Pang Ho-cheung interview - 'SDU: Sex Duties Unit'

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As his latest sex-centric flick hits cinemas, we chat to the celebrated director, producer and screenwriter about his fascination with the raunchy side of Hong Kong. Interview by Ben Sin. Photos by Calvin Sit

There is a scene, in the second act of the 2003 surprise hit Men Suddenly in Black, where a character played by veteran actor Eric Tsang and a ‘mama-san’ of a massage parlour argue over ‘special service prices’ in a manner – from the setting to the dialogue – that resembles a heated dispute between triad bosses (at least according to Hong Kong movies). Such ironic absurdities – and open talk about sex and prostitution – have defined the films of Pang Ho-cheung, Hong Kong’s bad boy filmmaker, for more than a decade. 

The 39-year-old director, producer and writer is at it again with SDU: Sex Duties Unit, only this time, instead of Triad metaphors and underworld politics, it’s the male camaraderie of the Hong Kong Police’s Special Duties Unit on full display, as the film’s heroes go on a special mission… for hookers.

Ever since he burst onto the Hong Kong cinema scene in 2001 with the daring dark comedy You Shoot, I Shoot, Pang has developed a reputation as a filmmaker who understands the local mentality and the social issues that are on Hongkongers’ minds. And although he directed the über-successful Hong Kong-Mainland co-production Love In the Buff last year, Pang continues to devote much of his time to making films that are throwbacks to the golden era of Hong Kong cinema, a time when films were shot quickly (usually within two to three weeks), with scripts written on-the-fly and which had a decidedly local flavour (his other 2012 film, the raunchy Vulgaria, is a perfect example). SDU is very much a tribute to the old ‘Flying Tiger team’ (Cantonese slang for the Special Duties Unit) films of the 80s and 90s – but with sex.

Time Out sits down with Pang to talk about his producing of SDU and why the subject of sex is so prevalent in his films.

So, SDU: Sex Duties Unit is about four men on a quest to find quality prostitutes, which is basically the same premise as your second feature, Men Suddenly in Black – only that film used Triad symbolism while SDU draws inspiration from the police world. Do you agree with this assessment? 
They are very similar films, in that both films are about a group of men looking for a night of adult fun. But while the rivalry between husbands and wives formed the core of Men Suddenly in Black, SDU is more straightforward – it focuses on the male bonding aspect. SDU is also a bit more action-driven because these guys are members of the police. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a time when there were a lot of SDU-themed films on television and cinemas, so I’ve always wanted to make a film about the unit. But of course, with me being me, I can’t make a dead serious SDU film.

You’ve said that many of the outrageous scenes in your past films – such as the man-and-mule sex scene in Vulgaria – were based on real life experiences that have either happened to you or your friends. Does your new movie continue this trend?
Not so much specific scenes this time, but the general experience of a bunch of men going out for a night of funand the peer pressure that stems from it, is taken from my experiences with friends. Obviously, we’re not members of an SDU squad but when a bunch of boys go out, most of the time, because of pride and ego, they all end up doing something not everyone was up for because of peer pressure. It’s like if one person suggests an activity, no one else from that group wants to be that guy who says no, because he’ll look bad.

This film actually originated as a short story you wrote.
Yes. Years ago a friend asked me to contribute a short story for this magazine he was doing. I told him I was too busy, but he said, ‘please, you can write about anything!’ So I agreed and I bashed out the story of an SDU unit that goes on a mission for quality prostitutes. The problem was that his magazine was a free magazine that was being distributed at McDonalds. All the kids and teens loved my story, but the parents didn’t, and filed many complaints. The magazine folded shortly after that.

Was he mad at you?
[Laughs] Hey, it was his fault for not reading and editing my story before publishing.

Why didn’t you direct SDU?
Because I wrote the short story already, so I feel like, creatively, I’ve already expressed myself once. I don’t want to repeat. Also, because I’m working on another movie, Aberdeen, right now, that’s taking my time.

