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Teaching Filmmakers to Tell Their Own Tale

Ding Yuin Shan, Acting Dean of the School of Film and Television

1 Feb 2023
Teaching Filmmakers to Tell Their Own Tale

Filmmakers are consummate storytellers. And Ding Yuin Shan has quite a story to tell. He has been an executive producer, an associate producer, and producer for dozens of Hong Kong films. But the story starts back in Taiwan, before he even moved to Hong Kong over 20 years ago. Shan can narrate the local script. He speaks fluent Cantonese – and fluent colloquial Cantonese, at that. Where does the current action begin? Shan traces it to 2010, when the then-Dean of Film and Television, Shu Kei, invited him to join the School. Mr. Shu was hoping to hire someone still working in the industry to teach students about filmmaking. "I was helping to develop new talents at a film company," Shan recalls. So a change of scene made sense. "I thought if I was going to nurture talent, I might as well start from the source: in school." It was a part- time post at first. Now a full 12 years have gone by since he shifted from studio to campus, and Shan is the Associate Dean of the School of Film and Television, as well as the Head (Screen Creative Producing) and Postgraduate Programme Leader. Wearing many hats at once is a trait of Hong Kong filmmakers. The difference lies in that, in education, you don't ever "call it a wrap" as you might on the set. You just keep going.


In the '70s and '80s, movies were the main source of entertainment for most people. Shan's parents were typical fans of the cinema, and he came under their influence. He went to university in the United States, where he earned a double degree in European history and film theory. Then he undertook a master's degree in film theory at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. While in the United States, Shan got to know the works of Johnnie To, and decided to come to Hong Kong after graduation to pay pilgrimage.


"I joked to my friends that I was going to Hong Kong for a few months, to get Johnnie To and Sean Lau's autographs," he says. In the end, he joined Johnnie To's company Milkyway Image, and stayed there for 10 years. During that span he helped produce several Hong Kong classics, including The Mission, Running on Karma, Election, and Sparrow.


While getting those movies made, he had already generated a winning impression of the Academy from working alongside its interns. That encouraged him to take the post in 2010. "At the film company where I was working, there were many interns sent by the universities," he remembers. "The Academy students really stood out. They left a deep impression on me. So as far as I'm concerned, I am teaching the very best students now."


A year later, Shan was entrusted with the responsibility of teaching on the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Cinema Production Programme, thereby officially becoming a full- time member of the School.


"Most people, including myself, began working after getting their master's. In other words, the master's programme was the last learning environment of film students before stepping out into the real world. I have a duty to equip them with the best gear for the workplace."


Dissolving Differences

Since its start, the Academy's Master's Degree of Fine Arts in Cinema Production has attracted Chinese-speaking students from the Mainland, Macau, Taiwan, and Singapore. Their shared passion for cinema has enabled them to understand, dissolve and resolve any cultural differences there may be.


"Some film schools stress individual training; we stress teamwork," Shan says. "Our graduation project requires the students to produce a film together. This practice boosts team spirit and centripetal force. Everyone supports and respects each other."


Tracy Choi is a 2013 Academy graduate from Macau who was writing screenplays as a student. Shan is very supportive of her work.


"After graduating from the Academy, she received support from a HK$1.5 million fund," Shan explains. "I helped her to contact Louis Koo to support the film as its investor. Thus, Sisterhood was made. The film won prizes in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland, and even Japan."


Shan admits to being a strict teacher who expects a lot from his students. "When I first started teaching the MFA, I kept feeling that my students weren't up to par," he says.


Three years ago, Shan's Mainland student Guo Yapeng invited him to be the producer for his entry in the FIRST International Film Festival, in the city of Xining. At the briefing, Shan assessed that all the participants were promising young directors from top film schools both in the Mainland or abroad. But he believed Guo Yapeng's work more than measured up. It surprised him, and made him realise he should not underestimate the potential of his students.


