The Collaborator: An Interview With Sylvia Chang

Over a movie career spanning more than 30 years, Taiwan-born actress, director, writer and producer Sylvia Chang has become one of Hong Kong’s most respected filmmakers. She started out at the age of 16, starring in classics like Li Hanxiang’s Dream Of The Red Chamber (1977) and King Hu’s Legend Of The Mountain (1979). In the 1980s, she moved into directing. Chang found recognition for directing Passion in 1986, and has since won more acclaim for Siao Yu (1995), Tempting Heart (1999) and 20 30 40 (2004). All the while she’s continued to take on major acting roles in Hong Kong and abroad. Her latest movie as director, Run Papa Run stars Louis Koo and René Liu. It delivers a mix of family and gangster drama, with added helpings of fantasy and nostalgia.

How was Run Papa Run conceived?

We started with a book, a paperback novel literally translated as The Mafia Dad. The author is a friend of mine. The cover was quite funny, a picture of a guy holding a little girl’s hand. He was tattooed - he was a mafia guy holding a little girl. I always felt very curious about why, in Hong Kong films, all the male characters are either mafia or police. There must be a reason people always put in the mafia. I said, OK, if a gangster encounters family life, what will he do? So that’s how the idea came about. I went to my friend and picked up the rights, and we started writing the script.

The storytelling style you adopted has many aspects to it.

The first script came out as a comedy. But I thought it was too light - so light that it hardly had any emotion. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to focus more on the man’s side of the story. So I decided to enlarge each character. I put aside the script for about a year and-ahalf, and then picked it up to rewrite. I wanted to write more about the relationship between the man and the three women in his life. The first script had more emphasis on the little girl and the father. I thought it should be more than that. I created the mother, and then I enlarged the role of the wife. I gave more space for the other two characters, so there’s less story about him and his little girl. But the whole thing started with the little girl.

And the daughter brings about both cosmetic and fundamental changes.

I think the little girl is like the one who lights the firecracker and makes him start to change. Once the person starts changing, he changes as a whole: his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with the mafia. So it’s the whole thing.

The film also references change in Hong Kong, the city itself.

Yes, there are actually many, many changes, because this is a period film. It starts in the 1960s. You see a lot of changes in the city, in people’s lives and also in the mafia. It’s all in there, but it’s subtly done.

Run Papa Run uses touches of animation, magic realism and effects. Why is this?

It’s because it makes for a more interesting approach. To me, when you’re young everything is so romantic, so sensitive. You don’t have to take so much responsibility and you can do anything you want. I felt, as a director, I wanted to do anything I wanted at the beginning [of the movie]. Then when you come to the end, you have to have a responsibility, you have to make sure you know what you’re doing in your life. I was very, very careful with the transition - I wanted to make the transition very smooth. There are two styles in the film, but you don’t remember where the transition started.

Is there a sense of adventure for you in this approach?

Actually, in my past few films, I’ve done a lot of animation. I’ve always felt that animation or special effects shouldn’t just be limited to science-fiction films and their ilk. Dramas can also play around with them. There are so many things you can bring back or create which we might not find in the real world anymore.

For the cast you combined new actresses with screen veterans, and even directors. What inspired this?

When I started the film, I told Louis and René, “I want to make a film you will enjoy. The whole process, everybody will enjoy it.” But of course it was still very, very hectic. The script has 133 scenes and we only had 30-something shooting days, a limited budget and some very, very difficult shots to do. But I was very lucky, because whenever I called up and asked people to do cameos, they agreed. They were so supportive, it was very touching. After this experience, I’ve decided that filmmaking is not just about directors, and not just about actors - it’s about collaboration.
Tim Youngs