As a producer, was it hard to be so hands off? Did you try to get involved? How was it working with Gary Mak Wing-lun?
No. As a director myself, I understand how important it is to give a director his or her creative freedom. I would never want to interfere with another director’s work. Gary is someone with a lot of experience as a co-director, so I trusted him completely. 

Sex is a leitmotif in many of your films. Why? Did you grow up in a very open, liberal family that talked about sex freely?
Actually, it was the complete opposite. My family was super conservative and we never talked about sex. I think I’m interested in the topic of sex because I’ve always been rebellious. Growing up, both my older and younger brothers were very clean cut and conservative, so as the middle child, I was always trying to do something to draw attention. I think, had I grown up in a very open family, I might end up being the other way – this private, conservative person.

The men in SDU and in several of your films tend to be very open to the idea of cheating on their girlfriends or wives. Do you feel this is an accurate portrayal of Hong Kong men, and the Hong Kong attitude?
I don’t dare say the male characters in my films represent Hong Kong men in general, but I’m sure many men do cheat on their partners. I’m sure the number of men in Hong Kong who’ve had experiences of going for ‘special massages’ isn’t low. The characters in my film are just portrayals of that
group of men.

You’ve worked with Chapman [To] and Shawn [Yue] so much. Why them?
While a strong script can drive most any genre, I think that, for comedies, the actors are equally important,
if not more. Because they have to have the comic timing to make the jokes work. Shawn and Chapman are actors I’ve collaborated with and whom I know very well. I’m confident in their abilities, so they make my job easier.

Do they resemble the cheating men you’re trying to portray? 
[Laughs] I do like Chapman because he’s… not so pretty; he represents the Hong Kong everyman. 

Men obviously love your films, but what about females? Have you heard any negative feedback from female friends or fans?
Actually, this is going to sound crazy but I think I have more female fans than male fans. Whenever I make public appearances – like when I give a talk somewhere – I see more female fans than males. I also like to go to theatres and watch my own movies sometimes, and I notice many women in the audience, and they’re not always with a guy. I’ve seen women go in groups. I think the story of men going out to cheat is interesting to women, because they don’t get to do the same things, so I think it’s interesting for them to see how that world works.  

It seems like, in the 80s and 90s, HK cinema had a lot of films on sex – Category III films – and they were always dismissed as trashy and lowbrow crap. But your films, even the really raunchy ones, are respected and get screened at festivals. Was this something you set out to do, to help end the stigma of Category III films? Or are Hong Kong’s film people just more open to sex today?
I don’t think there’s a trend of film people being more open to sex. I just think the Category III sex films you mentioned back then were bad. Many of those films used nudity or sex as the gimmick – it had no story. A film’s script is super important, more so than the setting or the direct topic of the movie. For example, let’s look at The Hangover, that’s a movie that everyone found hilarious even though many of the audiences might not have ever been to Las Vegas. I hope my films are the same way. 

Hong Kong has a pretty sad reputation when it comes to sex. A survey by Durex last year claimed Hongkonger’s sexual well-being was third lowest in the world. And another survey by MTV International claims Hongkongers are overly shy and conservative about sex compared to the rest of the world. What’s your view on all this?
Oh, I agree with these results. I don’t think Hong Kong is open when it comes to sex at all, both the men and women. I think, in general, Asians are already more conservative than Westerners, but even compared to other Asian countries, Hong Kong seems to be the most conservative. As for our lack of sex, that doesn’t surprise me either. First, there is a lack of space in Hong Kong, it’s hard to get it on when you’re still living with your parents and grandparents. Some couples have to pay for an hourly hotel just to get it on, and that’s not only expensive, but time consuming – if you go on a Saturday night, you’ll likely have to wait in line! Second, I think we work very long hours compared to the rest of the world; we’re very busy and stressed. I’m sure the cities that rank high on these sex surveys are laidback countries in Europe. Like France, I’m sure they have a lot of sex, because they don’t work as crazily as we do – when you’re taking three hour breaks in the middle of the day, what else is there to do but fuck? But then that’s also probably why their economy is shit.

