Interview: Juno Mak
Rigor Mortis, the first Hong Kong gong zi – that is, Chinese vampire – film in over 20 years, is about redemption. Its protagonist is an ageing, past-his-prime, down-on-his-luck actor (Chin Siu-ho, playing an exaggerated version of himself), and the film itself is an attempt to bring gong zi and all their hopping, creepy glory back to the forefront of local pop culture lore, where they once belonged. However, the greatest element of redemption in Rigor Mortis is arguably reserved for its director, Juno Mak.
To say that Mak’s entertainment career started rockily would be a giant understatement. When Mak first made his debut as a shaggy-haired, baggy-jeans-wearing pop star in early 2002, his wealthy background – Mak’s father is the chairman of CCT Telecom – immediately earned eye-rolls from cynical local media. A year later, when the senior Mak was arrested, along with entertainment magnate Albert Yeung and senior executives from TVB and Universal Music HK, in an alleged music industry bribery case, Juno’s reputation in the industry, fairly or otherwise, was set: he was a spoiled, rich kid whose music career was paid for daddy.
Those corruption charges were eventually withdrawn, and Mak – the younger – returned to the industry in 2004, determined to prove himself again. He altered his image, steering away from bubblegum Cantopop in favour of darker, edgier music that differed from the norm.
In 2007, he started his own clothing label, Chapel of Dawn (named after his hit concept album, featuring experimental tunes with Japanese artists, that won a myriad of awards) and with its alternative style – inspired by Japanese fashion, old Hollywood B-movies and colourful prints – the brand became a hit in Hong Kong, Paris, and Tokyo.
Around that same time, he made his acting debut in Pang Ho-cheung’s Trivial Matters. That film, a series of short stories about drugs, sex and shit (like, actually) would be Mak’s lightest acting role, as his edgy and dark music persona soon carried over to the big screen. In 2010, he had a supporting role in gruesome murder satire Dream Home, and a year later, he co-wrote and starred in the gory revenge thriller Revenge: A Love Story. Mak’s performance won him best actor awards from the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and the Moscow International Film Festival.
With these performances, Mak has already won significant credibility in his art. But it seems he had only just started down the path to redemption. In Rigor Mortis, Mak finally has the directorial debut he has long talked about. Ten years ago, he told several local media that, one day, he wanted to be a director one day – a claim nobody took seriously. Today, after becoming a fixture at many of the biggest film festivals, including Venice and Toronto, Mak has secured distribution deals for North America and Southeast Asia. And on the music front, he is back with his first album in three years. Titled Paradoxically Yours, it’s looking like another dark affair. And as he wraps up shooting a music video for the album – a collaboration with notorious fashion model Zombie Boy, for the song <<鶴頂紅>> (Poison of the Crane) – we sit down with Mak to discuss Rigor Mortis and coming to terms with his own path in life…
So, we’re here inside a cemetery. You’re really into this scary stuff, huh?
Laughs] Well, I grew up watching cult movies, or B-movies, as they’re so called. I’ve always been attracted to horror, suspense, and violence in film – ever since I was a kid.
You’ve spent the past 24 hours shooting your music video with Zombie Boy, right? How did this collaboration happen?
I think Hong Kong’s entertainment industry is too small so I’ve always wanted to work with different people from different countries and backgrounds. So, with Zombie Boy, he fits what I’ve always wanted to do, especially with this album [Paradoxically Yours]. The thing is, most people know him only for the tattoos, but it wasn’t just that for me. I’m intrigued by more than just his look, but his attitude towards life.
Can you elaborate?
Well, I like to describe my music and films as ‘nightmare portraits.’ It’s dark but also poetic. Throughout all my albums, I’ve always tried to explore the dark and edgy elements of human nature. But at the same time, I don’t want things to be a cliché. In my films, my music, and the real world, I don’t believe everyone is just black and white, like the concept that everyone is either good or bad – hero or villain. I don’t believe in that. I believe that everyone’s actions and attitude can be interpreted differently if we look at it from different perspectives. So with Zombie Boy’s role in my video, he’s not a stereotype. It’s not just all about his tattoos and how scary that looks.
Rigor Mortis, obviously, operates on the same grey-scale.
Yes, with Rigor Mortis I wanted to explore the flaws of humanity. Some people think it’s very negative of me. But I think that’s what makes us human – we’re all made with flaws. The flaws make us. I don’t see flaws as a negative thing. I’m not trying to make a statement either, I am just interested in humanity.
How did Rigor Mortis come about?
I’m a big fan of Mr Vampire, and I’ve always wondered why that genre completely disappeared from Hong Kong cinema in the last 30 years. If you look at the Western monsters, they’ve evolved over the years. Western vampires went from being very scary and dark to being, well, Twilight. And zombie films were once the epitome of the B-movie, but in the last decade they’ve become mainstream entertainment – they’re featured in not just horror films, but straightforward action films, and even comedies. So why hasn’t the Chinese vampire – gong zi – evolved?
On that evolution, Rigor Mortis is far more agile and lively than how gong zi have always been portrayed in 80s Hong Kong films.
Yes. Rigor Mortis is not a remake or sequel of Mr Vampire – I feel remakes and sequels are pointless. I was aiming to revisit the genre from a new, modern point of view. To see what would happen if these gong zi are around in today’s world.
Rigor Mortis is definitely a lot darker.
I wanted to deconstruct the concept of the gong zi, and also the gong zi film. The older gong zi films all had comedic elements. I took all of that out because I don’t feel it fits with the times. Comedy worked wonderfully for Mr Vampire, because that was a time when Hong Kong cinema was very campy, snappy. The industry today is different. Hong Kong cinema is a totally different animal.
