From growing up as a film buff to becoming one of Hong Kong’s most iconic film directors, Stanley Kwan is known as a filmmaker who stays true to himself. That has earned him a 13-title retrospective screening series at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival.
From his 1985 directorial debut “Women” to two of his most celebrated features “Center Stage” (1992) and “Rouge” (1987), Kwan is known for his sharp eyes and lyrical portrayal of the female psyche against the backdrop of societal changes at a certain space and time. His films may not be the biggest box office hits, but he has no regrets.
“People say that I make ‘female films,’ ‘gay films.’ But they are just labels given by others. I believe in what I do,” Kwan said in a media interview in 2020.
Kwan recalled that he was often asked back in the days why he made films like “Rouge” but not comedies like “God of Gamblers” that ruled the box office. He responded that it was due to his particular skills in certain types of storytelling, rather than a conscious choice. “I can’t make films like ‘Monkey King’,” he said in the interview. “If I ever proposed a project like that investors would’ve asked someone else to direct.”
The Hong Kong auteur has jokingly said he began watching films while he was still in his mother’s womb. “She went to the cinema a lot while she was pregnant with me,” Kwan said in another media interview.
Kwan lived in the same neighborhood as the now-demolished Apollo Theatre in Kowloon. His father took him to see western films such as “The Sound of Music” and “Lawrence of Arabia” rather than local films. He would rather walk instead of taking buses, starve himself instead of buying snacks like his classmates did, in order to save his pocket money to buy more tickets.
HKIFF Society executive director Albert Lee has praised Kwan for setting benchmarks for LGBTQ films in Chinese-language cinema. Kwan has said that he was well aware of his sexuality at a young age. While he was trained and worked at Television Broadcasts until 1979 as assistant director to New Wave filmmakers like Ann Hui and Patrick Tam, he was not denied opportunities because he was gay. Instead, he was surrounded by creative minds who respected who he was.
But Kwan did not make his sexuality public until the release of 1996 documentary “Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema” in which he examined Chinese-language cinema from a gay man’s perspective, discussing male bonding and cross-dressing in Chinese opera and films. He then went on to direct the critically acclaimed gay drama “Lan Yu” (2001), which won him best director prize at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards.
The festival runs April 1-21 and Kwan will meet audiences on April 5, 2021.