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As SQUATTERTOWN enters slowly the pre-production phase here a small example from where the film is being inspired: The Kowloon Walled City

[click to enlarge]

UPDATE 21.07.2010: The fund raising trailer shoot has been lined up. We are going to shoot in beginning of next week in HK. Daily updates on the production will be tweeted on @MarcoSparmberg . First location photos are already online on Flickr. Stay tuned!

MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS – HK 1986

This weekend I just stumbled upon this small fine piece of a early DimSum Western from the 1980s , hiding deep in my DVD rack. When I bought the DVD some 5 years ago I did not realize its importance but now I consider it as one of the few existing HK film Western attempts that bears an own unique local signature while riding on traditional Western elements.

MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS (HK) aka SHANGHAI EXPRESS (US) aka SHANGHAI POLICE (Gemany) incorporates a tremendous star power for its time. It almost appears like the entire who-is-who of local filmmaking is united in this production and everyone seemed to had huge fun while shooting. The good chemistry between its actors translates upon the screen and creates a huge fun ride through a wild compilation of genres. The extremely fast paced plot combines 3 storylines that eventually merge in the final showdown.

Now the story does not really matter in this action and slapstick packed wannabe-Western and is simply exploited as an excuse to run fast to the next scene for another absurd situation which the infantile character tabloid has to master. The entire film is an enormous mix out of everything available. It starts off as a Snow Western deep in the mountains and ends in a desert like scenario with the traditional shanty town. Every single detail appears to have undergone a fusion of East and West. We can spot traditional Western elements like the saloon, the gambling tables, Americans in Civil War time’s uniforms. But wait a minute! What do US soldiers do in a scenario set in China?   What are Russian Red Army soldiers doing in the snowy mountains of Canada? And what are Japanese Samurai doing in the shanty town that clearly looks like being located within the HK territory?

Sammo Hung throws everything into one big pot, stirs it heavy and cooks a hyper inter-cultural dish. One can clearly spot glimpses of US Westerns as mentioned above, However, the element of Samurais being in China´s Wild West could be read as a political statement but I rather think a deliberate reminiscence on Terence Young´s RED SUN is a safer bet. The more the film takes on speed the more Hung orientates it towards the classic adventure genre. Films like INDIANA JONES were definitely its blueprint, also considering the coarse espionage and intelligence approach of the story.

However, since this film was produced during a time where the ‘97-Syndrom already seized the artistic minds of HK filmmakers, this film definitely reflects the sentiments of its time. The exploitive use of action and nonsense comedy (some Moleitau) clearly reflects the confusion and situation of a HK society in the mid 80s while facing an unpredictable future full of radical changes. The most direct evidence of this inner social conflict can be found on one of the prisoners´ clothing’s, bearing the number “1997”.

With all this confusion among the characters, story, locations and props the visual style is kept straight forward as usual for this decades films. Hung rather focuses on physical action extravaganza like Kung Fu fights, stunts, slapstick that is shot very traditional, most in wide shots with large number group compositions. He needs to convey and communicate this special and only advantage of his film: reality in stunts and action. When people jump off a three storey building you will see it in one wide angle take, no cuts! Yuen Biao jumps off a roof set on fire, hits the ground, jumps up and runs along as it is the easiest thing in the world (watch out for this scene in the trailer below). This is basically the essence of action cinema made in HK during the early 80s. It´s real and everyone can see it. Hence, this does explain the relative low amount of violence as guns are barely in use here. But it also holds the reason for almost no use of sophisticated camera movements or even special designed compositions or camera tracks that would serve a storytelling purpose.

Finally, Hung grounds his film another time, in the end credits sequence while showing off making of shots revealing how the crew created the film. Now this is similar practice to Jackie Chan and is supposed to give the film a link into reality by, again, highlighting the fact that things are being hand-made without any tricks or special effects. It takes away the illusion, deliberately, displaying that it all is not just magic. It is hard work and needs a lot of crafts to pull off.

After Zach Hines´ article “How to make a Indie Hong Kong Flick” at HK Mag´s March 2010 issues I was quite shocked how the issue of independent filmmaking gets degraded and squeezed into a 11 bullet point listing that simply makes no sense at all from a filmmakers POV. Is this a joke?! Maybe, but it is one thing for sure: offensive, down grading and appalling. In short, it is misleading to people not involved in this business and simply not true.

