Below is the English transcript of an interview conducted by Stefan Borsos for the German magazine "Cineasia." An edited version will appear in the June/July 2001 issue.
1. Can you
talk about the "Nazi Gold" episode and the ending of the film?
The third and last episode in The Map of Sex and Love that deals with Nazi gold in Macau came partly from news accounts and partly from my research into my own family history. My father was a gold welder in Macau in the 50's and 60's and I never questioned the nature of his job. Apparently there were plenty of shady gold-welding jobs like his in those days -- created by the anomaly of Macau being excluded by Portugal in the post-WWII international agreement governing the gold trade. Postwar Macau emerged as the world's illicit centre of frenzied gold trading. Legally, gold could enter but not leave Macau, and officially it never did. That's why there was a widely circulated joke about the miracle of Macau being a floating casino instead of a sunken city with its mountains of gold. The allegations of Nazi gold laundered through Macau came as a shock to me when I first heard about it in New York in 1998. What happened was I ended up moving to New York largely because of the allure of the city's intelle ctual tradition forged by exiled Jews like Hannah Arendt. It's true that I lent part of my own story to the character of Wei Ming. He started out as a heterosexual character. Earlier on the film was titled "Three Secrets," which highlighted the secrets harboured by each of the three main characters. Originally I thought of creating a heterosexual romance between Wei Ming and Mimi. Later on, I decided to turn Wei Ming into a gay character, because that seems to deepen his connection to the Holocaust since homosexuals were also persecuted by the Nazis.
Toward the end of the film, I turned Macau's Nazi gold mystery into sort of a metaphysical statement about human existence. However, I wouldn't want to be misinterpreted as behaving indifferently to any official cover-up that glosses over a WWII chapter that deserves thorough investigation. Eventually more and more Salazar-era files will be declassified, we'll then have a better picture of Portugal's role in WWII, whether it was as neutral as it wanted us to believe. The illicit gold trade through Macau obviously also involved many undercurrents of the Cold War era, probably including players like China and the Soviet Union. My father said that he couldn't recall seeing bars with swastika insignia, but he saw some with a hammer and sickle. I have no reason to doubt him.Top
All three stories of The Map came from real life. I heard about the rubber bands given out by a school counsellor as a conditioning device. And I knew about this girl's nervous breakdown during her trip to Russia and Eastern Europe. However, how these various elements in the back of my mind started interracting, I really don't know. And it wasn't as though I decided to put these three stories together. I was once struck by this image of a girl who ran a hat store on an outlying island. The sea, this girl by herself evokes a certain atmosphere. It suggests a kind of yearning and insecurity. What if she lives there only temporarily? Suppose she has a gay neighbour? What if this filmmaker arrive...Some people have asked whether it took me a long time to write the script. I said no. It was done in a month, but then I kept tinkering with it through the editing stage, when I added some new voice-over monologues. It's not a matter of how long it takes to write, but how long it stayed in my unconscious. I've been carrying the seeds of the stories with me for years. And Macau, Nazi gold do go back to my childhood.
Back to the ending of the film you asked about earlier. In terms of its dramatic ending, it's all suggestive. You see three people together in a room, echoing Li Po's lines at the beginning of the film: "To the moon I propose/ a toast. With my shadow/ we form a trio." Yet, these three people are no longer identical to the three protagonists we've met so far. Wei Ming appears on a video sent from New York. The new person in the room is one of Larry's tricks from the sauna, seemingly his current companion. And Mimi is there by herself. Some feminist critics complained that romance came to Mimi all too suddenly, and all too easily. But I intended the ending to suggest that her new-found relationship, which we saw earlier, may or may not be a stable one. All three stories in the film are about the eruption of the past -- from a complex matrix made up of various personal, geographic and historical components -- in the present. And all the protagonists' old problems seem to have been resolved -- provisionally. In my view, living is often about the engendering of new problems while coping with the old ones. In this case, achieving some peace with the past have brought brief and poignant memories of love for both Larry, Wei Ming and maybe even for Mimi.