Rigor Mortis reunites some of the old cast members of Mr Vampire, some of whom had left the industry. Was bringing them back difficult?
It was quite difficult. When I first started writing Rigor Mortis, Hui Koon-ying – the second lead in Mr Vampire – was still alive, and he was in the script, along with Chin Siu-ho (third lead in Mr Vampire, and lead in Rigor Mortis). But then Hui passed away on a night [in November of 2011] when I was actually working on the script. The main lead in Mr Vampire (Lam Ching-ying) had already passed away years earlier, so suddenly, only one of the three leads of the original film was alive, and that left me very sad. I’m still sad. Anyway, I tried my best to gather the guys who had smaller roles in the original, like Anthony Chan and Billy Lau Nam-kwong. Both guys had retired and were living overseas, and weren’t connected to the Hong Kong scene anymore. Fortunately, I was able to convince them to take part in the film.
How did you convince them?
I told them my vision and that I was trying to pay tribute to the original film – which, obviously, they have fond memories of – while ushering in a new era of gong zi films. They were interested, but when they heard I would be directing, they were like, ‘what have you directed before? Show us your previous work’.
Rigor Mortis is your directorial debut, so what did you show them?
I had nothing to show them! Before Rigor Mortis I had never directed anything, not even an iPhone video. I showed them the script, storyboards I had drawn up, and my old music videos, which I didn’t direct but over which I had lot of creative input.
Speaking of directing, how did you learn to direct then? Did you just learn over the years while on set?
I’m quite a quiet person. I like to watch things from afar. So whenever I was on set, I’d sit back and watch the director, and learn from a distance.
Do you have an influence for your directorial style? A favourite director?
As a singer, I’ve never wanted to hear that I sound like so and so – I think that’s the worst thing you can say to a singer. I have the same belief with filmmaking. I don’t want people to say my films are like another director’s films. I want my own voice and style. So no, I don’t have a specific director I patterned my style after.
How would you describe your directing style then?
Unlike most directors, who prefer to place the audience in the middle of the action, I try to show things from afar. I think, specifically for horror films, that makes thing scarier – there’s something cold and brutal about witnessing something horrific from a distance. Like you’re watching, but not doing anything to help.
Did you encounter any difficulties as a rookie director?
Probably 80 percent of all movies in Hong Kong are action or comedies, so just doing something different was a challenge because local crews are not so familiar with making a fantasy film. They do a great job staging stunts, gunfights and fight scenes. But for some of the ideas I had for Rigor Mortis, it was a challenge for all of us to think about how we could pull it off.
Can you give some examples?
You might have noticed that when the gong zi in Rigor Mortis jump, their clothes flow very naturally and realistically. We shot all their jumping scenes in a water tank, with a stuntman jumping in the water. We used traditional wires, along with a crew pushing the stuntman with a long stick, to enable him to jump so high and far. It was a very elaborate setup just to get an anti-gravity feel for their motions. So thinking of something like that took a long time. It took us over 70 days to shoot Rigor Mortis, which is long for a Hong Kong production.
Why aren’t you in the movie?
There wasn’t room for me in the movie. Rigor Mortis is full of middle-aged, older people. It’s a story about middle-aged people dealing with ageing, and finding redemption in life and getting life back on track. In many ways, the stars of the film, including Chin Siu-ho and Paul Chan, could relate. Chin Siu-ho is basically playing a version of himself.
Do you feel like the local film industry is in healthy shape?
I think the problem is with the lack of diversity in genre. In that aspect, it’s not healthy. We’re stuck with this tiny portion of storytelling techniques. Of course, I don’t believe this to be the filmmakers’ fault. Many local filmmakers have vision and are daring – it’s just that censorship and lack of funding really hampers what kind of movies we can make.
Is this why you started Kudos Film?
Kudos started out as a company to handle the scripts I write, specifically, my last film, Revenge: A Love Story. Eventually, when I started writing Rigor Mortis, I decided that Kudos should try to produce it too. If Rigor Mortis is a success, we’ll try to do more, to expand the company.
Even though it hasn’t released in Hong Kong, Rigor Mortis already seems to be a success, screening at Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and being sold to distributors in Asia and North America.
Yes, I’m very grateful about that. I didn’t write Rigor Mortis hoping it’d get into Venice Film Festival or to be released in the US. Though I’ve always understood that a great film should appeal to a global audience. So throughout the writing process of Rigor Mortis, I often asked myself, ‘would a guy from France or a lady in other parts of Asia get this? Would they relate to the characters?’
You’ve come a long way in your career, overcoming the early controversies. Do you feel like you’ve made it? Do you feel vindicated?
[Long pause] I think, I’ve learned to be happy where you are. If it’s yours, it’s yours. If not, it’s not. Be grateful.
Would you say that’s been the biggest lesson of your decade in the Hong Kong entertainment industry?
I think the most important lesson is you have to know people change. They change for a good reason. We are always evolving. When you don’t accept that, you’ll be standing at this spot and you won’t be moving forward. The world’s changing; we are all changing. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing and take everything as a compliment.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a few scripts, and [Japanese filmmaker] Takashi Miike has just signed to produce my next film. It’s going to be very different from Rigor Mortis, but it’ll also be about our humanity.
Rigor Mortis opens Thu Oct 24.
See the MV for Poison of the Crane in November on youtube.com/user/theofficialjunomak.
Photography: Calvin Sit
Art direction: jeroen Brulez
Assistants: Winnie Fung, George Ho
Masks: Rein Vollenga
Special thanks to Zombie Boy