wong_jingSHANGHAI — A fitting word to sum up Wong Jing’s contribution to Hong Kong cinema is ‘Marmite’. Though Wong is one of the region’s most prolific filmmakers, directing nearly 100 films and producing even more, he’s also one of the most reviled. While he’s credited as an industry linchpin – when even Wong Jing doesn’t have any new projects, things must be really bad, the saying goes – he’s also known as the king of crappy cinema. Over the past two decades he has taken over 1 billion HKD in box office revenue but remains a reviewer’s punch bag.

What, then, will critics make of his new film, which, in his words, is the ‘most satisfying drama I’ve ever directed’. The Last Tycoon promises to be a highly-stylised, blockbuster-budget account of the rise of a triad boss inspired, not in slight, by the life of ‘Big Ears’ Du Yuesheng, the king of the 1930s Shanghai underworld.
Former Wong collaborator Chow Yun-Fat plays Cheng Daqi, who, like Du, starts life toiling on a fruit stall. He takes refuge in a police station in a foreign concession, befriends the crooked chief inspector and becomes a hired thug at a gambling den. Cheng’s aggressive yet tactical nature sees him rise through the ranks of Shanghai’s triads, but he soon finds his power threatened by both foreign intruders and treachery from within.
‘I think a director’s style doesn’t change much after they get to middle-age,’ Wong, 57, says over the phone from Hong Kong. ‘But people will find that this is the most serious drama I’ve ever shot. There’s not much comedy in it.’ Wong is renowned for churning out films with startling efficiency. He achieves this by working on multiple projects at once, using assistant directors to fill in the gaps. But for his latest, Wong put in a special effort. ‘A lot of time went into The Last Tycoon’s script and production process,’ he says.
‘Consequently, there are many fantastical scenes in it. These scenes can’t be matched by any of my old films. They also can’t be found in many Mainland works, apart from maybe Zhang Yimou’s films or Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 [also in cinemas this month].’
As the son of notable Hong Kong film director Wong Tin-Lam, Wong junior came of age during the 1970s, in the midst of a film industry boom. Though he chose to study Chinese literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Wong skipped class to moonlight at the studios. He started scriptwriting for television, eventually working his way into the Shaw Brothers Studio. By the 1980s he had became one of the principle figures in Hong Kong cinema’s ‘golden age’, alongside John Woo and Tsui Hark. HisGod of Gamblers (1989), starring Chow Yun-Fat, remains a Hong Kong cinema staple.
But Wong never intended to make classics. He once commented that his films were hits because they gave the people what they wanted, and not what he thought they should want. And what people desire, according to Wong, is cruder than they like to admit. ‘Vulgarity is the basic instinct of human beings. Humans misinterpret vulgarity. I change vulgarity into art so as to let you enjoy it,’ is a memorable line from 1994’s Whatever You Want.
Wong’s parody-heavy films are characterised by cartoonish violence (Holy Weapon, 1993), titillation (Naked Killer, 1992) and slapstick humour (The Conman, 1998). Like a true businessman, when he finds a formula that works he milks it: think Fight Back to School, The Romancing Star andRaped By An Angel, which all had multiple sequels (and stimulating titles).
The Last Tycoon, then, will be a departure. For Wong it’s an anticipated one. ‘I believe every director has some old Shanghai stories in their mind,’ he says. ‘Old Shanghai was once a paradise for adventurers from home and abroad, so the era of the 1930s and 1940s has a very romantic historical backdrop. Back then, Shanghai had a much more complex social hierarchy compared to Hong Kong. It was the crossroads of Eastern and Western culture, of modern and ancient.’
But is the recent foray into Mainland co-productions signalling a departure from his native industry? Wong doesn’t rush to agree: ‘I don’t totally agree that Hong Kong cinema’s “golden age” is over,’ he says.
‘Hong Kong cinema is famous for its crime and gangster films, and its leadership remains secure for now. We’ve had films like Infernal Affairs andCold War, released this year, and I think there will be more great works produced next year. Besides, I have found that some directors on the Mainland are still not clear about a film’s business model, so lots of films are either commercial or critical flops.’
For Wong, success ultimately lies in whether the public buys tickets. With a name like Chow Yun-Fat attached to The Last Tycoon, and of course its close links to Shanghai, he can be fairly assured they will, especially here. But, like a true magnate, Wong shrugs off his relationship with Chow. ‘It’s just like two old friends meeting again,’ he says. ‘It’s not a big thing for us.’
From the print edition. Link to Time Out