Interview with Kal Ng Liu Xuan November 2000 Interviews Issue 10 Kal Ng is an independent filmmaker in Hong Kong. His film Dreamtrips (1999) recently screened around Australia as part of a package entitled Eastern Connection II, which showcased contemporary Asian independent films and videos. * * * Liu Xuan: What are the most interesting things to you now and what bothers you? Kal Ng: I think for me as a filmmaker, the most interesting thing now is to find out how to survive and at the same time continue to create within the environment of Hong Kong. In the West, such as Canada and the US, the independent scene is more developed, but here in Asia it is just starting. And in the Hong Kong culture of fast money it is even harder. So as pioneer filmmakers we have to think about how to keep going. It is not just a matter of doing more commercial films because the industry is declining, mostly affected by lack of good practise and the changing technology itself. The audience is changing their viewing habits too. Going to a movie is becoming something very special. Most of the people prefer to buy cheaper pirated DVD and watch them on their home computers. This is a very different experience to watching films in a theatre. It becomes more intimate and personal, which I find very interesting. Maybe in the near future we don’t need to make “commercial films” anymore, we just need to find a special audience, either through the internet or producing DVDs. Of course, what bothers me is that there will always be pirated copies of content if they prove to make money. I think it’s possible to develop an audience that truly loves your work and that cares enough to buy an original copy from you directly. Then this scenario is like the old system of patrons and painters. Except that now we have digital paintings that can be copied and copied over. In a way it is not the authenticity of the work that counts, I don’t think you can just issue 20 copies of limited editions of your film to people. If people like something, they will copy them anyway. I don’t mind if people copy my film and share it with many others who don’t know my work. But there will be deterioration when they want to make many copies. And there will always be hardcore fans that will prefer to buy the first copy. What filmmakers should try to achieve, especially independent filmmakers these days, is to find these hardcore fans. And this comes down do what kind of work you are making and whether people will really want to buy a first copy. Because, from what I see, a lot of Hollywood movies, which they spend millions of dollar to make, are throw-away consumer products – you watch them once and then forget about them. That’s why people are buying pirated DVDs, because you only watch those once and rarely rewatch them. They are meant to be watched once and then thrown away like MacDonald hamburgers. And this is what the American culture is good at producing. For me there aren’t a lot of films that are worth keeping on DVD. I am very selective in buying DVD, even pirated ones because I believe a film has to be worth watching over and over again. It is almost a little world you can enter into. I am interested in making a kind of film which opens up a lot of rooms for thought instead of centring on one issue and giving a specific view on one topic. Liu Xuan: What is interesting is that some of the discourses in Dreamtrips such as searching, communication, anti-social influences of technology, constrainments of technology on people, the loss of memories, the reality of dreams and the real; all these ideas squeezed into a 100 minute film, would it be too much? Are they all well developed? Kal Ng: I believe the new kind of film – films for the new millennium – should be compact, rich and evocative instead of dramatic. This is also influenced by production aspects too. Because it is hard to produce independent films already, and I think it is too much of a luxury to just tell a single story and present one thought. I would rather do that on digital video. If we look at a film like a building, then I want the building to have free space for people to imagine, to think, to run around and come back another time. Things don’t have to be definite, just hint at certain ideas and discourse. A place that may lead to more places eventually. What I don’t like about most of the films is that they become these genre films because the film company has to produce a very clearly defined product to sell in the market. But I think independent films can be different. It can be full of ideas, presenting suggestions and even undeveloped ideas. Almost like a sketchbook. I remember the famous architect Frank Gehry once said that he is more interested in building under construction than the finished building, when things are not solid yet. I hope Dreamtrips to be a montage of ideas where I can choose to develop some in the future more thoroughly. It is a canvas that reflects the state of the world in which a lot of ideas are floating around and the complexity of its development in the millennium. Dreamtrips is meant to be a treasure box where you can go back for ideas. It is not meant to be a definite statement which most of the Western arts were trying to achieve in the last century. Liu Xuan: What films and directors inspire you? Kal Ng: My interest in cinema is essentially the use of images to create a world, to create a space. Maybe it is my architectural training that influences this interest. For me the directors that inspired me were Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Andrei Tarkovsky, Wim Wenders, Hitchcock, Antonioni, Ozu, Robert Altman and, recently, Lars von Trier. Steven Spielberg for his powerful mise en scéne and the enjoyment of movie making that inspired me to make films. George Lucas for his truly independent spirit and the mythic world he had created in Star Wars that triggered my imagination and the possibilities in filmmaking. Andrei