she started at the famous Hong Kong studio as a lowly secretary and had little knowledge of or interest in the film industry growing up.
"At first it was just a job, but gradually I built up an interest," Tsang says. "When I was younger, my father took us to the cinema, but only to see films he thought would be good for us, like The Sound of Music.
"Working at Golden Harvest was my first job out of school. At that time in the 1980s, Hong Kong cinema was very popular." As a female pioneer in film distribution, Tsang proved women were capable of working successfully in the industry. In turn, she was readily accepted as one of the boys. "My peer group was mostly male, but there were some female producers like Nansun Shi and directors like Ann Hui. In my field, I was surrounded by men, but we were all friends, so I didn't find any difficulty in dealing with them. I think it's even easier in Hong Kong. People don't really care if you're a woman or man."
Getting results is ultimately what matters. Tsang's impeccable combination of intuitive good taste and market awareness made Golden Scene a runaway hit. Proper recognition followed.
Tsang was named a director of the Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Motion Picture Industry Association from 1989 to 2003. She was appointed a member of the Film Development Council in 2011 and was awarded a Medal of Honour last year by the Hong Kong government.
Occasionally, Tsang has dabbled in the production end of movies. Last year, Golden Scene made a splash by backing an unlikely dance-themed hit, The Way We Dance, by first-time director Adam Wong Sau-ping, and hiring veteran director Fruit Chan to make the apocalyptic comedy The Midnight After.
"They just happened naturally. I don't want to put any pressure on me that I have to make a specific number of films each year. If I come across a project I'm interested in, then I'll do it," Tsang says. "With The Way We Dance, the filmmakers just really impressed me. And Fruit Chan is someone I've worked with in distributing his films, so I had this book and we just thought he would be perfect."
As she continues to branch out, there is one dream that Tsang would love to realise in the world of movies.
"I really want to have a cinema of my own, to play films I like. But that is very difficult, especially with property being so expensive. But whether I rent or own, I want to have a cinema."
AT A GLANCE
1989: Named general manager of Panasia Films.
1998: Founded the film distribution company Golden Scene.
2007: Makes initial foray into film production with the comedy Simply Actors, starring Jim Chim and Charlene Choi.
2011: Appointed a member of the Hong Kong Film Development Council.
2013: Awarded a Medal of Honour by the Hong Kong government.
2013: Produces the hit movies The Way We Dance by Adam Wong and Fruit Chan's The Midnight After.