Chris Kyme continues his “Postcard from Hong Kong” series and this month his topic is keeping up tradition – Hong Kong’s newer wave directors…..
There was a time when, in the grand scheme of the Asian creative arena, Singapore was known for its simple, often copy-driven print work, Thailand and Japan for some often brilliantly wacky TV, and Hong Kong for its big production values.
Of course this was a time when, unlike today, half the markets in Asia were not even on the creative map (to cite a nifty little ad created by David Guerrero when he was raising the flag for the Philippines).
When the media landscape consisted of a bit of print, a bit of outdoor, some TV and the odd event or outdoor promotion. Not the multi-channeled smorgasboard of anything goes, at any time, anywhere, as we know it today.
So Hong Kong prided itself on having a handful of pretty good directors plying their trade in what was a tiny playing field (with the doors to China as a market still slowly creaking open) Of course, for someone like me who is not so old (ha ha), I can only go on what I was being told when I first got here. But I do remember some of the key directors who everyone wanted to work with, like Louis Ng, David Tsui (still going strong), Stasch Radwanski, Larry Shiu, Brian Lai, Gera Ho and Richard Au Yeung.
They made things look good. It was all about production values and they were craftsmen.
It helped that along the way a new young local generation of creative people were rising up and the creative competition was fierce. On top of that, the idea of doing ‘agency initiative work’ had not yet become the by now well-worn path to the awards stage, so agencies were trying really hard to sell in good work if they wanted to get anywhere. So here and there the directors of the day encountered some pretty decent storyboards to work with.
Over the years where did it all go wrong? Well, it didn’t really. But given the shift in market focus (China), media spending in Hong Kong fizzled out a bit, along with production budgets, not helped by the fact that, as technology revolutionized the production process anyone and everyone could call themselves a director and shoot on a shoestring for naturally delighted clients. In fact, post 1997 things actually got more interesting, and some of the best local work was being shot by directors such as Alfred Hau, who made his mark with a distinctly Hong Kong style of humour.
So who are the new kids on the block, the rising directors today?
I must admit that, being in a smaller agency, the chances to shoot with a good director on a proper budget are a bit thin on the ground. However, some recent projects found us in need of doing a bit of a recce on who’s out there doing what and I must say we encountered a handful of current generation directors (I won’t use the word young because that’s irrelevant) who I found quite refreshing.
But here’s the dilemma (for them). We saw good showreels of work that directors have made something of, in the absence of ideas, sadly. When you look at director reels, I always like to think about what they made of what was there. What the director brought to the table.
One of the Hong Kong directors currently plying his trade quite healthily here is Sylvester Song of One Sly Dog films. I’ve known Sly for years (actually I helped get his career started, so..), and I was delighted to see how he’s been carving his name a bit with some really nice soft human-focused work, delivered with an art director’s eye. As an ex well-respected art based creative director, I was not too surprised to see that side to his work. And it was his considerable experience working on commercials in agencies that led to him getting behind the camera as he told me. “Even as a creative, I was always interested in all the different stages of producing a film or commercial. And over the years as a creative, I was lucky enough to be involved in many TVC productions, and in the process, working with some of the best directors in the business. Honestly, it’s the best training ground to learn the craft of Film Directing.”
Serious about where he was going, Sly took a break from advertising to study film in New York. “Even though I had a very strong TV reel as a creative, I had zero experience as a film director. So I thought that by studying in Film School, I can (A) have a stronger foundation as a film director and (B) I can make use of the school facilities to get a Director’s reel together.”
Good move, after he finished the course, he came back to Hong Kong and was approached by Y&R to help setup an in-house production unit for one of their major clients, Colgate Palmolive and was also given an opportunity to direct as their in-house director.
“I took the job because I think it allowed me to direct regional TVCs that otherwise, would be impossible to come by as a new director.”
I was particularly impressed by the Colgate work Sly had been doing, plus a beautiful series of 15 short digital spots for BSIEE, a China fashion brand.
Sly says that he can’t particularly describe his own style. “Some directors have their own style but I don’t think I have a style if you look at my work. Maybe that’s because of my background is a creative, my directing style is heavily depended on what style works best for the idea and the film. I love directing films that have some element of humanity in them because I like telling human stories that connect with the viewers at an emotional level. However, my biggest dream is to direct something with big budget visual concept for a big brand.” We’ve since enjoyed working with him on a couple of occasions and will definitely be looking for more opportunities. Hopefully on that big budget for a big brand.
Another director we came across (and thankfully we did because he directed a beautifully moving film for us), is Martin Chau. Similar to Sly, Martin was driven by his passion for film, which led him to Los Angeles to study films in college. From there his path was set, as he explained to me. “When I came back to Hong Kong, I just wanted to find a job which allowed me to be near a shooting set. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, television was cool, as were the commercials, with so many brilliant creative people and directors doing all doing great work. So as a film graduate, I figured which better field than advertising could allow one to shoot with different materials and genres? That summer, I picked up the yellow pages and started looking at the advertising section.”
Luckily Martin encountered veteran Hong Kong award-winning creative director Annie Wong, who was prepared to look past his immaturity and give him a job. “Despite the fact that I clearly did not having a clue what advertising is, I got my first job as an assistant producer in JWT. I met a lot of great people and learnt so much during that time, some of them even became my best friends. But after a year or so, I realised I didn’t just want to be near a shooting set, I wanted to be in a shooting set. And that was the time when “viral videos” started trending. So I left JWT and started Ogle Production Ltd.”
Some careers are meant to be I always think, and Martin has since been slowly building a reputation for storytelling films with his uncanny eye for delivering human stories rich with emotional touches. What impressed me were the little moments in between the dialogue. The cutaways. A director’s eye for details. He describes his style as thus “I love to observe human beings, I want to know what makes them laugh, what makes them cry. And recently I became fascinated by the concept of storytelling. I read in a book a saying that our world is actually fabricated by stories. From pop culture to religions, from currency to ideology… when thinking of the power of storytelling, I am very excited to be part of the industry.”
We were excited to have Martin shoot our recent spot for Prudential in Hong Kong, featuring the real life story of the actress playing the part, Mandy Lam. When he looked into our story, he wanted to dig even deeper into the moments and ended up re-writing the script to bring out the sheer raw emotional stress of someone diagnosed with cancer. Bringing out a brilliant, believable performance from the actress who bravely agreed to act out her own life experience.