Sunday, February 22, 2009

Eric Tsang – Filmmaker in Focus

For many of us who first became familiar with Hong Kong film back in the 1990’s, the idea that one day the Hong Kong International Film Festival would honor Eric Tsang by choosing him as their “Filmmaker in Focus” in 2008 would have sounded totally bizarre; as if it was an announcement from a parallel dimension. You mean that funny looking guy with the short rotund body, the mortar sized and shaped head and an infantile laugh? To most of us, he registered only as a frantically eye popping comedic actor who appeared to be just barely on the plus side of mental retardation. This simplistic impression came from his roles in the Lucky Star series and a plethora of girl chasing Cinema City comedies.

What wasn’t so apparent to many of us is that he was already an influential force behind the camera as a director and producer. As he grew into middle age during the 1990’s he finally came into his own as an actor; getting serious roles to which he brought a surprising depth and gravitas to his characters whether they were tough triad bosses, lonely homosexuals or a down on his luck fellow listening to a prostitute tell him her life story. Looking back now one can spot certain earlier films in which Tsang displayed some of this acting talent, but they were often in small films that few of us saw such as Final Victory (1987) directed by Patrick Tam and written by Wong Kar-wai, Fatal Vacation (1990) as the courageous tour guide and Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye (1991) directed by Peter Chan.

But today while still having an active acting career, Tsang’s influence in the film industry has continued to grow and he along with a few others are all that stands between the survival of the industry or giving up the ghost. He mentors young directors, finds funding for other people’s projects, hands out advice, acts in films and just keeps going. So in fact, it is really no surprise at all that HKIFF honored him. They put out a small book on Tsang with interviews and information about his life and I thought I would dig through this and write up some pertinent facts about his career.

His father was a football coach and Eric followed in his footsteps by becoming a professional football player. To bring in some extra cash, he asked his friend Sammo Hung if he could find him some work in the film industry. Sammo brought him in as a stuntman and Tsang never looked back – he fell in love with making movies immediately. He became part of Lau Kar-leung’s team and went to Taiwan to work for the Chang Cheh Film Company. After a few years he joined Sammo’s stunt team and says “I’d been with Lau for a number of years and his style was real kung-fu while Hung was all about somersaults and rolls. Working with them was like going to two different universities.” While working as a stuntman on Karl Maka’s The Good, the Bad and the Loser in 1976 Maka advised Tsang that with his ability to tell stories he should try his hand at scriptwriting and so Tsang did.

He helped out with script duties on the classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for Lau and Enter the Fat Dragon for Sammo – then became the script supervisor on Sammo’s The Iron Fisted Monk in 1977 and moved up rapidly to assistant director and editor on Sammo’s Warriors Two in 1978. He acted in John Woo’s 1977 film Money Crazy and had this to say about him “He always had his collar up, a cigarette dangling from his lips and was always pretending to be a gweilo so he was called the French Gangster”.

His first director gig came about in an interesting manner. He was working on the script for Jackie Chan’s The Fearless Hyena in 1979 when Lo Wei along with Raymond Chow from Golden Harvest asked him to bring Jackie back from Taiwan to make some films – but Chan never showed up and so Tsang suggested that he direct a film in the meantime – The Deadly Challenger in which he brought on his drinking buddy David Chiang as the lead. The Loot (1980) also with Chiang was soon to follow but before long Tsang was to take his next important step in film production.

By 1980 Hong Kong cinema was beginning to go through a major transition that would lead to an astonishing fifteen years of innovative films, great charismatic actors and new dynamic directors. During the 1960’s through much of the 70’s two Mandarin film companies – the Shaw Brothers and Cathay – had dominated the market place and in doing so had practically made extinct the Cantonese film. But Cathay had gone out of business in the late 60’s (selling their property to a new company called Golden Harvest) and the Shaw Brothers were clearly running out of steam and were to close film shop by the mid-80’s. This void allowed a new group of actors/directors/producers who made Cantonese films to make their way onto the scene and who upped the energy level considerably. The first major new player on the scene in the early 70's was Golden Harvest (first with Bruce Lee but even more so later with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and the Hui Brothers) who began the dramatic transition from Mandarin to Cantonese language films.

