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20 Mar 2009

Coffee with Simon Chung Tak-sing

Simon Chung's latest offering End of Love - both screenings at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival are sold out - tells the story of a gay rent boy who meets a recovering heroin addict at a Christian drug rehab centre.

It could be said, with only some exaggeration, that Simon Chung Tak-sing is a good half of the Hong Kong gay film industry (Kit Hung being the other major part), though exaggeration, as I found when I took coffee with him at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club, is not something to which he is greatly prone. He is as disarmingly modest about what he has done for gay cinema in Hong Kong in the last ten years as he is about the position he is currently achieving in the industry. His most recent film, End of Love, was shown as the preview at this year's Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and he is now in the middle of directing a half hour Cantonese TV drama entitled Guilt and Repentance (a straight story, this time, his first) for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). Local recognition is clearly following the critical acclaim his works have won worldwide.

Born in Hong Kong some few decades back - "No, I don't think I should tell you my age", he replied to my inevitable question - Chung went to school in Toronto, Canada at the age of fifteen then stayed there to major in film at the city's York University. He returned to Hong Kong to make videos for commercials and karaoke discs. In the technical department at Baptist University, he started to make his first independent short films, then took a Masters in Cultural Studies at the Chinese University. Now, when not behind the camera, he is a Research Associate in the field of interior design at a third Hong Kong university, Polytech U.

Since his four shorts, he has made two feature films, the earlier being Innocent, which was released in 2004. All his films to date have had gay subjects, and I asked him whether this was a good thing.

"Gay films are a niche," he replied, "but also a cage, as they limit how people see you as a director."

"The expectations of gay audiences can be a bit limiting too," he added. "Most young audiences are disappointed if there is no coming out story or a slushy romance; my films don't fit this paradigm. I don't just want to celebrate gay life with pretty love stories. I want to show the darker sides of gay life, and gay audiences don't always appreciate seeing that."

Though a gay man himself, and one with no hang ups about being out in any of the worlds he inhabits, Chung now feels he'd like to do some less overtly gay work. His current filming for RTHK is the start of this.

Chung started making short films as far back as 1992, when he made his first short, Chiwawa Express. Since then three of Chung's short films have been released on disc, two in the collection Stanley Belovedand First Love and Other Painsin 1998 and 1999 respectively. Stanley Beloved was also included in the collection Banana Queers. Here he was in good company, the other directors being Quentin Lee, who made the Canadian film Ethan Mao, Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) of Australia and Ray Yeung, maker of the British film Cut Sleeve Boys. Stanley Beloved has been shown worldwide and has won prizes in Spain, Germany and the US. His other short, Life is Elsewhere, made in 1996, won a prize in Japan as well as the distinguished award at the Hong Kong Independent and Short Film and Video Awards, which subsequently issued it as part of a collection on DVD.

Innocent, his first full length feature film, was in part autobiographical. It tells a story a bit like his own. A Chinese family emigrates to Toronto, where their gay teenage son (played by Hong Kong AIDS Concern's Tim Lee) undergoes many of the unsettling settling-in experiences Chung had gone through himself. The film was shown at Hong Kong film festivals in 2004-5, as well as gay film festivals in North America, Thessalonika and Toronto, where it won an award at the Reel Asian Film Festival in 2005.

Top of page: Simon Chung (left); above: screenshots from Chung's second feature End of Love.
Chung's latest film, End of Love, has yet to find a buyer and thus is not yet out on disc, so for those of you who missed it at the festival this year, I should explain that it is a study of some of the more controversial aspects of gay life, Chung once again refusing to serve up sentiment to his audience. This time Chung focuses in on issues like how to negotiate the boundaries of love and sex, the rent boy scene, and drugs and rehabilitation. The inspiration for much of the plot was the true tales told him by one of his friends, who is a rent boy but who nevertheless manages to hold onto a long term partner. There are no hard and fast judgments in this film, no heroes and no real villains (just a lot of weak willed souls like the rest of us) and life's messiness is reflected in the ambivalent way Chung treats his themes. He shows the good and bad sides of drugs - "drugs can be immensely spiritual, restorative" he comments, a view which has been unfashionable since flower-power days and one which he does not hide behind in the film, which also portrays the disaster to which addiction can lead. He is similarly ambivalent about the Christians who man the voluntary rehabilitation centres. These really do exist in some number in Hong Kong's New Territories. The Hong Kong authorities give those convicted of drugs offences the choice of incarceration in the hard government centre on the island of Heiling Chau or an easier life in centres run by Christian social workers. The downside of these is the expectation of conformity with the tenets of faith and submission to processes based on religious belief and prayer. Those who run these centres, though they see the world in the black and white terms which Chung abhors, nevertheless do achieve some good, their relapse rate, it is said, being less than that achieved by the government.

All this may make End of Love sound a very serious film; it is far from being a bore, of course, at times managing to be both amusing and arousing as well as provoking. The professional cast (only one of whom, I confessed to being surprised to learn, is gay) succeed in portraying credible, some even attractive, characters and in indulging in some very raunchy and at times violent sex scenes. The film's principal lead, Lee Chi Kin, who takes the part of Ah Ming, the teenager who is ejected from his home and ends up as a prostitute, came to the film from the making of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, in which he'd taken the part of Tony Leung's stand in during practice for the film's nude scenes.

Such professional actors and film crew weigh heavily on an independent film maker's budget. Until End of Love, Chung financed all his work by grants from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, clearly one part of the Hong Kong Government which is not afraid to 'sponsor' gay culture. Nowadays, though, the demand for grants exceeds supply and for his last film he was forced to finance part of the film himself. With sale and distribution of gay films being so difficult, making them is very much a labour of love, a fact of which the community, I feel, tends to remain ignorant or indifferent, but for which it is clearly in Chung's debt.

So partly for commercial and partly for cultural reasons, Chung's next film is likely to have a theme at least slightly outside the gay niche he has so far dominated in Hong Kong. He is not letting slip yet what his ideas for this will be, but the twinkle in his eye while he refused to answer this, my last question, indicated that whatever it is, his next film is going to be something as challenging and interesting as those with which he has entertained and stimulated us so far.

'End of Love' (in Cantonese ) will be screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Mar 24 at 9.30 pm and Apr 10 at 9pm at the Hong Kong Science Museum Lecture Hall. Tickets are sold out.

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-03-20 22:39  
I hope someone buys the rights and does release it as a dvd, i would sure buy it.
2. 2009-03-21 08:04  
Is that the DVD can buy everywhere ? i mean international ?
3. 2009-03-21 10:36  
I had the fortune to catch this movie at the LGB film festival last year in HK. It's a stunning piece. It took me a few hours to come down from seeing it.
I would highly recommend anyone who has the opportunity to see it. I am waiting for a DVD release!
4. 2009-03-21 12:56  
We will keep our fingers crossed for a DVD release soon.
When 'Lust, Caution' was shown in Bangkok the best of the "good parts" were pixillated and it was sooooo annoying because Tony Leung is so hot, but the DVD was complete and immensely satisfying.
5. 2009-03-23 09:29  
No offence but the film looks lame and predictable to me.
6. 2009-03-30 02:49  
OsbergaTO123, perhaps you should reserve your judgment till after you've seen the film?

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