Action director turns spiritual for latest pic

'Heroic Duo' hit theaters July 31

HONG KONG — Benny Chan Muk-sing says he has grown up. The 42-year-old Hong Kong director and producer responsible for action hits like “Big Bullet,” “Gen-X Cops” and its sequel “Gen-Y Cops” has spent a couple of years away from the helm, concentrating on producing and recharging his creative batteries. During that time, he says he matured — a quality he hopes is reflected in his upcoming film “Heroic Duo.”

The flick, which will be released by Universe Films July 31, teams a top cop named Kin (Ekin Cheng) with Ching, a former police hypnotist (Leon Lai), to solve a crime committed at a diamond expo. Chan says this film is different from the action fare he’s directed in the past.

His last two movies, the “Gen Cops” pics, featured razor-thin plots carried by pop-star casts and stylized fights. According to Chan, “Heroic Duo” tells a more dramatic tale, with a message-laden storyline that involves long-neglected romances. “I want to encourage people to tell their loved ones how they feel about them,” says Chan. “Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Chan’s philosophical turn sprang from a spiritual awakening he had during his directing sabbatical. His wife, a lifelong Catholic, had been asking him to go to church for more than 10 years. After putting his directing career on the back burner in 2000, he finally made time to join her at Mass. The message there struck a chord with him, and Chan converted to Catholicism in March of this year. Also inspired by a law enforcement friend who told him about the use of hypnotism in detective work, Chan worked with writers Adrian Kwan and Alan Yuen to come up with a rough script, although in true Hong Kong style, the final scenes were written on the set.

As is often the case, time was a luxury Chan simply didn’t have. The $3.5 million “Duo” was shot in two-and-a-half months at the height of Hong Kong’s SARS outbreak The cast and crew wore surgical masks on the set. Beyond budget constraints, Chan says his biggest challenges in making the film were balancing the action and drama sequences, and fitting them into 100 minutes. “Hong Kong movies cannot be longer than two hours,” Chan says, grousing that cinemas want shorter films so they can fit in more shows. Chan admits he may annoy cast and crew members because he tends to be a perfectionist. “I’m very different from other directors because I didn’t learn from studying or going to school,” he says. “So I have to learn from experience on the set. I just keep trying to make it better.”