How We Restored Made in Hong Kong: An Interview with Fruit Chan

The centrepiece of FEFF’s “Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997-2017” programme is the international premiere of the 4K restoration of Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong. FEFF commissioned the restoration of Chan’s acclaimed picture to mark the 20th anniversary of its first public screening after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Restoration was conducted from the original camera negative, with the supervision of director Chan and cinematographer O Sing-pui, and was carried out in 2017 by L’Immagine Ritrovata in its Hong Kong office and Bologna headquarters. We spoke with Fruit Chan about the project.

How did you feel when you were approached with the idea of restoring Made in Hong Kong?

This began three years ago. We had just screened The Midnight After in Udine, and we were approached with the idea of restoring Made in Hong Kong. I’d wanted to restore this film for a long time, but the cost was too high. When the Udine Far East Film Festival said it wanted to pay for the restoration, I was really happy. First of all, I had faith in the lab doing it. I don’t know about the quality of Hong Kong or Asian labs, but this Italian lab has a good reputation, so I was more than happy to say yes immediately.
The process ended up taking three years because we had to search the warehouse for the sound reels, and figure out how to remix the whole thing. In the process, we realised that some things were missing. Fortunately, the lab was able to save it. Back then, we had reels for dialogue, reels for sound effects and reels for the score. The sound reels were mixed from those. You don’t need that anymore today, so that simplifies things.

What input did you have during the process?

I was worried that the restored version would look too polished, too high-def. To be honest, the film was made on expired film stock, so it had a very raw look to it. The colours didn’t match, which is a distinguishing feature of the film. I was worried that the film would become something else if it looked too clean. So I asked them to retain the rawness and the grain of the visuals. It was easy for me to say something like that, but I had no idea how they would go about it.
When I saw the restored version, I was very pleased with the end result. They didn’t do much to digitally polish the film. It was a faithful replication of the original instead. Everything looked beautiful. The only problem was the colour. I don’t know if it was a result of the restoration process, but there was too much contrast between the colours. Of course, that contrast existed in the original version. Things either looked really blue or really green. I hadn’t seen the film in a while, so I was asking myself if the contrast was really that strong 20 years ago.
When we got to the colour grading stage, I was wondering if we should keep it as is. But I thought the contrast was too strong. Someone from the lab said to me, “But you asked them not to change too much.” Still, I thought that it would be OK to change things in the colour grading if it would make the colours less sharp. So they fixed the parts where the contrast of the colours was too strong. But there was, one thing that absolutely could not be touched: a strand of hair. That hair was an eyesore the first time I saw it on the film print. But then I thought, it’s quite iconic. (Laughs.) I haven’t seen the final version of the restoration, but I have faith that the lab will do a good job. So I left the rest up to them.

What kind of challenges did you run into during the process?

The challenges probably resulted from a storage move. Films usually come in nine or 10 reels. That meant 10 sound reels, 10 dialogue reels, 10 sound effects reels, 10 music reels. Somehow two of the sound reels went missing. I was so angry, although I understand that these things happen.
I was quite worried about the missing sound reels because I didn’t know if the lab would be able to fix it. But when we couldn’t find the reels, I had no choice but to ask them to fix it. I think they sourced the sound from the Betacam version, because that was the best possible version of the final film [outside of the original negative]. What’s amazing is that I know that the sound on Betacam is not as good as the one on film, and yet I can’t tell the difference [on the restored version]. I’ll have to ask the lab about this one day.

The film was sitting in a warehouse for nearly two decades. What condition was it in when you took it out?

Andy Lau’s company has air-conditioned storage, so the film was fine. At least it didn’t have any mould. The only problem was the missing sound reels. The film print was fine – otherwise it would’ve been quite a fright!

How did you feel when you saw the restored version?

I thought the whole process was really worth doing. The lab really did a great job. It’s a bit of a pity that there’s no money in Hong Kong to restore independent films, and that we had to rely on foreign funding, and a foreign firm to do it. I’d asked around for quotes, but it was too expensive.

How does it feel to see the film again after 20 years?

To be honest, the film is still pretty good! (Laughs.) I’m not just saying that because it’s my film. Anyway, that’s why I thought that this restoration was something worth doing. I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. Seeing it again made me realise that it was worth restoring. In hindsight, I probably would’ve done the restoration eventually. So, now I’m getting offers to also restore Durian Durian and Little Cheung. I’m thinking that’s going to cost a fortune, but I’ve become addicted to this restoration business. Still, [Made in Hong Kong] is a classic. There’s no doubt about that. It sounds like I’m boasting about my own film, but I still have to say that.

20 years have passed by. How have things changed for you as a filmmaker?

I held off on making mainstream films for a decade. It’s a bit pessimistic, but independent cinema will always only have a small following. So, starting with The Midnight After, I decided to make more mainstream films. It’s difficult to survive by just making independent films. That’s a problem in Hong Kong. The US and other countries have their own independent cinema scene, but the Hong Kong market doesn’t really allow for it. I tried to hang in there for 10 years, but I couldn’t do it any longer. Hong Kong’s [film industry] ecology didn’t allow it.

How were you able to hang on for 10 years?

I kept working in the indie world until 2000 or 2001. I stopped because the indie or art-house market had shrunk considerably. Besides, there wasn’t even an international market for [local] art-house films, let alone a local market. I needed the foreign market to survive. So I stopped making independent films.  
Of course, I would like to shoot [independent films] again if given the chance, but it wouldn’t be a long-term career move. If there’s a story that should be shot as a small film, then I would do it that way. The good thing about shooting a small film is that I can do whatever I want. There’s more freedom. When I make a commercial film, there are too many considerations to make. If there’s a chance for me to make one or two independent projects, I would do it.

Do you miss the old days?

Of course I do. We talk about them all the time. It was so much fun back then. We weren’t afraid of anything, and we made whatever we wanted. But I sometimes ask myself if it would be possible to recreate that [way of working] today. It would have been impossible to make it back then if I didn’t have my friends to help. It would be even harder now, because so much has changed.
Kevin Ma