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The Limits of Control: An Interview with Wai Ka-fai

An interview with Milkway mastermind and Johnnie To collaborating producer, writer and director Wai Ka-Fai.

One of the creative forces behind Milkyway Image, the production company he co-founded in 1996 with director Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai is best known for his collaborative efforts as screenwriter, producer, and co-director on over twenty films, including Fulltime Killer, Mad Detective, and this year’s Cannes premiering Vengeance.

Yet over the years Wai has embarked on several solo projects, writing and directing a handful of (mostly) smaller, personal films. From the darkly comic and stylishly audacious Too Many Ways to Be No. 1, to the screwball romcom The Shopaholics, and his latest, the ghostly meta-melodrama Written By, which is having its world premiere at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival, there’s hardly a genre Wai hasn’t dabbled in. Though at first glance these films appear to have little in common, there are thematic commonalities that run through all of them. Through the assistance of interpreter Ophilia Chow, Daniel NOTEBOOK and I sat down with Wai a few days back to discuss his works, his methods, and his journey from 1980’s TV director to becoming one of the busiest figures in the Hong Kong film industry.

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NOTEBOOK: Your latest film, Written By, seems to be several things at once…obviously part ghost story, part traditional melodrama, and also somewhat experimental in its narrative approach. Can you talk about what your intentions were, and what inspired you to make the film?

WAI KA-FAI: The movie has a complicated plot, but it will be easy for the audience to understand if they look at things from the daughter’s perspective. Think about a twelve year old girl, blinded when she was young, wanting to make her mother feel better by re-inventing the character of her [deceased] father. It’s a pity for her, from her perspective, that there are no ghosts in the world or that she doesn’t believe in them. Yet this pity prompts her fictional creation. There are different dimensions of the world laid out by the girl writing the book. So viewing everything from her perspective should help in understanding it.

NOTEBOOK: The structure of Written By, which has someone trying to re-capture something that’s lost, is a theme that recurs often in your work. In Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 the story is repeated, with different results for the characters; My Left Eye Sees Ghosts—which is very similar to this film—the heroine is trying to get over a loved one’s death; and your most recent collaboration with Johnnie To, Vengeance, finds a man hunting those who killed his family as he begins to lose his memory…what do you find so attractive about this theme?

WAI: It’s a common fear among mankind to lose someone you love, so this is a topic I like to continually explore in my films.

NOTEBOOK: Expanding on that a bit, it seems that in your films there is this idea that an individual’s fate is not determined; choice is always possible. In The Shopaholics it’s done very comically—who’s going to marry whom—whereas in Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 it’s a simple choice that results in either life or death.

WAI: Ever since I was part of the production team at [Hong Kong TV station] TVB, choice has always been a recurring topic. Life isn’t always about big choices—marriage, or what you do with your life—it’s about little things, little choices that you make, as you can see in Too Many Ways to Be No. 1.

NOTEBOOK: So do you personally believe that fate is not determined?

WAI: Most of the time, I believe that people have the ability to change their fate. But when it comes to the big picture, or extreme circumstances as you see in Written By, people are restricted, in a sense, and the ability to change things disappears. So there is a two-fold level to this.

NOTEBOOK: In Vengeance, Johnny Hallyday wants to make up for what happened to his family, but there’s a limited path of action he can take—he can only kill people.

WAI: I agree. Everyone has their own roots, and from that their own path. Some have a broader range, and some a narrower one, and it’s hard to break out of this big picture, the big circle. There are always boundaries.

NOTEBOOK: Vengeance, then, shows a limited range, whereas Written By, with its layers of fiction and invention within invention, shows an extreme range of choices. Does genre in any way dictate that range, or is it your feeling when creating these characters? Vengeance is more of a thriller so it must follow one kind of path, while your new film is more freeform and fantastical so it can easily branch off…

WAI: Regarding those two movies and the way the choice is being portrayed, Vengeance is more of a big production, involving overseas actors, and is more commercial than Written By, so the way lives are portrayed is more straightforward. With Written By the genre is more creative, and I had the freedom to express my own thoughts and change it along the way. It’s a lot more layered and complex than the other film. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you consider Written By to be a commercial film? It is hard for us to gauge what type of Hong Kong audience this film caters to.

WAI: To my mind, this is a personal film, but there are commercial elements to it that a larger audience can appreciate. I prefer making personal films, but about ten years ago audiences weren’t as receptive to unconventional films as they are now, so we had to balance it with commercial projects. We need to survive in this industry, and this is how we do it, yet we equally enjoy making both kinds of movies.

NOTEBOOK: You’re involved in multiple productions each year. Can you talk about your working method, especially on your collaborations with Johnnie To? I imagine there’s a lot of overlap at any given time—editing one, writing another, shooting a third.

WAI: [Laughs.] It’s gotten better these days. There was a time when we would be in the final stages of production on one film, doing promotion on another, and having a new film coming out at the same time.

NOTEBOOK: In the eleven years since Milkway Image Productions began, what sort of changes have you seen in the Hong Kong film industry, especially in terms of support for smaller, more independent productions? Are you still shooting exclusively on film?

WAI: I enjoy using film as a medium. But with Written By I scanned the entire film on a computer so I could manipulate the colors in post-production. The film has a lot of different layers and time-lines, and I was able to create a different set of color tones for each layer, to distinguish them. I enjoy combining technology in this way, but I still prefer to shoot on film.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your collaboration with actor Lau Ching-wan who appears in almost all your films?

WAI: Lau and I are both roughly the same age. We go way back to the days at TVB. I was involved in a production where I had the ability to pick my own actors, and I noticed this guy who was not very handsome—but very talented! I first saw him act in a production with Tony Leung, and I was impressed. When I began working on movies, I asked him to be a part of my productions because I thought he could really portray what I wanted to show the audience.

NOTEBOOK: I find your style very audacious, almost gymnastic. How do you envision a scene? Do you imagine it during the writing process, or do you figure it out once you arrive on the set? I gather your movies rarely turn out how you imagined them.

WAI: You’re right, the final production and the original intention are usually entirely different. That is, except for the case where I have to submit a script or an idea to the authorities, and they give me a greenlight to produce it. In that case, you can’t deviate too much from your original plan.

NOTEBOOK: Do you watch a lot of contemporary Hong Kong cinema? Do you have time to watch movies at all?

WAI: Sometimes I don’t watch movies for several months, but when looking for inspiration, I can watch several hundred movies at a time that are related to my choice of topic. And not only movies, but books, music, and everything.

Fascinating stuff. Always wanted to read an interview with Wai Ka-Fai. Very appropriate choice of words towards the end there, Danny — “gymnastic” seems like the only true adjective for all of Wai’s films.
Have you seen many of his films Ignatiy? Unfortunately Wai wasn’t as candid as we had hoped, but I’m still fascinated by him and Milkway’s studio-like existence…

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