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Barbara Wong: “I have always considered myself a newbie”
Director Barbara Wong was there at this March’s Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum too. Someone asked her: “Are you fighting with the newbies for funding?” She replied, “I have always considered myself a newbie.” Like her fellow fundraisers, Wong was there, every day, in the hope to find an investor. Another person asked: “Are you seriously going to come and sit here every day?”. She answered with a smile: ”Of course. Where else can I be?”
Her composure is the result of nurture and navigating life. More importantly, or simply put, she just wanted to make films.
Every stage of life is paved with learning opportunities
In 1999, Barbara Wong returned to Hong Kong from New York with the script of documentary Women’s Private Parts and a US$160,000 debt. Was coming home her last resort?
She described herself as a born actor and creator. When she was a child, role-plays were her favourite pastime whenever she had someone to play with. Joining the school’s drama club was a step in the right direction while her theatre studies at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts practically set the stage for her future career. She was once cast in the stage production Agnes of God for which she won a best leading actress award. “I had enjoyed playing the role as a 14year-old aspirant. But, how many child actors would the theatre world needs?” Then and there, she reckoned her small built would limit her stage career.
After graduation, she could have pursued a career as a children’s TV show host. The Hong Kong Repertory Theatre also showed interest. But, she opted for a DJ job at a radio station. “I did not want to do children’s shows or play somebody’s cousin or a housemaid.” Over the two-year stint at the radio station, she gorged herself on films. Eventually, she left for a film programme at New York University (NYU).
“Every stage of life is paved with learning opportunities. The knowledge we pick up may not be applicable today but will in time come in handy.” She said that her training allows her to communicate her thoughts and instructions to members of the film crew. “Every stretch of my life journey has led me to achieve my dream of becoming a director.”
The going is tough but don’t give up
Wong’s self-directed graduation film Hugo brought her the Best Student Film Award by the NYU. In pursuit of her ambition, she opened a production company with a focus on public affairs programmes for television stations. She also wrote, directed and starred in the independent production A Carburettor for Suzy, which was selected by the Anthology Film Archives’ New Filmmakers Series and premiered in New York in 1998.
Despite the initial success, none of Wong’s scripts made it to the desk of major studio executives because she did not have an agent. She recalled an urban legend in which the then budding director Quentin Tarantino took the script of Reservoir Dogs to a bar in New York to meet Harvey Keitel who as a result of that became the film’s producer.
Feeling inspired and armed with a copy of her script, she went to sit in a coffee shop across the street from a building of which Robert De Niro was spotted going in and out often. “Five days later, the doorman came up to me and said that a superstar like Robert De Niro would not use the front door.” He also told her to leave the script with him and he would hand it to De Niro. But then of course her script never saw the light of day again.
She wanted to make films so such so that full-time employment was not an option. To make ends meet, she tended bar, sold insurance and even lost her entire savings trading on margin. “I tried everything,” she said. “The going was tough but I did not give up.”
In 1999, she came back to Hong Kong with the script of Women’s Private Parts.
Live the dream
With no fame or fortune, her only choice was to seek government funding support. She no longer recalls the title of the funding scheme nowadays. Her script was left out in the cold but it caught the eye of one of the panellists Raymond Wong.
Women’s Private Parts is a documentary involving interview with more than 60 women about their aspects of love. Without employing any anonymisation tools such as mosaic or pixelation, the film was a bold attempt to challenge the status quo. It also features candid footages of men hooking up with prostitutes.
In today’s more open society, sex talks among women are nothing but common. In 2000, however, the documentary kicked up a real storm.
The film was screened in seven international cities including Indonesia, Los Angeles, San Fransisco and New York and it won the International Film Award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in 2001.
In 2003, she gave us Truth or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat. That Truth or Dare game probably meant more than a collective memory.
The coming of age story about “an uninspired youth who is all talk and no action” was a box-office hit, which was followed by the equally popular sequel Happy Funeral.
Then, she hit a bottleneck.
In 2010, she wanted to make Break Up Club but the mise-en-abyme filmique proved unpopular among investors. Financing support from the Film Development Fund lent a hand. Her friends also chipped in to make the project a reality. The final cut however failed to secure a distributor.
“My fame does not always guarantee plain sailing. As a director, I have had my fair share of ups and downs. Adversity can actually be a good thing.” Over the course of her career, she has survived countless sarcastic remarks. “People have said that I’ve lost it. Such remarks are as harmless as they are pointless.” What matters most, she noted, is to stay true to one’s vision. “Live the dream. This is my life.”
Talking about relationship
During the last 20 years since her return to Hong Kong, Wong has been making films about women and love, touching on both sexes’ yearnings for love and sexual experiences through the different stages in a relationship – the fears, bewilderment, pursuit, craze, breakup and reconciliation.
She believes that a love potion lasts at most three to six months. Then, romance turns into daily learning. “One needs to learn how to love and get along with each another,” she added. In The Stolen Years, the female protagonist loses five years of her memories in a traffic accident. The bitterness of her recent divorce from her husband is replaced by the treat of a sugar rush at the dawn of their relationship. The accident gives the couple a chance to rekindle their lost love. “That invigorating feeling of freshness diminishes as the relationship grows. Everybody has a good side and a bad one. I tend to delete the bad before sleep and wake up remembering the good.”
In 2019, she took the story of Civil Celebrant to the HAF to attract investors. The film is about love in a married life. “The leading character is a civil celebrant who is washed by nuptial happiness day in and day out. Her own marriage is however cold as stone. Her husband has fallen out of love with her. Is it time to let go?”
Follow your passion
Two years ago, Wong got engaged with her boyfriend of 15 years. Tying the knot is not on the couple’s agenda yet. “Is that important? Not for me. The very purposes of a marriage are to form a family and have children to continue the bloodline. I have seen many couples cling onto a mutually tormenting relationship just because they wanted to keep their marriage intact.”
Making every day count, and living for the day may sound like clichés.
It took Wong seven years to pay off her million-dollar debt after returning home to Hong Kong. She has experienced glory from her controversial works and a fair share of dog days. Her hearty laughers do not mean that she is free of worries and fears. She simply follows her passion and continues to make films.
Managing a hectic work schedule, she stills sets aside time to tend her love life, which is providing her the essential nutrition to plough her thoughts and beliefs into each and every one of her films.
Venue Black Sugar Coffee
Makeup joe W
Hair Alex Chan @Essensuals Toni & Guy HK
Outfit Mo & co.
translation ．Charles Mak
editor ． Grace Chan
photographer ． Lewis Wong