Friday, January 13, 2006

Play it again, but with music and in Chinese

By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop International Herald Tribune

SINGAPORE The Hong Kong-born film director Peter Ho-Sun Chan has remade his favorite film, "Casablanca," several times - in his head. Indeed, the complex relationships among the characters played by Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), Paul Henreid (her husband) and Humphrey Bogart (her past lover) in the classic 1942 movie inspired his 1997 award-winning "Comrades: Almost a Love Story." Now its theme of love lost is at the heart of his latest film, "Perhaps Love."


The $10 million production, the first Chinese-language musical in 40 years, closed the Venice Film Festival and is Hong Kong's entry for an Oscar nomination in the best foreign film category.

Set in present-day Shanghai, "Perhaps Love" tells the story of a love triangle between a film director (Jacky Cheung), his leading lady and lover (Zhou Xun) and her former lover (Takeshi Kaneshiro), with whom she is co-starring in a musical. The movie-within-the-movie subplot is about an amnesiac female trapeze artist living with the circus director and confronted by her old lover, who is hoping to reignite an old flame.

"I always, constantly, bring myself back to the one movie I enjoy rewatching, 'Casablanca,' without people knowing I have been remaking the same movie a few times," he said in an interview while he was promoting the movie in Singapore. "When I watch 'Casablanca,' the character I get most engrossed with is not Bogart's, but that of the husband."

While some Chinese directors have made their names with gangster films or historical martial arts epics, Chan has concentrated on relationship movies. Shot in Beijing and Shanghai, "Perhaps Love" has spectacular set designs brought to life by the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("In the Mood for Love," "Hero") and the Oscar winner Peter Pau Tak-hei ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), along with exuberant, colorful circus scenes by the Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan ("Monsoon Wedding").

"I told Farah it was really a drama, not a musical. I didn't want scenes that would steal the show away from the drama; I wanted them to enhance the feeling," Chan said.

If Chan believes he was an unlikely choice to direct a musical, the film's producer, André Morgan, disagrees. "When you look at the body of his work, like 'He's a Woman' and 'Comrades,' the music component of those films is used in a far more sophisticated way than the average Chinese director," Morgan said. "His utilization of music, both by way of underscore and using songs from periods that are evocative of the emotion of that period, is unique in Asia."

Still, Chan clearly felt he did not want to make a film musical. "I wanted to make a movie where people sing legitimately, which is why I'm using the method of a film within a film. If there is anything that this film is like, I would compare it to 'Cabaret,' not in terms of story but in terms of pacing. 'Cabaret' is a very narrative-driven story, and there is about 25 percent of screen time devoted to the things on the stage, and it's totally disconnected from the storytelling but it helps enhance the emotions you've just seen. And that's exactly what I was trying to achieve."

Born in 1962, Chan spent his teens in Bangkok, knowing he wanted to direct films like his father. After studying in Los Angeles, he returned to Hong Kong in 1983, a time when the local film industry was booming. He worked his way up from assistant director to John Woo to production manager on several Jackie Chan films before becoming a producer. His directorial debut, "Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye," was crowned best film at the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild in 1991. Other critical and commercial successes followed: "He's a Woman, She's a Man" and "Comrades."

All along, Chan kept a firm foot in producing, "a must," he says, for any Chinese director who wants to protect his work "from the system."

In the early 1990s he co-founded United Filmmakers Organisation, which he has since left, and in 2000 he co-founded Applause Pictures, a pan-Asian production house that aims to encourage the exchange of talent on both sides of the camera. To date, it has worked with some of Asia's best film-making talents, like the Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr (of the horror film "Nang Nak" fame), the Pang Brothers and the Korean director Hur Jin Ho.

Chan has strong views about the state of the Hong Kong and Chinese film industry, and "Perhaps Love" is partly a commentary on that, from scenes of a Chinese mainland director dealing with a Hong Kong producer to a star refusing to attend a press conference unless he gets a check upfront.

"Jacky's role does mirror a mainland director's specific situation," Chan said. "Many are also struggling now with the reality of making commercial films. In the last 40 years, they didn't have to deal with what audiences liked; they just had to deal with the state. But the industry is finally changing."

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