In the early 1980’s another company began to make waves – a commune of filmmakers who banded together to get financing and to make a different kind of film – modern comedies for the most part that were also loaded with action. This was Cinema City that was initially formed by Karl Maka, Dean Shek and Raymond Wong but then expanded to include Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Teddy Kwan and Eric Tsang. Tsang says “When I first left Lo Wei’s company, there were a few options. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung at Golden Harvest, and Yuen Woo-ping all offered. At the time my inclination was either Chan or Hung, but Chan’s company wasn’t approving my expected salary. It was only because I bumped into Maka on a flight to Taiwan and he said I should go to Cinema City. He immediately approved the $20,000 I needed to cover all car, mortgage and family expenses. We shook hands and that was that”.

The seven of them spent hours simply sitting around and throwing out ideas and building on others. They went home to change clothes and came back to trade some more thoughts. Tsang says “the best chemistry I had was with Tsui. I was also the one who understood the most of what he was saying. Everyone else would just stare at him”. Tsang’s first film as a director was Aces Go Places, an enormously fun film that starred Karl Maka, Sam Hui and Sylvia Chang and broke box office records. The success of this film forced Tsang to direct the sequel (three more came after that but were directed by others). Tsang was the first to leave Cinema City around 1985 and began working for Bo Ho, Sammo’s film company, where he helped write scripts and produce films like the Lucky Star series and Mr. Vampire (that became a cottage industry on its own) and directed the Jackie Chan film Armour of God in 1987.

By 1987 Tsang thought it was finally time to break out on his own and set up his own production company – Alan and Eric Films formed with Alan Tam and Teddy Kwan. In this film company and his next Friend Cheers, Tsang generally focused on smaller more artistic films often using new directors. Some of these titles were You’re My Destiny, Trouble Couples, The Other Half (directed by Clara Law), Women’s Prison, Golden Swallow, Fatal Vacation, The Tigers, Alan and Eric: Between Hello and Goodbye, Zodiac Killers (directed by Ann Hui) and others – but none of these really hit box office gold and the production companies all went out of business. It was to be Tsang’s next production company that made some of the best films of the 1990’s – UFO (United Filmmakers Organization).

Formed in 1993 by Tsang UFO targeted the middle class as their audience and shied away from action or fantasy films instead doing contemporary dramas and comedies with some of Hong Kong’s best talent in front of and behind the camera. Tsang’s role was primarily as the money guy – it was up to him to find financing for ideas that directors like Peter Chan, Joe Ma, Teddy Chan, Lee Chi-ngai, Benny Chan, Samson Chiu and others had. Out of this arrangement came such fine films as Yesteryou, Yesterme Yesterday (1993), Tom, Dick & Harry (1993), He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (1993), Twenty Something (1994), He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), Lost and Found (1996) and Comrades: Almost a Love Story (that also had one of Tsang’s first great performances that was to foreshadow many more to come). But near the end UFO gambled on some big budget films – The Age of Miracles, Heaven Can Wait and Whatever Will Be, Will Be and their lack of success caused the company to largely fall apart by 1997. Their last film in co-operation with Golden Harvest was And I Hate You So in 2000.

This seems to have taken the starch out of Tsang for a few years and he went back to simply acting – some of his best though – Task Force (1997), Hold You Tight (1998), Metade Fumaca (1999), Cop on a Mission and Merry-Go-Round (2001) and Infernal Affairs (2002). But producing eventually took a hold of him again and he worked with Peter Chan to produce The Eye and Three: Going Home and with others on Golden Chicken, Men Suddenly in Black, Three . . . Extremes, Jiang Hu, The Pye-Dog and After this Our Exile. He is one of the few go to guys in Hong Kong film – someone who just won’t allow it to die.


Burak said...

Eric Tsang is one of my favorite Hong Kong "sidekick" actors. He always deserves the best.
A little while ago I wrote a short portrait about him on my Asian Movie blog and compared him to a few Turkish actors.

YTSL said...

Hi Brian --

Glad you decided to dedicate a blog entry to Eric Tsang. Get the feeling that he's really respected by his fellow Hong Kong film folks -- when I interviewed both the young directors of "Magic Boy" (which he produced) and "The Moss" (in which he had an onscreen role -- and also may have a hand in producing), they showered him with praise that came across to me as absolutely genuine.

Steve said...

I think my favorite performance of his was in Metade Fumaca. Very touching/vulnerable. Other times, I don't know. His looks can detract from the character he's playing. I'm sure he's a great guy, etc.

Brian, you might want to link each movie title to the movie review on your site.

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