Director and actor Xu Zheng on his new box office hit, 'Lost in Hong Kong'
Image by JJ Jetel
Xu Zheng definitely knows what type of comedy Chinese audiences want and he has the box office sales to prove it. His latest film Lost in Hong Kong has already topped this year’s box office charts with a whopping 1.6 billion yuan, making it the fourth highest grossing film ever in the Mainland. His previous film – and directorial debut– Lost in Thailand (2012) didn’t do too shabby either, grossing over 1.2 billion yuan, making it the ninth highest grossing film in Chinese box office history.
Surprisingly, Xu doesn’t seem phased by this success. All he wants to do is focus on developing Chinese cinema’s sense of humor, something he feels is still lacking.
For Hongkongers, we might know Xu most famously for his boyfriend role opposite Miriam Yeung in Pang Ho-cheung’s successful romcom Love in the Buff. But before that, Xu had already made quite a name for himself on the Mainland, with his breakout role as the jovial pig monster, Zhu Baijie in the slapstick TV series Sunny Pig (co-star Tao Hong would also become his future wife). From there his path toward becoming one of China’s top funny men began, and he caught the eye of director Ning Hao, who casted him in comedies Crazy Stone (2006), Crazy Racer (2009) and the widely popular box office romp, Breakup Buddies (2014).
But being an actor wasn’t enough for Xu – he has a vision and wanted to achieve more. Taking control of the camera, he’s now one of China’s most successful modern directors, though the rest of the world probably doesn’t know his name.
But Hongkongers won’t be able to escape him now since his latest film isn’t just your average romcom. It’s a visually appealing homage to Hong Kong cinema filled with 80s-90s Cantopop and cameos by Hong Kong’s top stars, most notably polarising director Wong Jing.
Time Out sits down with the star at Kowloon’s Sky 100 Observation Deck (the setting for one of the scenes in Lost in Hong Kong) to talk about why he chose our city to be the inspiration for his second directorial feature.
Lost in Hong Kong has been met with overwhelming success. How does that make you feel?
I don’t consider it a big success. It’s an unsophisticated, box office oriented kind of film. I think the commercial success of this film is linked to the success of Lost in Thailand, because it gave this film a lot of attention and hype. The film caused quite a controversy after its release, but for me it’s a very good learning experience. When you attempt to try something new it’s bound to be controversial. I’m very fortunate since it still performed very well at the box office and has been welcomed by many viewers. But I know I need to learn how to deal with different, opinionated voices.
Why did you choose Hong Kong as the backdrop for this story?
When we designed the themes of the film, we put great emphasis on sentimentality and nostalgia. Hong Kong is a place we’re very familiar with, so if we set it in Hong Kong, we would be able to involve many old songs and sentiments from the city’s past that could reflect the protagonist’s inner character. We see many Hong Kong directors come to the Mainland to make films, so I thought, why can’t we go to Hong Kong to make a film? So we did.
What was the reasoning behind using classic Cantonese songs as the background music? Did it follow the theme of the story in anyway?
Firstly, these are songs that I’m very familiar with and enjoy very much. We made musical choices based on the plot. For example, when the protagonist is walking around Hong Kong wearing a big alien helmet, we thought we should make him look macho and tough for comedic effect. So we used George Lam’s Real Man (真的漢子), a song with very strong rhythm. We thought the song had to be well known, so everyone would recognise it instantly when it started playing. And the song itself had to be good. Old songs had the best lyricists and the best musicians.
Is that different from now?
Now it’s too easy. The internet is full of songs and you can’t remember any of them. In the old days, there was a type of song that you would remember.
Your film references many classic Hong Kong films. Why was that significant?
After we finished scriptwriting, we ran over the script and looked for any opportunities for references to old Hong Kong films that everyone would relate to. For example, the phrase ‘friends for a minute’ – you have to be very familiar with Wong Kar-wai’s films to understand that reference. Not all the viewers will get it, but I hope we’re able to dig out something from the film. I think the film industry is developing rapidly, but what film lovers want to see from a film is as much detail as possible.
A lot of people say that Lost in Hong Kong is a sequel to Lost in Thailand, but the films hardly have anything to do with each other – other than a slapstick character with a bowl cut wig. How would you describe the difference between the two films to audiences?
It was actually a great challenge. People who saw Lost in Thailand expected the next one to be similar, but we gave them something different. Still, I think this challenge had to be undertaken because I don’t think the viewers would have bought it if we made the same film again.
What was the most challenging aspect of production?
The hardest part to film was the ending scene with the glass platform, because we did a lot of design work before hand, including an action sequence rehearsal. Then we had to put it into the story, incorporating the movement, acting and emotions. We also had to do a lot of stunt work, and when we weren't satisfied with the stunt work, we would have to do it again. We spent a lot of effort, hoping to create an integrated experience for the viewer.