As an aside, I've taken some liberty with Auden's lines quoted by Wei Ming, since he was reciting from memory what he saw on a plaque years earlier. Auden's original said: "If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me." Now Wei Ming says: "If no love can equal be/Let the more loving one be me." I think "love" is more direct in this context, and more uppermost on Wei Ming's mind than the more diffused, generic idea of "affection."Top
Generally, I didn't hold auditioning sessions in Hong Kong, because the lackluster theater scene means that there's never much of a pool of actors/actresses to choose from. So I tend to rely on my instincts. What I did was to meet and talk with potential choices to get some clues. Originally, I knew Victor Ma as a dancer/choreographer. In fact, I produced a multi-media performance of him and his wife Mandy Yim in 1998 at the Downtown Pace Studio Theater in New York. Once I saw him from a distance in the Hong Kong subway. He was dashing about, not seeing me. There was such a confused and dreamy look to him that a light came on in me -- I felt that he'd make an interesting actor. By the time I had to cast Larry, I naturally thought of him, because I needed a actor who had to be a convincing dancer to begin with. Victor is not gay. But dancers tend to feel comfortable with their bodies, i.e., they tend to be unthreatened by sexuality. And understandably being in the dance field, Victor has been around gay people quite a bit. I've always enjoyed working with dancers -- Lindzay Chan, who has been in every film of mine, was a ballerina at the Hong Kong Ballet. While dancers may have been trained in a non-verbal art form, they have to project a full range of emotions all the time. The three dancers that I've worked with -- Lindzay, Victor and Goh Boon Ann, who plays the street performer -- are tremendously committed actors because I guess dance always requires an all- consuming training. You can't cheat in dance. And that's their background. When the film was finished, Victor looked at it and complained that he should have gone further in the sex scenes. I told him that the sex scenes are fine as is. I wasn't going for hardcore pornography and I couldn't persuade Bernardo -- who plays Wei Ming, the object of Larry's obsession -- to go any further.
Victor was Larry from the beginning. I didn't bother to interview a second person. I received some referrals for Mimi's part, but they were all these young actresses coming my way. Mimi should be fresh, but she's someone in her mid-20's -- I couldn't use those teenage actresses!!! I wasn't too desperate yet, because shooting wouldn't start for a few months. One evening I went to see Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flowers of Shanghai" at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. In the lobby there was this attractive young woman, who looked sort of neurotic, nervy and very intense. Then I recognized her -- she was Cherie Ho, who made her screen debut in Bryan Chang's "After the Crescent" (1998). However, she looked slimmer -- the baby fat from her face was gone -- and more mature looking. I didn't say Hello to her then. I placed a call to Bryan afterwards, asking him for some references -- Bryan was impressed with her acting himself -- and leaving a message for her through Bryan. A few days later Cherie called back and we met in a cafe. Cherie had a filmmaking degree herself. But she longed to act and she had some stage experience. She once even took a movement class from Victor.
All along, I knew the monologue in the "Belgrade" episode would be, acting-wise, the most demanding scene in the movie. And I always trust my actor/actresses and leave them to work on their own. Cherie and I met once to discuss the script. She was seeking clarification about her emotional relationship with the two gay characters. And she suggested that I developed more the internet exchange between Mimi and Wei Ming -- which I did -- before they actually met. In terms of her lines and delivery, she was very much on her own. All I told her was to find her rhythm, to treat the monologue like an aria -- look for the dramatic crux and reserve herself for those emotional high notes. And she did a wonderful job.
The one character I had most trouble casting was Wei Ming. I had never met Bernardo Chow before and he was referred to me by a friend. But the moment I saw him walking into the cafe, I know that's him. It takes longer for Bernardo to warm up to his part, which is probably a bit abstract and remote for him. His brief stint as a TV actor (playing the younger brother of Leon Lai in a popular series) had bestowed him with some mannerisms that I didn't like. So I kept nudging him toward a more simple and straightforward acting style. Then I found out that he did well with the monologues. It was during the shooting stage that I turned his monologues into video diaries. He seemed very good at acting with himself, so I also made Wei a more introverted character. Tony Rayns said that Bernardo's monologue with his camcorder makes him "very endearing."Top
DV filmmaking is revolutionizing the film industry everywhere. In a way, it saved my filmmaking career at that point in time -- because I couldn't raise sufficient funds to make a decent 35mm film. As it turned out, The Map was shot for less than US$50,000 (excluding the film transfer cost), though it was a backbreaking task for me and Betty Lee, my assistant director.
