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Interview with Chee Keong Cheung, on his HK action film debut
A Sino-British film-maker 1/1 - Page 1
Author(s) : Thomas Podvin
Date : 30/12/2008
Type(s) : Interview
 Intext Links  
People :
Anthony Carpio
Jackie Chan
Chan Man Ching
Cheung Chee Keong
Chow Yun Fat
Henry Chung Yau Tim
Mike Leeder
Oliver Morran
Richard Ng Yiu Hon
Mark Strange
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
John Woo
Movies :
Bodyguard: A New Beginning
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It took Cheung Chee Keong, a UK-born and bred film-maker from Hong Kong decent, about eight years to make his first movie in HK. Judging by the end result, the wait wasn’t vain.

After graduating in Film and Video at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, Cheung founded in 1999 the film production company Intense productions in Lancaster, a small town in the North West of England. He has since written, produced, directed, consulted and advised on numerous local and international mainly drama-orientated projects, short films, music promos and feature films. It was just a matter of time before Cheung stepped in the world of action films.

This new step didn’t come until 2006 though, when, with the help of Mark Strange and Mike Leeder among others, he made Underground on a shoe-string budget. Shot entirely in Britain, the film showcases the best British martial-arts talents in 13 action set pieces set back to back. The impressive production value, as well as a gritty look, a superb music score (performed by a 15-piece orchestra) and 13 deftly choreographed fights speak volume of Cheung’s resourcefulness. The director takes the viewer straight to the final battle royal through various climaxes, dodging the tedious flaws of the pure back-to-back action concept. The relative short running time (87 min.), a never-waning tension and a format blending documentary, Big Brother-like real TV and the tournament film genre helped.

On the heels of Underground, and seizing the opportunity to develop more exciting projects with Strange and Leeder, Cheung flew to HK to make his first HK-action style film, Bodyguard: A New Beginning. The film is not only Cheung’s love letter to the former Crown colony but also a tribute to John Woo’s past action dramas with Chow Yun-fat.

The plot is thus: A Chinese gang boss sees his empire threaten by a new rival in town. He sends a bodyguard to protect a mysterious person in the UK, while cleaning up the mess in his HK gang and, not the least, in his own family. Indeed, Bodyguard takes place in the UK and HK and features a mixed cast and crew. The boss played by Richard Ng confronts his very own son (on and off screen), Carl Ng, and a new threat, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The bodyguard, played by the up and coming French/Asian actor Vincent Sze, has to protect Chloe, played by Stephanie Langton. Choreographed by Anthony Carpio and Chan Man-Ching from the Jackie Chan Stunt Group, the film is co-produced by Oliver Morran, Mark Strange, Mike Leeder and Ean Tang and photographed by Henry Chung and Steven Priovolos.

All these names have fed our curiosity about this East meets West action drama, which premiered at the Germany Oldenburg International Film Festival in September 2008 and received rave reviews.

We talked with Cheung in his Lancaster office about his inspiration, his two action films and his new film-making experience in the world’s capital of action cinema.

A Chinese/British film-maker

HKCinemagic: Your parents are Chinese and you were born in the UK, weren’t you? Why did you go to HK for the film?
Chee Keong Cheung: Yes. I was born and raised in the UK. I have family in HK and I go over every three years or so but I’d never had the opportunity to work there. I’ve always been very intrigued and fascinated by the film industry in HK. Having grown up in the UK and with Chinese parents, it’s given me the opportunity to experience two very different cultures, both of which I’m very proud to be part of. It also helps me see things differently. It was always a goal of mine to work in HK and Bodyguard: A New Beginning became that vehicle.
HKCinemagic: Bodyguard: A New Beginning was your first film in HK and China?

Chee Keong Cheung: Yes. That’s right. I was in post production on my first feature, Underground, an action tournament film in the UK and I was liaising with a good friend of mine, Mike Leeder who is based in HK and was also an executive producer on Underground. I was keen to find a project to work on in HK as my next film and we talked about the possibilities. Growing up, I watched a lot of HK films (in particular, the Triad films) and that inspired this film and provided the opportunity to go over there, reconnect and also make a film that my family could go and watch.

I’d been talking to Richard Ng, who Mike Leeder put me in touch with, and he kindly agreed to help out on Underground but schedules didn’t work out. But we kept in touch and we were having Dim Sum in London one day. I grew up watching Richard in the Jackie Chan films in his more comedic roles, which he’s well known for, so it was quite surreal experience to meet with him. As we were talking I thought it would be interesting and certainly something different to cast Richard as the Triad Boss and we talked in depth about this and he was certainly intrigued. He shared his experiences of working in HK which was insightful. With Mike in HK, and my UK Co-Producer and actor and also very good friend Mark Strange, we discussed about making the film partly in HK and part in the UK and things started to develop from there, which I was very excited about.

