IT'S EARLY SATURDAY evening outside the main ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong and Ann Hui is sitting to the right of the action, as a who's who of the city's high society starts to arrive. The acclaimed director is doing what she does best: surveying the scene as it plays out around her.
Hui is here as a guest of philanthropist Michelle Ong and her First Initiative Foundation, a charity devised in part to help provide opportunities to young artists, and the filmmaker knows everything there is to know about how important it is to have the breaks go your way when your career is just beginning.
Hui started out studying literature, but found film the best way to tell the stories that interested her, and that have led to five Best Director nods from the Hong Kong Film Awards – the latest coming for last year's layered biopic of the Chinese author Xiao Hong, The Golden Era – as well as international acclaim and boxoffice riches.
And, as other celebrities and guests begin to arrive for FIF's gala dinner, Hui sits back and eases into a reflection on her life and times.
WHAT DREW YOU TOWARDS CINEMA?
I grew up and was educated in Hong Kong. I studied in an English-language school from kindergarten. Chinese was studied as a second language for me. So I'm neither good at English nor Chinese! So if I'd tried to be creative in the literary field – which is what I first studied – I'd have had obvious difficulties. But filmmaking is different. It's more universal, a universal language.
HAS WHAT INTERESTS YOU IN TERMS OF STORIES EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
Of course. It's gone from more genre films to more intimate films about personal dramas. I'm more interested in characters, but also as you get older you don't move so well, so you don't want to do a lot of action! It has not been a struggle for me to get money to make films in recent years, as the market in China is booming. I have more offers now than ever, but I can only make one film a year, so the pressure on me now is to make sure if I make one, it's a good one.
HOW DID YOU COME TO BE INVOLVED WITH MICHELLE ONG AND THE FIRST INITIATIVE FOUNDATION?
I got to know Michelle when she hosted a charity premiere for my last film, The Golden Era. We met, we got along, she was very friendly and I could quickly see how her mission was very important. Supporting and promoting the artistic community is important and extremely relevant. Michelle is very enthusiastic and I knew immediately that I wanted to support what she is doing.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR ROLE WITH FIF?
I'll support their functions and give ideas and suggestions about how they can evolve. It will be informal but I can help draw attention to the work they're doing. Young artists need support and they need the right people giving them advice.
DID SPECIFIC INDIVIDUALS OR ORGANISATIONS HELP NURTURE YOUR TALENT AT THE START OF YOUR CAREER?
I was very lucky, because I started in the television industry in Hong Kong when it was just starting as well. I had returned from abroad in 1975 as the TV business – and TVB – was only just beginning, so they needed a lot of producers and directors – that's why they dared to hire people like me who had no experience. They were very supportive of what we did and gave us a lot of freedom.
HOW MUCH HARDER IS IT TO BREAK INTO THIS INDUSTRY – AND INTO MAKING FILM – TODAY?
It's much harder. These companies are very well established, as of course are the film studios. They don't take risks because they can't afford to. There's too much money at stake.
WHO DID YOU CONSIDER A MENTOR?
I didn't have one officially. At TVB the bosses back then weren't that much older than myself and that's why they wanted to try different things, to have fun. But then I got to know the famous film director King Hu. I can't say he was officially my mentor but I worked for him for a while – he gave me advice, showed me what he thought I should be doing. One word from him, of introduction, was very important in the business, because it opened doors for me. He taught me that how you behave is almost as important as your work. If you have a reputation for having a bad temper, or for always being late, it makes things much harder.
WHAT'S YOUR ADVICE TO PEOPLE STARTING OUT IN THE INDUSTRY TODAY?
You know, my advice isn't really relevant because society today is very different from when I started out. I can give them examples of my experiences and present these as a kind of research material, so they can know what happened in the past. But definitely I can't tell them what to do. I think today is different, very, very different. My real suggestion for newcomers would be not to be so serious. Have fun. If you don't have fun you can't do very good work. You have to work hard, too, but you have to enjoy what you do.
HOW HAS THE MARKET FOR HONG KONG FILMMAKERS CHANGED?
The main focus now is coproductions with China. Many companies have moved and we've had to get used to different subject matter and to the way companies work on the mainland. It's very different. There's still a market for Hong Kong movies but this is not the mainstream now. It's a very small market. But making coproductions doesn't mean the subject can't be about Hong Kong – it just means you have to observe mainland censorship and observe the rules. That's the nature of the market and you cannot change that.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE REACTION TO YOUR LAST FILM – AND WHAT'S NEXT FOR ANN HUI?
To be honest, there was a very mixed reaction to The Golden Era, but still I'm very happy I made it. I'd been trying to do a film about someone who was a writer or a painter – an artist – for a very long time. It's very difficult. Most scriptwriters thought this would be boring, but I met one [Li Qiang] who wanted to do it and I was very lucky. We worked hard and to be recognised for that is great. It was hard and it took a long time to make it. It was worth it, but now I want to do something less serious and more appealing to an audience. I'm working on a few things, several ideas, and they're being considered by various companies, but I can't tell you more than that. To be honest I just want to have some fun.