Patrick Tam : I went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1995 for a change because I like the tropics, and I worked for a production company to set up a cinema department. There was practically no Chinese-language film industry in Malaysia. At that time, we hoped to develop a Chinese film industry there—however small. The first thing was to train Malaysian Chinese to write scripts. I set up a film library with laser disks and tapes of classic films to expose them to world cinema. Because Malaysia is an Islamic country, it can be difficult to see all the good works of world cinema [because of censorship]. We saw a film every day—systematically, a chronological retrospective of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Alfred Hitchcock—and did a critique. This created a very good creative climate in class. I collaborated one-on-one with each of my students. Over years, we managed to complete approximately twenty scripts that could go into production tomorrow.
AFTER THIS OUR EXILE comes from the first batch of scripts that came from this class. The original idea was from my student, Tian Kai-Leong, who collaborated with me on this film. He got this idea from a piece in the newspaper about a Malaysian father who ordered his son to break into people’s houses to steal valuables. This is the original idea that we developed and created a story out of it. We created the characters, developed the details, the scenes, and the first version was completed in 1996. At that time, we did not have an immediate schedule for production, because we needed financing. After the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the company abandoned the idea of developing this cinema project further.
In 2000, I was invited by City University to come back to Hong Kong to teach. So, I met my colleague Philip Lee, who was the associate producer of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and the line producer of HERO (2002) and LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE (2003), so he had experience working on foreign projects. He wanted to develop some projects with me, so I showed him the script for AFTER THIS OUR EXILE, and that’s how it started. Andy Lau expressed interest, so we started pre-production in 2003. I went back to Malaysia on holidays to scout locations. Because Andy Lau pulled out, we didn’t proceed. In 2003, we began to revise the script. In 2005, when we started with production, this was already the fifth version of the script. We had ample time in Malaysia in class to develop this script. It was not like university where students have to take all kinds of courses. This was only a scriptwriting class. The writers worked Monday to Friday, like going to work, and the company paid them. They were under contract. They had plenty of time to work on the script. This was really healthy. Each script was approximately 400-500 pages—very detailed and accurate—because accuracy is something I consider very important in any kind of creative work.
The fifth version of the script is 135 scenes, and many of the scenes are long. During production, I could see that, if I shot the whole script, the film would last four or five hours. Mark Lee, the cinematographer, said it seemed very likely the film will be six hours long, so I managed to condense some of the scenes and cut out others that were not absolutely necessary. In filming, we managed to cut it down to 90 scenes. When I came back to Hong Kong to do the editing, there were still 10 scenes aboard the ship. At the very beginning of the film, the father takes the son on a cruise while the mother stays home. Actually, there was an entire sequence on the ship. The son encounters an old jazz musician. The father is always in the casino, so the boy is left alone wandering on deck. He meets an old musician, who is very fond of the child and educates him. I wanted to show an alternative to the boy’s father. If the boy had a father like this musician, he may have followed a different, healthy path. Before doing this sequence in Hong Kong, I already started editing, and I knew, if I filmed this sequence, the film would be over three and a half hours, so we never did it. Tony Leung Ka Fai had been cast. Even without taking the leading role, he was willing to play the jazz musician. I owe him a favor and an apology, since we abandoned the whole sequence. What you see now in the long version (160 minutes) is only 76 scenes, so nearly half is gone, but it is still almost three hours long. For me, every scene now you see in the full version is necessary and is essential.