Interview with Bends director Flora Lau

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Having gone from indie short film and documentary maker to Hong Kong cinema’s festival darling seemingly overnight, Flora Lau talks to Darren Jung about her first feature-length film, Bends

Her first short film, 2009’s Dry Rain, explored the lives of domestic workers and their not-so-subtle second-class citizen status in Hong Kong. Her next short, Start From Zero, examined our city’s final decade under British rule. Her latest work, Bends – her first feature-length film, starring Stephanie Che, Kun Chen and Carina Lau – focuses on the cross-border tension between Hong Kong and the Mainland, with a pregnant mainland mother’s attempts to give birth in the SAR as a major plot point. Needless to say, Flora Lau, just 34, has plenty to say about Hong Kong’s social issues.

Lau was born and raised in Hong Kong but twice left the city for a lengthy period – first to attend Columbia University in New York and second to study film at London Film School. Both times, she found her hometown had evolved upon return. It had become a different city. A natural explorer and storyteller, Lau dug into Hong Kong, investigated the issues that interested her most and eventually found ways to tell her tales on the big screen.

Though the plot of Bends seems to be taken straight from Hong Kong newspaper headlines, Lau actually started writing the script three years ago, before the topic of ‘invading mainland mothers’ became the local zeitgeist it is now. It is also pure coincidence that the film’s local opening coincides with China’s announcement that it is to relax its controversial one-child policy – one of the key motivational factors for the soon-to-be mother in Bends to cross the border. What’s not a coincidence, though, is the movie being accepted into the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, because Lau – with the help of longtime Wong Kar-wai collaborator Christopher Doyle – has crafted a beautiful and poignant portrait of the social divides in Hong Kong. 

All of your works cover Hong Kong’s social issues. Do you always set out to send a message in your films?
I’ve always had an interest in Hong Kong and its diverse cast of people. I think it’s because I’ve left the city a couple of times and both times I came back, I felt there had been a lot of changes. 

The release of Bends coinciding with Beijing’s announcement on its one-child policy, is giving your film a lot of extra publicity. What do you think of the announcement? Do you think it’s going to change the status quo regarding mainland mothers coming here?
I think the Hong Kong government is trying to regulate it a little bit but I don’t think it’s going to change much.  

We heard you had trouble finding funding for Bends initially. Do you feel the local industry is too focused on making popcorn movies – meaning films that are guaranteed to sell?
Yes. I talked to many producers when I finished the script. They liked what they read but they thought it’d be a risky movie to finance. Part of that is because I’m a first-timer – but it’s also because people would rather put money behind a film that is sure to make money. The system here is quite different from, say, in Europe, where they provide a lot of funding. Here, not so much. But I was fortunate to get the Hong Kong Film Fund to put in 40 percent [of the budget]. 

What was it like coming back to Hong Kong as a creative after living in New York and London? Most people tend to believe those cities have superior creative cultures and that Hong Kong is too commercial.
Yeah, it is too commercial here. Um, there are pros and cons [to working here]. Hong Kong is my home, so I would like to do something here, but I think there’s no-one else doing this kind of film right now. I think I can show people something different.  

What type of research did you do for the film?
I went to Shenzhen and talked to a lot of people. First my friend’s friends, then strangers, including mothers. It was very important for me [to write characters who are true to their real life counterparts] so I visited places a mainland mother would visit, to get an idea of how they live.  

It’s your first feature. What are the challenges in making the jump from shorts to features?
Well, a short is done in, like, a week, whereas a feature is much longer, and you have to deal with a lot more people. You have to find a way to communicate with each person on set. Not just the actors but a larger crew. They are all individuals, so there are many different ways to
do things. 

You managed to get an impressive crew together for Bends. How did that process come about? Like Christopher Doyle?
I got Chris through my producer, Ken Hui. He had worked with Chris before. He called me up and said ‘I have a crazy idea. I think we should show the script to Chris’. I thought it was a long shot but Chris actually wanted to do it. Chris has always been very supportive of new filmmakers. 

 

What’s next for you, then?
I will start working on another script soon. But first, I need an idea. 

Bends is in cinemas now.

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