Veteran Chinese director Peter Chan Ho-sun is busy as ever these days. Behind the scenes, Chan is laying the foundations of the new production company Changin’ Pictures, which he formally announced towards the end of last year. In public, the director is one of the most prominent cheerleaders of Chinese cinema, a role he played at the Shanghai International Film Festival this week.
The focus of a MasterClass at the festival, Chan talked expansively about Chinese film and its place in the world. “China has a lot of great stories, and many of them can resonate with people worldwide,” he said. “So why not make these stories that everyone can empathize with? I believe we should aim to make the whole world want to watch Chinese stories. We shouldn’t make films that are intended to please them or enhance a stereotypical image of China. That won’t lead to progress. And this is something we can change. The Chinese market is also vast enough to provide such resources.”
Chan’s mantra is in lock-step with this 25th edition of SIFF which is being promoted as the Chinese industry’s re-opening after over three years of pandemic-enforced travel restrictions. Notably, the festival is making much of the fact that there is an impressive list of foreign guests visiting, and international movies throughout collective programs that add up to around 450 titles over the event’s 10 days.
And the 60-year-old Chan has long been a creator who can read the room. He emerged in the 1990s with a string of hits that danced between the purely commercial and the more artistic and has worked with Chinese-language cinema’s brightest stars including Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai and Gong Li. He was also an early and enthusiastic adopter of the concept of pan-Asian co-productions that saw a number of Hong Kong-based filmmakers and talent partner with Chinese studios for big-budget productions that were devoured by Mainland audiences.
In a varied career, Chan has dabbled in musicals (Perhaps Love) and martial arts epics (The Warlords) and even sports drama such as the volleyball-centered Leapwhich was China’s Oscars hope in 2020. The filmmaker reflected on his best works during the MasterClass, discussing the successes such as the Cheung-Lai vehicle Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996), still widely considered among the most romantic Chinese-language movies ever made.
“A great film truly requires a perfect mix of timing, conditions, and people. You have to have the best team, the best people, and the best story. Of course, the most important thing is that the director must firmly adhere to their beliefs,” Chan said Comrades. “However, in this process, there will always be people undermining you. From investors to actors and celebrities, everyone will have their own demands, and may lead you astray. The director is the person who brings everyone together to create and make choices.”
Chan revealed, surprisingly, that his father had warned him to “never touch film” as a career. But he went to study film at UCLA, regardless, and the 40-year career that has followed has seen him direct 14 films and produce a further 40.
“I am an optimistic pessimist,” Chan said. “I can be in a cruel and difficult situation, but I have a warm belief that tomorrow will be better. Recently, people often talk about a term called ‘warm realism,’ and I truly believe in ‘warm realism’ because that’s who I am.”
Looking back on his career, Chan had some advice to share with young filmmakers in the audience.
“You have to stick to those parts that you ‘will not change no matter what’ because if you change them, the film will not be good,” he said. “Compared to a film that doesn’t sell well, a bad reputation is even more detrimental to a director because the audience will always remember it like that.”
Check the latest Hollywood news here.