As the HK Mag is quite an institution in this city and gets taken serious by the majority of foreigners living here, it is a shame how filmmaking gets portrayed here. Filmmaking in HK is a mere local industry with almost no foreigners participating in. I could read some vilifying undertone between those lines towards the local film culture that really fights for each dollar to keep especially independent productions running.

I live and work in this industry for 2 years by now. I am a foreigner and I have been on so many shoots that I stopped counting after 4 month being in town. Having been on all kinds of productions like professional big, medium and low budget films, commercials, TV and mostly, of course, independent as well as student projects, I feel the need to stand up and comment on this impropriety. Also, I am personally specialized as interactive filmmaker taking use of social media tools on a regular basis for my work.

First of all we have to define the term “Indie Flick”. Unlike most European countries HK has a very marginal governmental funding structure. Filmmakers can apply for funding at the HK Film Development Council (FDC) and subsidies of CreakHK if the project involves some fine art approach. The FDC was established in 2007 and 14 film production were granted funding so far. Since this fund is aimed on medium budget films from HK$8-12 million independent low budget films barely meet the requirements.  After the shutdown of Hong Kong´s two big studios (Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest) local films were facing harsh time in the 1990s. Private investors and of course the liquid money from the Mainland became the way to go. With those two financial sources backing projects filmmakers were back in the game but had to trade-off in content and story in order to meet investors expectations. This situation still exists today and hardly one director really has entire freedom on his/her project. Thus, no matter who we are talking about, none is a real independent filmmaker in a Western sense as long as they not pay all bills out of their own pocket. But who can afford that? The only filmmakers in town I saw with entire control over their vision are film students who really fund each film with their own money. I was one of them too, till last year.

So let´s go step by step through this inferior 11 point system:

1. First and foremost, tell all your friends that you’re now making a movie about Hong Kong. Bask in their encouragement. You are talented, and loved.

If you want to have 100 people on the set that have no idea about filmmaking and don’t even know what a camera looks like than this is definitely the way to go. But each minute on set costs money for the director/producer and a bunch of clumsy film-retards is simply a no-go and fundamental obstacle. Therefore, select your crew handpicked and wise. Think about WHO is the most asset to the respective project and ask them directly in person. Most people are willing in the industry to work for 1 day without payment if they are convinced on the ingenuity of your project and trust in your cinematic spirit as well as organizational talent. However, this requires a personal network of industry contacts and a constant private market research. If you haven´t done this before, start ASAP. Also, throw off the set everyone who is bored, has no task or just wants to have a look in order to kill some free time – those people are bothersome and useless!
2. Write approximately 10 pages of meandering dialogue over three weeks with no wider plot in mind. There’s a guy who just arrived, a mysterious hot Asian girl, and someone has been murdered…

Tons of dialogs are the weakest part of every no-budget production. Inexperienced filmmakers seek refuge in total unnecessary dialog, sometimes even copied from popular films and subsequently sell it as homage. Be honest to yourself. Filming talking heads is like watching a radio show on TV. Who on earth wants to see that?! A director who cannot use the tools of visual storytelling (camera movements, light, locations, …) is not worth staying in this industry. Get another job, you will be no Tarantino or Wong Kar Wai – NEVER! The hardest thing in filmmaking is to create an entire film without any line of dialog but still telling an amazingly gripping story, blowing the audience out of their seats. Can you do that?
3. Begin inquiring with friends about their interest in portraying either A) drug-addicted prostitute with heart of gold; B) evil Asian guy with unspecified martial arts skills and heart of gold or C) gweilo zombie with heart of gold (Tim would be perfect for this!)

I never met a person in my entire life that was either A, B or even C. those are all stereotypes, cliché characters drawn from some sleazy recent Steven Seagal East-Europe farce. Real life characters are never that superficial and especially in HK no one has a “heart of gold”. How long have you lived here? Get yourself out of Lan Kwai Fung for one moment and get off the booze for one day, then count the gold-hearted people around you are doing business with…
4. After no friends audition, spend a month crafting a Facebook page to advertise auditions. Re-spam the link to all your friends again.

Within this month´s period one could have finished 2 short films already and you are still spamming around on Facebook.  Creating a Facebook page about the film project is a good thing to do and it provides a lot of support. One of my films worked very well that way last year. But then the concept needs to have interactive elements where Facebook users can actively participate in your production, in real time. This needs a solid pre-production planning and conception phase. Spend the time rather on your idea development then on senseless communication rubbish.


