The way they move

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Ahead of the release of The Way We Dance, the film’s cast and crew tells Ben Sin how hip-hop has inspired them

Ten years ago, Hong Kong’s first film on hip-hop subculture, Give Them A Chance, hit cinemas to little fanfare – nobody gave them a chance. In the decade since, hip-hop has taken a bigger hold on Hong Kong mainstream culture. From our city’s love of K-Pop – which, let’s face it, takes most of its style, visually and aurally, from US hip-hop – to the emergence of local rap acts like Fama, MC Jin and 24 Herbs, to the ease with which we can now access hit songs and music videos on the web, it could be argued that hip-hop is no longer a subculture in this city. It has become youth culture. 

And so, the timing of Hong Kong’s second ever hip-hop-themed movie, The Way We Dance, seems apt. In fact, TWWD’s filmmakers and financiers are already planning a sequel – a bold move, considering TWWD doesn’t feature any big names in front of or behind the camera. Director Adam Wong hasn’t made a feature film in five years (though his 2008 film Magic Boy was excellent), and the three leads in the film have made a combined total of two films, prior to TWWD

One could argue that such confidence is perhaps the best tribute to hip-hop, a culture in which braggadocio – aka ‘swag’ – is not only admired, but often required. “There’s a certain swagger and bounce to it,” Cherry Ngan, the star of the movie, says. The ‘it’ she’s referring to is street dancing and acting like a hip-hopper in general. Though the 19-year-old dancer, model and rookie actress has trained in various forms of dancing, ranging from ballet and tap to Latin, she concedes street dance was a whole new animal that required an adjustment period.  

“All my life, I’ve been taught to do this with my posture during dancing,” she says, striking a typical model’s pose – an arched back, with chest and butt sticking out. “But hip-hop is the opposite of that. There’s a little slouch and a little bounce in the steps. It’s a bit looser – more free-flowing.”

Guiding her prior to and throughout the shoot was TWWD’s choreographer Shing Mak, one of Hong Kong’s prominent street dancers. Mak has choreographed concerts for Cantopop stars like Kary Ng and William Chan and as a dancer has performed on stage with Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Sammi Cheng and Eason Chan. 

Mak’s CV is impressive but perhaps what is more important to his role as architect of the movie’s visual style is the fact that hip-hop is a big part of his life. This wasn’t just work. 

“I love everything about hip-hop culture,” says Mak. His dance studio in Kwun Tong has a bookshelf which is full of US hip-hop magazines. “The culture, lifestyle and attitude is very free and creative. I find it very inspiring.”

Both Mak and TWWD’s second male lead, Lokman Yeung, also admit they were both initially drawn to street dance because it was ‘ho ying’ (Cantonese for ‘very cool’). Yeung, a street dancer who specialises in ‘locking’ and ‘popping’ – sub genres of funk that respectively feature rapid contracting and relaxing of muscles to create a jerk in the body and sudden freezing of body parts after rapid movements – was discovered by director Wong at a dancing competition in a club.

“I was going to clubs every other weekend looking for dancers, and Lokman really caught my eye,” recalls Wong.

But the director didn’t approach the dancer immediately, Wong deliberating on the decision for a couple of weeks before contacting Yeung. But that was nothing compared to Ngan, who had to wait two years. 

“I remember seeing a casting call on Facebook looking for a female dancer to star in a movie,” she says. Ngan then auditioned in front of Wong and scriptwriter Chan Tai-lee (only 16 at the time, as she lied about her age and told them she was 17). Days, weeks, then months passed and Ngan hadn’t heard back from the filmmakers. She thought another girl had landed the role. Little did she know, Wong was simply taking his time – years, in fact – to audition hundreds of dancers. Two years and more than 500 auditions later, Wong gave Ngan the call: “Hey, do you still want to dance?”

There were several reasons for TWWD’s unusually long production period. Funding was an issue (distributors Golden Scene, a long-time champion of small local films, helped in that regard) but the main reason, Wong says, is he wanted to do the movie right. “I wasn’t familiar with hip-hop culture before this movie but I can say street dance really inspired me,” says Wong.

Here’s the story: Wong and his producer frequently hold work meetings at Hong Kong Polytechnic University because neither has an office. Four years ago, during a meeting to discuss a short film, Wong noticed a group of street dancers dancing on an empty lot in front of a 7-eleven across from campus. After a few inquiries, Wong learned that the university had undergone a budget cut, with the dance programme taking the biggest hit. Those dancers were practicing outside a 7-eleven because the campus no longer had the space.

“They made me realise that, if you really want to do something – if you truly love it and have passion for it – you can do it anywhere,” says Wong. The characters in his new film would all agree. 

The Way We Dance opens on Thu Aug 8

Read our full review here.

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