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In March, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the 26th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards took place behind closed doors. The event honoured many of the Academy's graduates, including Cheuk Cheung, an alumnus of the School of Film and Television, whose documentary Bamboo Theatre was named a Film of Merit. "Filmmakers naturally want industry recognition," says Cheuk. "Documentaries perhaps most of all, as it gets people to go to a cinema to see your work."

Bamboo Theatre is Cheuk's third documentary, and like its predecessors, it is related to Chinese opera. "I have wanted to shoot a feature film on Chinese opera since my student days at the Academy. Although that hasn't happened yet, one might say it has materialised in a different form." Cheuk has chosen a form that allows him to record the present and be a witness to history by preserving sounds and images.


Cheuk's filmmaking dream has its roots in secondary school, where his favourite extracurricular activity was renting videotapes to binge-watch at home, both Chinese-language and foreign-language movies. Film buffs were few and far between among his peers, so he became the class critic. This gave him validation and a sense of pride, and encouraged him to dig up as much film-related content as he could. After graduating from secondary school, he enrolled on a film course at the Academy. "I got to know people from the industry through various film courses I took when I was in Form 5 and 6. They told me the Academy's programmes gave a strong technical training and enabled students to shoot their own works. So I applied after my A-level."


Cheuk took a one-year diploma course before moving on to the degree programme, majoring in directing. At the time digital imaging was gradually taking off as a more economical substitute for analogue photography. Cheuk felt privileged to have had the experience of loading film rolls, working in Steenbeck room and editing 16mm film workprint frame by frame at the Academy. "I enjoy diving into the historical origins of things. To know yourself, you have to start from childhood because it shows you how you came to be. Similarly, to know film you have to study film history; and understanding traditional production methods is the best way to become familiar with film theory." This spirit of investigation has underpinned Cheuk's approach to film, in particular, documentaries.


Starting with Documentaries
Cheuk began interning at film studios in the summer of his sophomore year, becoming involved in a large-scale film production for the first time. The experience not only taught him skills and techniques but also the importance of a professional network. He says the Hong Kong film industry was already facing difficult times when he joined, but he was fortunate in joining the assistant director team during his internship, which enabled him to make the acquaintance of many people. This opened doors when the time came to find work after graduation. "Internships make all the difference. Having connections with the industry while still studying facilitates future employment.


"For several years, Cheuk was an assistant director. He learned a lot but it gave him no opportunity to create his own work. This changed in 2009, when he made Love Letter from a Classmate, a film about growing up, and entered it in the Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival. However, the experience left him feeling unsatisfied and he felt panicky after the film was finished. "I felt I was actually regressing and began to reflect on the way forward. Should I continue to apply for funds to shoot and repeat the cycle till time immemorial? Or were there other possibilities?"


While trying to figure out his future, Cheuk found inspiration in the biographies of veteran filmmakers. "Most film directors I like started out making documentaries before doing feature films. Some remain 'amphibious'. Documentaries are more suitable and much easier on new directors like myself when it comes to finding funds and resources."

Documentaries are shot in real-life settings; their subjects are real people and events. Their protagonists are the interview subjects, whose stories determine the direction of the documentaries. A film director's job is to tell a good story. "Fiction films and documentaries are slightly different, but their motives and functions are the same. Both extract material from real life; both tell the stories that moved the creators. Using film as a medium, they aim to touch people's lives."


An Outsider's Passion for Chinese Opera
Chinese opera is one subject that does interest Cheuk. "I watched my first Chinese opera performance while at the Academy. It was a Kunqu opera called The Peony Pavilion and Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung was the executive producer. It was profoundly stirring. It made me wonder why I was getting to know my own culture and art form so late in life? I hope to use my skills to help promote the art, in the way that Farewell My Concubine and Hu-Du-Men brought Chinese opera to people who weren't familiar with it." Cheuk explains that while viewers may not have an immediate response to the film, the memory of it may spark an interest in Chinese opera one day. He calls it "seedling transplantation".


Cheuk was not well versed in Chinese opera despite his enthusiasm for it. To make up for this, he has been conscientious in conducting research into the subject. His first Chinese opera themed documentary My Way (2012) documents the path to becoming male dan (male actors who play the leading female role) of two young Cantonese opera actors, Paris Wong Hau-wai and Alan Tam Wing-lun. His second My Next Step (2015) is an account of the struggles of the last young martial arts actor in a Kunqu opera troupe. Last year's Bamboo Theatre explores Hong Kong's unique pop-up theatres built with bamboo scaffolding, and records the various people having different roles in the cultural space (or bamboo theatres) and events surrounding them. The film garnered many honours, including Special Mention at the Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild Awards, nomination for Best Documentary at the 56th Golden Horse Awards and a Best New Director nomination at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards.


Cheuk is grateful for the film industry's stamp of recognition but is not carried away by it, seeing it as a small step forward for Hong Kong documentaries. "The origin of film is documentation. The earliest documentaries show a train pulling into a station or factory workers going to and leaving work. They record real people going about their daily lives. But Hong Kong viewers generally see documentaries as news and television, rather than cinema. Hence the genre rarely makes it to the cinemas. But I believe interest can be nurtured. The relationship is two-way. When investors are willing to invest more resources in locally-produced documentaries, Hong Kong filmmakers can create better work, with benefits for the entire eco-system."

Seeking Possibilities Beyond the Boundary
One of Cheuk's fortes is integrating different art forms. For example, in Bamboo Theatre, there is a low-angle shot of scaffolders rising and descending on the scaffold to the melodic undulations of a Bach cello suite. "Students at the Academy have plenty of exposure to other performing arts – dance, theatre, music, you name it. This cross-form and cross-genre atmosphere is very nurturing for performing arts students. We were never only film students; we were constantly in contact with other art forms and interacting with people from those fields. My composer partners, also from the Academy, are no strangers to film for the same reason. This makes communications much smoother." Two years ago, Cheuk and Steve Hui (aka Nerve), a graduate of the Academy's School of Music, jointly created Songs of Portrait, a creatively ambitious hybrid docu-opera that mixes music and image with different operatic and theatrical forms.


While remaining steadfast to a dream does not follow conventional pathways, Cheuk has witnessed other people who are not able to play the roles they want or film the topics they desire have chosen to quit. However, he is of the view that even when we cannot do anything about our circumstances or "fate", we still have plenty of other options. "I believe that fiction films aren't the only way out. The documentaries I made in the last few years have shown me another path. When you're burnt out, by all means pause and explore other alternatives; allow yourself to keep trying. Who says film directors must only make films? They can engage in hybrid creations. Try to think of other ways outside film to respond to society."


(The article was published in the Jun 2020 issue of Academy News. Click here to read the original story.)

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