There're many advantages to DV. 1) We independents don't have to worry about the shooting ratio because of film cost. While working with a relatively inexperienced cast, that's something tremendously valuable. It can save many, many scenes. In addition, the setup of a 35mm shoot -- with a big camera, and elaborate lighting -- can also be very intimidating for actors unused to it. (I already noticed that while making my documentary "Journey to Beijing." Even a Betacam shoot can make some interviewees nervous.) You can definitely get more spontaneous, natural acting with DV from non-professionals. 2) The relative simple setup means you can use a smaller crew, find a smaller space to film in, and its unobtrusiveness means that you can do more guerilla-style filming in locations which are commercial (a cafe, a record store) or requires official clearance, such as the airport. 3) I was lucky to be able to find O Sing Pui (whose credits include Fruit Chan's "Made in Hong Kong") to be my Director of Photography at the outset. O Sing Pui is, in my view, one of the best DPs working in Hong Kong today. He has a dynamic visual style and an experimental spirit. (Our young and talented production designer Gill Wong was a good sport to go into such an experiment with.) A new mode of production absolutely suits him. We believed we could make the first DV feature film in Hong Kong, and we did! He is better qualified than me to talk about the technical aspect of working with DV. Just to give you an example, he emphasized that some magic hour scenes -- notably the one with a teary Mimi walking through Macau's Senado Square after the hotel scene -- came out better with DV than 35mm because he could combine the use of white balance and filters to capture both the fading daylight and neon signs in an interesting way.
From the beginning, we were determined not to make a DV film that is a cheap imitation of a 35mm movie. We were looking for its unique aesthetics both in terms of camera angles, movement mobility and the shutter-speed induced effects. The outcome is confirmed by Swiss Effects, our video-to-35mm transfer lab. We feel that the end product looks like neither film or video, but a third kind of medium, a hybrid, a video film, which is quite challenging and eye-opening. Maybe in the future, when DV projection becomes so generalized, then we won't have to think about film transfer at all. However, I feel that our visual conditioning has experienced changes -- because of the prevalence of monitors, starting with our desktop, and electronic lights in our daily environment. DV films seem to be charting that new zone in our visual universe.Top
There have been some constants in my filmmaking career.
The first and foremost is Willy Tsao, artistic director of both Beijing
Modern Dance Company and Hong Kong's City Contemporary Dance Company.
Willy has funded, either fully or partially, all of my films and videos
up to this point. And it's been an artistic collaboration, because I also
served once as dramaturg to Willy's dance drama
Milos Raickovich is a former student of Messiaen and a very talented composer with his brand of "New Classicism," which is the title of his first disc issued by Mode Records. For me, his music is a little bit like Philip Glass meeting Schubert, with some Asian underpinnings. And he has a tremendous reservoir of lyricism. I used some of the tracks from "New Classicism" in "Journey to Beijing," and this time I had him write an original score for "The Map," which was then recorded by Nancy Loo, Hong Kong's best-known classical pianist, and Dmitry Surikov, a Russian cellist who works for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta right now. Milos belongs to the new music circle around my pianist friend Margaret Leng Tan in New York. In fact, I also have an ongoing creative partnership with Margaret. Her "Litania" CD (composed by Somei Satoh and released by New Albion) is essentially the soundtrack for "To Liv(e)." Her toy piano piece (by Milos) was used in "Journey to Beijing." She is a legendary new-music pianist specializing in the work of John Cage and contemporary Asian music. One specialty that she has developed in recent years is playing the toy piano. She has performed all over Europe, including at a millennium concert at Beethoven's house in Bonn, where she played her arrangement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on two toy pianos. Margaret is the subject of a documentary that I plan on finishing later this year.Top
* Postmodern Culture Vol 8.2 at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pmc/v008/8.2marchetti.html
While these anecdotes come from real life, the landscape in which they are portrayed is entirely imaginary. For some time, Hong Kong's outlying islands have been the dwelling places of the Bohemian fringe. I was struck by the image of a girl, who looked lost and forlorn, in an artisan shop in Lamma. Somehow I felt she should run into a gay neighbour. I also felt that the third protagonist, the filmmaker, would meet them. At first, I thought of a heterosexual romance between the girl and the filmmaker. Eventually, I turned the filmmaker into a gay character, because homosexuals, as much as Jews, were also victims of the Third Reich. In an earlier stage, the film was titled "Three Secrets," referring to secrets personal -- personally hurtful as experienced by the girl and the gay dancer -- as well as secrets public and historical, like the Nazi Gold allegations in Macau. But the film is undoubtedly about sex(uality) and love. Linking them to the map, I hope, will suggest the uncertainties -- hence pain, exhilaration, and the unquenchable need for orientation -- of one's personal and historical existence.
-- Evans ChanTop