A nostalgia-tinted view of Hong Kong in its colonial days, Floating City marks the long-awaited return to filmmaking by Yim Ho. The veteran director talks to Edmund Lee.
Before he turned into a healthcare guru who churns out 13 columns in newspapers and magazines every week, Yim Ho used to be known for his movies. While his directorial debut, The Extras (1978), kicked off the Hong Kong New Wave, both 1984’s Homecoming and 1991’s Red Dust are now firmly canonised as two of the greatest Chinese films from the era. The director’s latest, Floating City, charts the based-on-real-life story of an adopted son of a fisherman family (played by Aaron Kwok), who battles through ethnic prejudice and class difference to make a career for himself in colonial Hong Kong. Time Out catches up with Yim amid his hectic writing schedule.
When I Googled you yesterday, the first search result is your healthcare book Yim Ho’s Secret Recipes.
[Laughs] That’s right.
So, what happened?
As a film director, the time I spend waiting [between projects] is just too much, so I tried something else. Also, it’s part of being [a film professional]: the pressure working in this field is immense, and it’s necessary to learn more about how to relax and maintain good health. This is an era in which we absorb too much nutrients from the abundant food we’re having. In a way, learning to eat healthily is just one of many ways to help my film career. [Laughs] The filmmaking schedule can turn your life upside down. Over time, [learning about healthcare] became a hobby of mine.
Was it hard to start writing about that?
When I was writing the script [of Floating City] in late 2010, I was writing a column [for Apple Daily] – not about health, but anything else about life. My mind couldn’t shift [away from the film] back to the column; I couldn’t write about my views on the happenings in our world. I was only thinking about what happened to my characters. What should I do? I had a column to file everyday! So I wrote about what I knew the best: health. It was meant to temporarily fill the gap, but more and more readers became interested in my column, and I got invited to write for more and more publications.
Floating City is based on true stories. When did you first encounter them?
Two years ago, I was introduced by a friend to two former fishermen. They were both in their 60s, and it was a very touching life story that they told me. That’s how it started; we decided to combine their stories into one and turn it into a film.
How close did you stick to the original story?
Very, very close. Especially the section about the characters’ [early] life as fishermen. Also, the story about the mother who gave away her children is also real. Even the dialogues are real. I really like the fact that it’s set in a historical period we’ve all gone through: the colonial period. Not many people have experienced first-hand the rise and fall of that time – but we have. We still remember very clearly how it felt to be living in that period. You know, people working in the arts are basically just working to their feelings. To me, the experience of living in that era is neither positive nor negative; it was simply special.
How do you know when you’ve found the story for your next film project?
I need to be moved by the story. After that, it’s about packaging. Floating City is a very Hong Kong story, but I didn’t want it to end up being comprehensible to only Hongkongers. I wanted people from different cultures and backgrounds to be moved by it.
You’ve incorporated a voiceover by Aaron Kwok’s character to narrate much of the decades-spanning story. To be exact, which year is his perspective set in?
The film is actually the story of one night: the night when Chris Patten arrived at Hong Kong to meet with the city’s elites. After the meeting, [the character] went home to think about who he really was – he’d been called a lot of different names but was already a hugely successful person by then.
As in Homecoming, Floating City asks questions about the identity of the Hong Kong population. How is it different dealing with this topic today?
If I had once been very concerned about identities – I’m putting it this way because I don’t remember if it was actually the case – then Floating City might be regarded as my conclusive statement. In the words of [my protagonist]: “No matter what people say about me, I know very well that I’m not a person who raises hell for others.” It doesn’t matter what people say; it’s me who determines my own identity. It’s not given to me. That’s the most important part of it.
Floating City 浮城 opens on May 17.