Writer/director Wai Ka-fai’s collaborations with Johnnie To stand out from To’s filmography. Preoccupied with the concept of predestination and fated protagonists, Wai’s films feel more heady, more intellectually dense. As a screenwriter who worked his way up the ranks at Hong Kong’s top TV station TVB, he’s earned respect and celebrity beyond perhaps even To’s venerated status within the film community thanks to early minor successes like Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 and later commercial hits like Running Out of Time and Needing You, all of which were produced by To’s production company, Milkyway Image.
I sat down with Wai the evening after his latest solo project, Written By, had its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival (June 19-July 5). Written By stars frequent Wai collaborator Lau Ching-wan as a writer who dies in a car accident. To deal with her grief, his daughter Melody (Kelly Lin) creates a story in which she died and he lived. In that alternate reality, he too deals with his grief by writing a story in which he died and she lives. Wai didn’t answer many of my questions directly, but in his own way he provided an interesting perspective on his creative process.
Your new film, Written By, is very different from the majority of your work with Milkyway. It seems like a more personal film. Where did the idea to make the film come from?
I’ve always been interested in death as a topic and as I get older, I’ve wanted to explore that a little more. Ultimately, it’s common to all humanity that you have to face. Two small quick stories for you that served as my inspiration. The first one is that a friend who was a screenwriter was married and her husband passed away. Every day, for ten years, she was unhappy. Only afterward did I notice that that was depression and that she had been unhappy for a long time. I remember that and I try to portray the pain of losing your loved ones.
Another story: an editor friend of mine who I ran into told me that years ago he was editing a newsclip that involved a building that looked very familiar. It turned out to be the building he lived in and the newsclip was about a woman that had jumped from the building with her child. He realized that it was his wife and kid. So instantly he froze and didn’t know what to do. A couple of years later, he didn’t know how to react to it so he told me that story. We weren’t close friends but he told me that story because he needed to tell somebody because that pain had not gone away for many, many, many years.
At one point in the film, Lau Ching-Wan asks “Why can’t fate just let go of me?” That question of being helpless and at the mercy of unseen forces is one that recurs often in your films. Would you agree and if so, why do you think that is?
I think it’s not just in my movies but in life in general. When they feel frustrated, they think, “Why me? Why am I in this position?” This is a topic that everybody faces.
At the same time, that same question always remains for your characters. You don’t see that as a particular preoccupation of yours?
I think directors know that they can’t avoid fate but because this is something that they don’t understand, I think that some of them try to avoid it. Some filmmakers think that people go to the movies for entertainment, to avoid reality. While some directors go that way, I try to make movies that try to remind my audience of what is closer to reality.
To cope with their grief, the characters in the film resort to recreating their lives through fiction. Many of your films in that sense are about how characters employ coping strategies to get over their emotional instability. Do you see any kind of progression in how the way you think has affected how your characters deal with their personal losses?
Death in unavoidable so I think that if there’s some change in the way that I’ve [approached the] topic when I was young, maybe I was more poetically thinking about it. Maybe evil cannot beat the good ultimately. As I get older, my thinking has become, “Well, sometimes you can choose.” When death comes at you—because it’s almost inevitable, you can’t do anything about it—maybe that evil doesn’t always get beaten by the good. That’s the change in the way I’ve approached the topic.
In Written By, it eventually becomes impossible to distinguish between fictional characters, ghosts and living people. What is so unique about fiction to you as a form of escapism?
When I was editing the film after shooting, I followed the thinking of Melody. I tried to give the audience an understanding of what happens to her mindset. Ten years ago, she lost her father and so she’s tried to recover by writing this book but then her mother and brother die, too. One can never imagine how that feels; she must be so lonely. In the two days after her mom and brother die, she has very violent thoughts and they go back-and-forth between the two stories. There’s a violent switch between the two—it could be storming with lightning outside in one moment and then peaceful the next. I tried to do that, which I think leads to what you said about perception and how you can’t distinguish between the two worlds.
How would you say that your own personal beliefs about death and reincarnation affected the way you wrote the script for this film?
From the day I started to explore this topic of death until now, I realize that there’s more…more…more to it. For me personally, I think death is a terrible thing on its own but it brings meaning to life. Life itself is not meaningful on its own if there wasn’t death. That’s something I’ve realized over the course of making this movie.
Your projects have a large range of different subjects and tones, ranging from comedies to mysteries. Often you mix various different genres in one film. What kind of stories are the most challenging for you? What attracts you to your characters and what kind of stories do you like to tell?
Every time I start a new movie, I begin with these big topics, big areas that I want to explore. I’ve said this earlier but I believe movies and my projects have life so they are unconventional in the sense that I just let them play out and lead to places that I didn’t think I intentionally meant for them to go. Over time, I noticed that these topics are interconnected.
You’ve worked with Johnnie To on several occasions, most recently on Mad Detective. Your collaborations however all seem somewhat more intricate than most of To’s other films. How is his creative process different than yours and how does that affect the way you two work together?
To put it simply, I’m initially the creative mind and Johnnie is the producer. In shooting, we’re both there. Johnnie is a genius in that whatever I want to describe, he’ll do that and then capture, once it’s become a visual image, something different. We’ll talk about it and the script and then we’ll look at the footage and then something else will come up. This back-and-forth is a creative dialogue between us and that carries throughout our projects.
You’ve worked with Lau Ching-Wan many times in the past. Do you think when you wrote Written By that you were catering to his strengths and weaknesses?
Lau Ching-wan and the lawyer are quite similar in their age. Both have a very successful career, a good wife and a family. Over the course of the shooting of the film, he came to me and told me that it was a very tough project for him because it was getting personal. All of a sudden, to go from having what he has to losing his family in the movie—he came to me a couple of times to tell me, “This is almost too much.”
How has making films after the handover of Hong Kong (in 1997) affected the way you make films? How has it affected the way you think about your characters?
I don’t think it’s so much the turnover that had a great significance (on my filmmaking) but I think it’s a coincidence that at the same time, Hong Kong’s movie business went from [being] so high[ly successful] to so far down. This fall—before, it was Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese investors coming in but in a way that created a lot of restrictions. There were very strict rules about genres, about how a movie is produced because you make this and sell it to the Taiwanese in a certain way.
When all of these (investors) were gone, it gave more freedom to producers in Hong Kong because all of a sudden, you’re not confined to those old rules anymore. There’s more creative freedom and I think that’s a positive thing for Hong Kong.
What contemporary filmmakers do you think have had an impact on you?
Akira Kurosawa, the director of The Seven Samurai, has had a big influence on me. In terms of contemporary directors: I don’t really spend that much time following them. There isn’t one but there is Dogville, produced by a Dutch director [Lars] von Trier. That also has had a big impact on me.
You have such a big amount of influence in the Hong Kong filmmaking community. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to in the near-future?
There are these famous Hong Kong siblings, [comedians] Sam and Michael. I’ve had the chance to work with Michael and I knew him from a long time ago but I haven’t had a chance to work with Sam. I was a big fan of theirs since growing up and if there was anyone, he’d be the one. The songs [Sam Hui was also a popular Cantopop singer] also had a big impact on me.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.