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SGIFF: ‘The White Girl’ Is Hong Kong Homecoming for Chris Doyle, Jenny Suen

The White Girl,” Jenny Suen and Chris Doyle’s co-directed drama, is a work of love. Of struggle. And of hope. After a busy festival run, it has its Singapore premiere Tuesday in the SGIFF.

The film is set in the last fishing village in Hong Kong, and is an encounter between a local girl and an older, foreign artist. The story plays out against the backdrop of a changing political and physical environment, that neatly acts as a mirror to the current upheavals in Hong Kong’s social and political fabric.

“For both of us, making this film was something of a homecoming,” said Suen, who had been in the U.S. for 8 years, with some of that time spent studying. Exalted cinematographer, artist and, increasingly filmmaker, Doyle had simply been overseas working for too long. “What we found was that there has been a gap in Hong Kong cinema of about 10 years.”

That is a reference to the disruption caused by the opening up of the mainland Chinese market, and the drift of many major Hong Kong film makers into the China system. Only recently are they being replaced by a new generation of filmmakers, from different backgrounds, who focus on more local subjects, and work with indie budgets.

“The White Girl” was made on a budget of US$1.4 million (HK$10 million), which was all that they had available to them at the time, and filmed in just 14 days. “We had a real sense of purpose,” said Suen. The film will also be self-distributed, with a theatrical release in Hong Kong from Dec. 14.

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The pair made their resources go further through extensive preparation. “We argued about the (co-written) script, in order to avoid arguing on set. And by working on tasks in parallel we could do everything in 14 days. It turned out to be a very fresh and functional approach,” said Doyle.

“We wanted a new lead with pale skin and perfect Cantonese. So we were very happy to have found such a good (nearly) first time actress in Angela Yuen,” said Suen. She plays opposite Japanese star Joe Odagiri.

“Two hundred years ago, Hong Kong was only fishing villages. So, obviously, the fishing village in our film is an allegory for Hong Kong, its distant past and its possible near future. But even without the politics it is a coming of age story. A love story and a love story about Hong Kong,” says Suen. “It ends with the girl alone, and now a woman. Another metaphor, we need to stand up for ourselves, test ourselves.”

“It has had very different reactions in London, where it was seen as a young person’s film, to when we played it in Taiwan (at the Golden Horse festival) and in Hong Kong (at the HK Asian festival). There it was seen on different levels,” said Suen. “It will be interesting to discover the reaction in Singapore.”

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