And the most enjoyable part?
The part I most enjoyed was when I donned the alien helmet and marched on the streets of Hong Kong to the music of Real Man. I remember this time last year, when Hong Kong was at its hottest, I was wearing this alien helmet walking around in streets and alleys. It’s become an iconic image in the film community.
One of our favourite parts of the film is when you lash out at your relatives because it was so natural. Does that part speak to any of your personal experiences or is it a commentary on Chinese families in general?
Because my family knows that I am very busy with my work, they have all been quietly giving me selfless love. But I know that in many marriages, there are spouses who experience conflict between their two families. A ‘kidnapping of love’ – that's a problem encountered by many middle-aged people. This film involves a rather tabooed topic for Chinese people. In Chinese society, it’s crucial for the family to at least maintain an appearance of harmony. Ordinarily, people don't tear their families apart, because once they do it's very hard to resolve, and you don't want to get a divorce. So it’s fairly bold to involve such a taboo topic in a comedy film, but it’s fun to include it a little to see if it’s possible to elicit a relatable reaction. I've seen people laugh very hard at that scene, which indicates that people do have a secret pain hidden away in their hearts. The scene involves some conflict with tradition, but I think it’s necessary for some films to involve issues like this.
What kind of films do you usually watch?
I watch everything. I watch comedy, I watch meaningless films, I bring my kids to see animated films and I watch European auteur films.
What do you think are the differences between Chinese and Western comedies?
I think that Hollywood comedies have developed to the point that they need involve heavy themes like drugs because they have already done a lot of exploration in this area. For us in China, I don’t think we have nearly enough comedy.Before, comedy was never a film genre in China. Aside from watching Stephen Chow films, we never saw high quality comedies on the Mainland. Everyone in tier-two and tier-three cities had to wait for Chinese New Year's Eve every year to watch free comedy shorts. If these shorts were made into films, the box office returns would be immense.
This year, aside from Lost in Hong Kong, there have been other comedies like Goodbye Mr Loser. They do very well in the box office because viewers are intrigued by newcomers and new ideas. Some comedies are more targeted towards northerners, while comedies like Lost in Hong Kong are oriented towards southern audiences. Northern comedies are more centered around language. So, there needs to more variety and diversification in comedies. Comedies can also be merged with other genres, like road films, fantasy, action. Comedy needs to be further developed, to go beyond the primary purpose of humour and explore the deeper meaning underneath. The market needs to become mature.
Do you think the Mainland market can accept comedies with heavier themes?
I don't think it’s about whether the market can accept it – censorship is the problem…[laughs]. Foreign comedies can make political jokes and take it really far. But under the environment in the Mainland, that’s impossible.
But compared to before, has it improved a little?
Well of course, now it’s a little freer. But the real question is, what are you trying to express in the film? The films that we make are based on people; they are the centrepiece of our films. So I don't see the need to make political jokes.
Hong Kong used to be big on producing comedies, but these days that genre has diminished a lot in the city, whereas it seems that comedies are becoming more and more popular in the Mainland. Have you noticed a shift in Chinese audience reactions toward comedies in the past decade?
Yes, it’s because we have more people [laughs]. We have a lot of people in China. Many ordinary people in China suffer from tremendous pressure from work. Comedy is needed as a release for their stress. It’s very easy to go to the cinema and watching comedy is a fundamental need. When genre films started emerging, the first ones to appear were comedy films. Was it not comedy films like Charlie Chaplin’s that started the silent film era? Was it not comedy films that first pioneered the sound era? We used to watch Hong Kong comedies from directors like Wong Jing, Raymond Wong Bak-ming and Stephen Chow. But we've seen so many years of Stephen Chow – we need new comedy. Wong Jing is the most classic representative of Hong Kong cinema. If you're talking about contemporary Hong Kong cinema, then it has to be Wong Jing. He’s made over 100 films. If you run into a film crew on the streets of Hong Kong, it must be Wong Jing’s film crew [laughs].
Which do you prefer more, acting or directing?
For me, it’s the same. I need to act in order to know how to direct. So for me, the roles of director and actor are really one entity. I don't think I can detach myself from acting and only direct – that’s something I haven’t tried. I’m not sure if I can be clear on what I want when somebody else is doing the acting and I’m in the back.
What projects are you working on now? Another Lost film? Tokyo perhaps?
For my films, I’m the director, actor, screenwriter and producer. So after completing this film, I’m exhausted. Right now, I’m not thinking of anything. I’m going to rest for a while.
Lost in Hong Kong In theaters now.