Tarkovsky for his mysticism and the power of images to express and construct a spiritual and poetic world. Wim Wenders for his discourse of the state of being on the road in his road movies and his concerns with making images express spiritual ideas. Hitchcock for his vision of creating a world full of unpredictable possibilities and surprises, a totally engaging world that is so powerful it influenced the worldview of a generation of audiences and filmmakers. Antonioni for his ability to use the Italian landscape for meaningful spatial metaphors and lyrical cinematic language. Ozu for his infusing of the oriental emotions onto the Western cinematic machine. Robert Altman for his being truly an American director and his canvas that depicts a unique vision on America. Makes me want to do the same for China or the Chinese cinema too. And Lars von Trier for his new philosophy on making images, very much taking over the concerns of Wenders. My Ten Inspiring Films: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975) L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976) Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) Europa (Lars von Trier, 1991) Liu Xuan: How do you understand independent films? What does independent mean to you? Kal Ng: Independent means doing exactly what you want, being able to express your ideas and beliefs, and caring only about sharing these ideas and beliefs with an audience rather than the box office. Liu Xuan: What do you think of the present Hong Kong independent film scene? Kal Ng: The present Hong Kong independent film scene still consists of a group of less than ten filmmakers. We need wider support, especially more critical and cultural support, than money. Because it is important to have people talk about and think about the meaning of what they do and the ideas behind the films than simply giving throwing money them. It is important to arouse an audience interest and care about this culture. I hope with the help of the digital video revolution more people can use it to express ideas and views and even provide a certain alternative entertainment than the dominant popular culture. Liu Xuan: How much time did it take to make Dreamtrips from concept to completion? Can you talk about the entire process of production? Kal Ng: It took 3 years for the film because I did it in an economical but also luxurious way. Why? I spend much less than most American independents but still achieve an image that looks expensive and I am still able to put forth more ideas in the film. Liu Xuan: A work can have many interpretations, but according to you what did you want to say with Dreamtrips? Kal Ng: I think all the above indicates the kind of film that I want Dreamtrips to be. But specifically I think in the film there are these two sentiments operating: the nostalgia for a memorable past and the excitement of the oncoming possibilities in the new millennium brought about by technologies and new ideas of existence. It is a bringing together of Eastern emotions (the longing and wishing for a better tomorrow) and Western thoughts on creation (the creative spirit) itself. Liu Xuan: Is Dreamtrips your second feature film? Kal Ng: Yes, it’s my second long film. The first is The Soul Investigator, made in black and white and colour and in 16mm. Liu Xuan: In the film several special images are created and constructed, such as Hong Kong Style Milk Tea, Desert, Gold fish pool and the World map, and the Dream Drawing, can you talk about what you want to express through these images? Kal Ng: For some reason I would like to reserve the space for the viewers to imagine. However if what I have said enhances their understanding of the film, I may choose to reveal some hints for the following: the Hong Kong Style Milk Tea for me is an interesting mix of two cultures. It is the best of both worlds. A synthesis of the two sentiments I mentioned above. Allow me to say no more and save the mystery on that. The Desert is important as a spatial metaphor where things and people die and are reborn. It is a place of test, but with utmost beauty. It is a place for the exiled, the outcast. But from the desert, the spirit is trained and cleansed. The desert is generated from Jenny’s internal psyche by the Dreamtrips computer, it also speaks her longing for desolation, to be far away from the worries of human existence, to escape, even to a place more dangerous than the disappointment of human relationships and the world in general. The World Map is the place for imagination, especially for places not yet discovered. It is a symbol for childhood wonderment, for the excitement of adventure, of no fear, of curiosity about the future instead of being frightened by it. This idea is also influenced by the Western idea of the romantic sublime, of dreaming about far away places, of escaping to paradise and utopia, the wonderland or land of Oz where problems can be solved and people can be truly be who they want to be. In a way the map is an evocation of what it is not: places off the map, the uncharted and undiscovered place. Places of treasure and mystery. The Dream Drawing of the place Noravara is very much to reinforce the idea behind the World Map. Noarvara is a place in the imagination. It required the hero to be positive about the unknown and have faith to find it. It celebrates the spirit of creativity and imagination in one’s life instead of mourning about what is lost in the past, of feeling sad about lost relationships, which I consider a weakness in Chinese sentiment. Liu Xuan: What’s your next project, can you talk about it? Kal Ng: My next project will be an animation, mainly web-based. It is a story about a group of hackers discovering the strange future of human kind. It will be presented through the web site of Comicinema.Com. It will be a joint production of my company KGE Ltd. and Comi Infinet Technology Ltd. Hopefully you will be able to watch it on the Internet in the Fall.