Mark Strange in Underground
HKCinemagic: I am surprised, you founded your company in 1999, that is ten years ago, and you never thought of making a film in HK sooner.
Chee Keong Cheung: That’s a good point. Maybe I should have. I started off directing and producing short films, developing and producing feature films -- more Western projects. Early on, I didn’t have contacts and connections in the HK film industry. It’s only in the last several years, after moving into the action genre in the UK through my co-producer Mark Strange (which I’m very grateful for), I was led to the HK film scene. Often, I go where the project takes me and they’ve certainly taken me to some strange and fascinating places. That’s one of the great things about the film business. You get to see and experience things one may never expect or consider to experience in life.
HKCinemagic: When you started, what kind of films did you want to do?
Chee Keong Cheung: Dramatic stories were always a passion of mine and telling good stories. This was always something I wanted to do and to make films that could reach audiences, connect with people. Film is such a powerful medium. When I first started it was this intention: to tell stories which entertained, to make people laugh and to make them cry. As time goes on, as a director and producer, I realised making films was and is a business, an industry, and sometimes having a story you want to tell is not enough. Often the timing might not be right given the market place, or, commercially, a project might be too risky. So I came to realise and understand that I needed to balance finding and telling stories but also ensured I looked at the business side in order to succeed in a highly competitive field.

I connected with other producers and directors and soon realised a film made in one country (a comedy for example) may not necessarily travel and cross over to another due to different sensibilities and culture. However, with action, I found this to be a genre that allowed all sort of exciting creative possibilities and that could also travel worldwide at the same time.

Subsequently, I like to work as both a producer and a director as it gives me an understanding of two very different worlds and also helps me to understand the value and importance of both the creative and the business sides of filmmaking. I very much enjoy both processes. As a director and producer I am still learning and honing both sides and I certainly feel collaboration is important. One of the most enjoyable parts of filmmaking is not only the story telling but also the opportunity to collaborate with a group of people to create and realise a vision.

HKCinemagic: Is it easy to wear these two caps, producer and director?
Chee Keong Cheung: For me, I’m comfortable with both roles, although at times it can be very exhausting. It can certainly be a tricky combination.
HKCinemagic: There is usually a good balance when a director isn’t the producer.
Chee Keong Cheung: Absolutely. I also work with other producers, and I appreciate the importance of that relationship and the external guidance and feedback. But personally, I think it is helpful to be able to think or at least have an understanding of a producer when you direct a film and vice versa.
HKCinemagic: For you, things are even more complex as you are the writer for Underground and Bodyguard. While writing, do you imagine already what will be the directing and producing parts?
Chee Keong Cheung: Yes, with independent films, I always try and write what I feel I can achieve both creatively and logistically. For instance, Underground was the film I wanted to make to showcase what I felt was under-represented martial arts talents in the UK. Talking to a lot of the talent, I realised many had worked on big studio films such as Batman Begins and James Bond to name a few. Often they had very little screen time, maybe dying after ten seconds and their talents were never fully appreciated or realised onscreen. With the help of my co-producer Mark Strange, I wanted to bring these talents together and was excited about making a film as a showcase for them, which I thought would also be interesting for audiences. And from that, I wrote the script to work around the talent that I saw and was available and that vehicle became Underground.

One of the great things about independent films is that it provides a great level of creative freedom. With Underground, we made a small little film to showcase what could be done with a limited budget, and a film, which I thought, would appeal to the market working in a genre that can travel and translate worldwide.

HKCinemagic: Did you get feedbacks from the UK talents after Underground? Did they land bigger jobs?
Chee Keong Cheung: I think all the talent involved really liked and were impressed with what we achieved collectively. It was certainly a challenging shoot but each of the performers really pushed themselves to the limits and gave 110%. Without their commitment the film would not have been possible. Several of the cast went on to work on other projects and move on to bigger things, which I was really pleased to hear. Liang Yang went on to Golden Compass and most notably Joey Ansah went on to Bourne Ultimatum. Whether it was directly as a result of Underground, I don’t know but the film certainly showed a lot of people worldwide the talent that existed within the UK.
HKCinemagic: Which filmmaker in the West really influences you?
Chee Keong Cheung: Directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, have been really influential. I really admire their work and storytelling. Others include Mike Figgis for his work on Leaving Las Vegas and the performances he drew out of his actors. Then there’s also Krzysztof Kieslowski with Dekalog and his Three Colours trilogy. I really like directors who tell stories in unique ways, with characters and situations that interconnect.

There’s certainly a shift in my career from the more drama led projects I’ve been developing and working on to the action films I’m currently directing and producing and going back to the HK films that I grew up watching.

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