As you said, your family is very conservative, so do you worry what they might think when they watch one of your more vulgar films?
No, I’ve never cared what other people thought. To me, if you’re worried about what other people think, you might as well not be in the creative industry. Also, my movies shouldn’t define who I am as a person. I directed a serial killer movie recently. That doesn’t mean I have an urge to kill people.

You had trouble finding funding for Vulgaria last year. Has its success at the box office helped matters this year?
Yes, because Vulgaria and Love in the Buff did so well at the box office, it has gotten much easier for me to get funding and backing for my films these days.

You are one of several filmmakers who’ve been championing the local film movement, meaning you have spoken out against the trend of local filmmakers making films specifically for the Mainland market. How is that going? Do you feel ‘Hong Kong style’ films are safe or are they going extinct?
I do want to make traditional Hong Kong films with a Hong Kong feel, but I want to clarify that doesn’t mean I’m saying these films are only for the people of Hong Kong. Vulgaria was a very local film, but I wasn’t the one who said ‘don’t show this in China, show it only in Hong Kong’. Mainland censors said that. They wouldn’t allow Vulgaria in. If I could screen Vulgaria in China I would, and I’m sure it’d make money too. So when I say I want to make ‘Hong Kong movies’, I don’t mean I want to make movies only for Hongkongers; I mean I want to make whatever film I want, however I want to and that happens to be films that are set in Hong Kong featuring Hongkongers. But I think they have appeal anywhere.

Do you feel pressure from studios and financers to make films that can be shown in mainland China then?
I see it like this: I’m not actively making films that can’t be shown in China – again, I would love to have my films shown there – but some of the films I want to make just happen to be films China’s censors don’t allow. Conversely, some of my films have been allowed to show there, like Love in the Buff. I think some of my producers and backers have realised that, even if some of my films can only be shown in Hong Kong, it can still make money – it’s still appealing to a large group of people.

You mentioned earlier you’re working on your next film, Aberdeen. You also have one more film set to release this year, titled Women Who Know How to Flirt Are the Luckiest, right? 
Aberdeen is what I’m working on now. Shooting begins in August. It’s a project I’ve been working on for over five years. It’ll be completely different from Vulgaria and SDU, in that it’ll be a heartwarming family drama. And yes, the second film is a romantic comedy that’s set to start shooting end of this year, but that comes after I’ve finished Aberdeen, so nothing has been set.

Why did Aberdeen take so long?  
Finishing the script, getting funding, and getting the large ensemble cast all took a long time. It was a project I was working on and off, leaving to make other movies.

Who’s in it?  
Louis Koo, Eric Tsang, Miriam Yeung, Gigi Leung and a few others. I can’t reveal everybody yet, but it’ll be a big cast.

So you have a family drama and a romantic comedy coming to cinemas, and in the past you’ve directed black comedies, serial killer thrillers and sex comedies. Is there any other genre of film you want to tackle that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
I do want to make a straight-up action film one of these days. But of course I’d also want to make it a bit different from all other action films.

Like how?
I have no idea! [Laughs] That’s why I haven’t made one because I haven’t thought of how to make it different. I feel like every director must have his or her own style. 

I covered the New York Asian Film Festival last year and Vulgaria was one of the festival’s biggest draws. From what I heard that night at the screening and also from what I read in film blogs, you seem to be known to Western film buffs as someone who specialises in raunchy sex black comedies. Do you like that label?
I don’t really like to be labelled like that, but at the same time, I’m not sure how I can argue against it either. I do concede that sex is a theme in many of my films, and most of my films are dark comedies, but I’m interested in many other things and I feel I’ve shown range in my films, like Dream Home and Isabella. Aberdeen will also be something completely different. 

SDU: Sex Duties Unit is in cinemas now.

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