HONG KONG — A host of upstarts were supposed to follow in his wake. The splash made by Fruit Chan’s attention-getting 1997 directorial debut “Made in Hong Kong” created high hopes that Hong Kong’s independent movie scene was finally about to blossom.
But no such luck: four years on, Chan remains one of less than a handful of indie directors in the city whose projects get easily greenlit. Other aspiring independents found their projects stalled in the decade-long downward spiral of the Hong Kong film industry. Once anointed the leader of a potentially hot new creative pack, Chan has found few following in his hard-won footsteps.
If it’s lonely out there, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Chan’s work. His latest film, “Hollywood Hong Kong,” screened in competition at Venice, and will open the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival later this month. When it screened at Sundance earlier this year, Stateside observers noted that Chan’s talent and experience distinguished him from much of the international indie crowd. “After the screening at Sundance, people came up to me and said ‘That was a real movie!’ ” Chan remembers. “Maybe there were too many student works in the rest of the festival.”
Fiercely self-reliant, Chan, 42, writes his own scripts, but often prefers them incomplete. He waded into some of his most successful works, such as 2000’s “Durian Durian,” with no script at all.
This high-wire approach has caused investor hesitation in the past. But as Chan’s seven-film track record becomes increasingly high profile, willing funders are becoming easier to find. “Hollywood,” for example, boasts French, British and Japanese co-producers — a far cry from Chan’s debut, shot on leftover film stock salvaged from other studios and financed with $80,000 coaxed out of friends and relatives.
A former line producer, Chan endured this low-budget hardship to avoid a greater misery: being told what to do. “My style of independent,” he says, “is really independent.”
His go-it-alone nature is reflected in his choice of subject matter. Coming up? “Public Toilet,” a film inspired by a news report about a boy born in a Chinese latrine.
That’s a departure from Chan’s other fascination, the huge growth in prostitution in mainland China. In “Durian,” a young woman from provincial China comes to Hong Kong (which is still legally and politically distinct from mainland China) as a prostitute — and returns home spectacularly rich by local standards. But her relatives think she has been running a legitimate business, and Chan works deftly to reflect the uneasiness she feels about keeping this myth alive.
“Hollywood,” meanwhile, isn’t nearly as delicate. Its central character — also a prostitute — seems immune to any moral qualms. She arrives in a Hong Kong squatter village and creates an electric chaos — especially for the neighborhood pork butcher and his equally obese sons — that leads Chan to experiment with a very fleshy sort of black comedy.
Too much preparation could spoil these productive forays into uncharted territory. But Chan’s latest project finds him toying with the idea of compromise. He wants to film his next examination of the world’s oldest profession in Vietnam, Russia, and, he hopes, North Korea, for another take on the way the money-first mentality of these nominally Communist nations has so quickly corroded traditional morality.
Of course, all this travel costs money, and Chan’s potential backers are asking for a finished script before shooting starts. The director is doing his best to comply with their requests, but his independent nature means he can’t give any guarantees.
“When I have finished a script, that usually means I’ve also finished filming,” he grins. “I say I really want to let them read something first — but sometimes I just can’t obey.”