A Documentary Master Turns to Fiction for Murder

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Zolima Citymag by Elizabeth Kerr
Cheung King-wai’s feature debut - Somewhere Beyond the Mist - it is based on a crime that occurred in New York in 2000, when a 17-year-old girl murdered her Hong Kong-born parents with the help of her 20-year-old boyfriend, and dumped them in the East River. The girl’s dispassionate confession caused a media sensation in the New York press. “She confessed and it was case closed, but for me, as a Hongkonger, it was just the beginning. I had so many questions that drove me to write the script,” Cheung explains. It also drove him home.
Cheung entered his script in a competition when his younger brother told him actor Michelle Yeoh was building on her Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon success by looking for scripts to produce. It made runner up, but Cheung didn’t think New York was the place to make the film. “New York is great, but let’s be clear. But for every, say, 10 opportunities in New York, there are 100 people waiting for one of those breaks,” he says. “In Hong Kong, there may be three opportunities, two are lousy - but only 10 people on the waiting list. It was very calculated.”
There was also the threat of being pigeonholed as “the Chinese filmmaker” or “the immigrant story director,” two issues of representation that Hollywood is currently wrestling with. Did he fear getting caught in a so-called ethnic trap? “I did. I can’t complain too much, but there is that stereotyping. It’s human nature. If I’d stayed in New York I might have made things like The Joy Luck Club. When I look back now on my ten years there and the way I looked at myself, I was a bit tinted by it too. I was a ‘Chinatown’ guy finding his identity. Identity is a hot topic in New York, and naturally we fall into that perspective when looking at the world.”
Starring Stephy Tang and produced by Derek Yee, director of Hong Kong classics Full Throttle and Viva Erotica, Cheung describes Mist as a deeply personal film that takes some of its cues from the likes of Shohei Imamura’s 1979 serial killer drama Vengeance is Mine in its lack of resolution. It’s also an experiment in storytelling, craft and aesthetics that tries to avoid falling into pop psychology. The story revolves around pregnant police detective Angela as she investigates high schoolers Connie and Eric, and their involvement with Connie’s parents’ deaths. Mist shares an observational, impartial tone with Cheung’s documentary work that lets the frequently voiceless subjects speak for themselves. Connie’s parents aren’t faultless, but their lingering resentments are clear, as is the cycle of violence Connie is caught in. The departure for Cheung is in construction - a narrative rather than a chronicle, something that allows him to exploit Hong Kong’s confined spaces and oppressive palette.
“People ask me why I’m so concerned about teens. I don’t know,” says Cheung. It may stem from his own youth, as a self-described “stupid kid” and a “brat” who wasn’t a particularly strong student. He was once labelled a “problem student,” and was a regular disruptor in class. Now Cheung has made a vocation of turning a spotlight on the marginalized. “Recently I was talking with my niece, who’s 14, and she described all teenagers as sociopaths, because they’re disconnected from society to a degree.” He can’t but see himself in that indictment. As a teenager, he always struck his own path. “I always asked Why?”
He’s older and wiser now, and less disruptive, but still considers himself a bit of a rebel; the industry black sheep, as it were. “That’s why freedom of speech is so important to me. If you don’t let me speak, I’ll never find my audience,” he says. Finding a voice on screen for the voiceless, free of commercial demands, is also why Cheung is likely to stay where he is. He could easily cash out, direct mainland co-productions and buy a Ferrari. But he won’t. He shrugs. “I’m still stupid.”