5. Every project needs a working title: “The Flower Box”—that’s artistic, and it captures the prostitute element.

“Flower Box”, “artistic” and “prostitute element” are three words that simply don’t want to fit, especially not on film. Are we in the florist’s business or what?  Also, working titles do not make any sense on this production scale. Do you need to hide your wannabe-Oscar-winning story behind a misleading working title in order to protect your and your financier’s investments at the box office and the piracy battle front? Indie films are never secret and need every bit of attention they can get. Run it open, run it honest!
6. Oh crap—you have a camera right? Wait, I think Tim recently got a FlipCam…

Production value is always a big issue in this town. Barely anyone can afford working with professional equipment and a FlipCam does not appear as a wise choice at all. However, I had the pleasure to work on a very well organized 3-days independent short film shoot that spend HK$ 30K on the entire equipment (incl. crane, Chapman dolly, RED camera, a great deal of lights and so on). This is a more than reasonable price for a huge technical effort. The result looked accordingly – decent, professional and simply marvelous. Thus, renting out some equipment is not as expensive as expected in Hong Kong. My second advice would be a shoot with DSLR. Hong Kong people are totally addicted to photography and almost everyone spends its money on a big DSLR camera to produce high resolution pictures of their babies. Ask around and you will find at least two friends who can borrow you a D5 for a couple of days. DSLR´s doing a very good job but it needs practice and experience to handle the HD footage well.
7. Film an hour of an old lap sap lady pushing recyclables around Sheung Wan from dozens of angles.

There is so much more to Hong Kong than an old lap slap lady. Get yourself outside the Gwailo hoods and discover this amazing city by foot. Each corner holds a new setting and at least a dozen untold stories. Be creative and go where they don’t speak English, maybe not even Cantonese. I hardly experienced a place that is cinematic as versatile as Hong Kong.
8. Pay $4,500 to attend a one-day seminar on screenplay writing hosted by a real former screenplay writer from LA who now goes around Asia hosting one-day screenplay seminars instead of actually writing screenplays.

Totally useless, especially at this stage of production. What do you want to change after having completed the shoot already? If you need script advice, read the scripts from the masters. Sidney Lumet wrote amazing story structures, Coppola, Mamet for instance too. But please not those self-declared script writing gods who wrote one produced script in their professional life and went straight into worldwide seminar teaching. Ask locals who work since years, selling a script every day. HK is a small film business. Everybody knows everybody. If you don’t know anyone after 1 year it might be time to move on. I heard LA is supposed to be nice in the summer…
9. Review tapes, break down in self-loathing. Weeping (1.5-2 hours).

Well, that´s pretty close to reality but can be avoided by detailed production planning and artistic flexibility. When you are surprised to see what´s on the tape, than you made something fundamental wrong in the first place!
10. Save face by editing your 3 hours of random footage into a 2-minute trailer. Add in that Gorillaz song about Hong Kong in the background, and voila.

Not even an addicted brain-dead YouTube-zombie would go for that. You failed at this staged already for the 10th time.
11. Wrap party!! Hey, how come no one has confirmed for the Wrap Party!! Facebook Event…

Well, well, parties are essential, especially crew dinners. Show your appreciation for your crews work by giving something back. When no one showed up, then there was probably showing up on the set either. Ultimately, filmmaking is a team achievement and as a director you should know how to communicate with people and how to communicate your vision. Facebook helps to organize but cannot replace the personal contact each team member expects from you. Show appreciation and respect!

Hope that shed some real professional light into this matter and young filmmaker become more engaged in kicking off their own productions. Hong Kong is a very nice and beholden place to shoot. Millions of stories just unfold in front of your eyes every day and the production circumstances are comparatively liberal, yes I would even say free. Go for it! But keep up a decent production quality & value. Always start an idea with your audience in mind!

—feel free to comment!

I started to develop my upcoming 2nd DimSum short Western. The basic idea of an urban Western is set. Now I am scouting for locations all over Hong Kong (To Kwa Wan, Kwun Tong, Sham Shui Po).  My focus is on old squatter housing structures on top of tall buildings.

First production design drawings will be available soon.

Shooting is scheduled for November 2010 and release in January 2011.