"Ha ha," he deadpans. "I asked a lot of them. I was very strict in class. But they rose to the challenge. From then on, I demanded even more of myself in my effort to equip my students to take on the world."


Shock of Self-Discovery

The film industry all too often becomes a battlefield, requiring something akin to a military operation to achieve results. Shan admits that many students don't realise how difficult it is to make a film. He challenges them in the hope it will lead to self-reflection.


"Sometimes you need to trust yourself. Do you like watching films or do you like making films? They're two completely different things. The process of self-discovery can be shocking, but my responsibility is to manifest a real environment for the students to experience. If it's not for them, at least they know early on. From my experience, most students are 'reborn after roasting in the flames of enlightenment', so to speak. The process of getting back on your feet after hitting rock bottom is particularly memorable."


Unlike undergraduate students, master's students come from all walks of life and from all over. They also have good reasons for coming.


"Many master's students are experiencing a watershed in life," he says. "I need to make my teaching flexible so they will have the confidence to finish what it is they want to finish."


Shan points to a student from several years back, someone studying opera who switched to film because she believed herself physically not suited for the demands of opera. "This student is quick-witted, great executive producer material," he asserts. "After graduating, she joined Tsui Hark's film company where she was appreciated for her strengths as a post-production supervisor."


There is plenty of such potential among Shan's students, who show considerable diversity in intention. For example, there's a finance graduate who wants to get involved in film- production funding. There's also an investment manager who wants to know more about film and television production.


"Most film schools teach you how to shoot movies or write stories," Shan says. "But when you join the industry, you'll realise filmmaking is all about teamwork. The producer, director, scriptwriter, photographer, editor, score composer, art director, everyone has their role. Students need to know something about all these areas."


Education Expands Life


Shan describes the Hong Kong box-office revival in the last six months as an Indian summer. No one knows how long it will last; the important thing is to make the most of what we have.


"Hong Kong filmgoers are returning to the cinema, it seems," Shan says. "Many Hong Kong-made films grossed over HK$10 million recently. It seems that audience are showing same excitement for Hong Kong subject matters as much as they do for Black Panther."


The directors of many recent films are Academy graduates, including The Sparring Partner, Table for Six, and Far Far Away. "This may give the School a stronger sense of mission," Shan says.


He notes that when he ran into Sunny Chan recently, he couldn't wait to thank the director of Table for Six, both for the movie but above all for serving as an inspiration. "People learn filmmaking tend to focus on its artistic potential," he says. "I thanked Sunny, an Academy graduate and my colleague at the School, for reminding our students that Hong Kong films have the power to entertain and bring joy to the mass audience. What he did with Table for Six gives students hope."


Despite having been away from the frontlines while in his academic post, Shan keeps close contact with the industry. This helps him capitalise on every opportunity to facilitate his students' career. "I want to help students find suitable work," he notes. "I hope they will join reliable companies where they will continue to learn, and receive their due remuneration and respect."


In 2022, Shan was the executive producer for The Remnant, the first title of the "Keep Rolling Keep Running" series set up by the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers. The director and screenwriter is Mandrew Kwan Man-hin, who lectures at the Academy's School of Film and Television.


The film industry is full of stories about the tug-of-war between dreams and reality. Shan says he doesn't like the common perception in the industry that the "Box office is king." He prefers to give his students guidance in life.


"I'm not making films at the Academy," he notes. "I help to build future filmmakers' career. If I do my job well, I give my students a good start, put them on the right path, so their journey will be smoother."


In Shan's time at the Academy, watching his students grow has been rewarding in a way that no "dream factory" can replicate. It has also helped to sustain him.


"Whenever I teach a skill and see my students master it for the first time, their excitement reminds me of why I entered film as a young man," he says. "If I had been on the frontlines for 20 years, all my edges would probably have been flattened. But in School, I'm constantly being reminded by my students of cinema's ability to mesmerise and excite."


     The article was published in the Feb 2023 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)



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