Sunday, November 29, 2015   

Movie maestro

Natallie Cai

Monday, December 03, 2012

Living a life filled with drama and bringing a touch of celluloid magic into people's lives, movie godfather Raymond Wong Pak-ming is something of a magician himself in how he has created a unique movie empire.

The veteran actor-director has made and featured in hundreds of films, most of which not only smashed box office records but have also become part of the collective memory of generations of Hongkongers.

Some of his classics include the comedy All's Well, Ends Well (1992), Aces go Places (1982) and the 1980s comic horror series The Happy Ghost, which also starred many other topline actors.

The last two were produced by Cinema City Co, set up in 1980 by Wong and two partners.

The company produced many classic movies before closing down in the early 90s.

Some of Wong's most recent work as director includes this year's comedy Love is...Pyjamas and 2008 martial arts movie Ip Man and its sequel two years later.

"Inspiration to me is like electricity for a light bulb. It can come alive all of a sudden when I see something interesting or unusual," the 66-year-old says.

Wong said the story idea for his classic supernatural romance Esprit d'amour (1983) was sparked when he visited a tomb during Ching Ming Festival - a traditional ritual to commemorate late ancestors.

"That morning, I saw a gravestone of a young lady and felt sorry for her premature death," he says. "I shivered after staring at the tombstone for a while. And that resulted in an idea at ni
ght to produce the unconventional love story."

Wong is also well-known for his screenwriting skills.

It took him just 48 hours to finish the script of the 1983 Taiwan-based film Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing, which involved a lot of Putonghua dialogue although he could barely speak the language then.

The following year, he also saved the director of the horror film The Occupant some money. Offered a whole month's comfortable accommodation in Discovery Bay for screenwriting, Wong finished the job in just three nights.

He smiles proudly while recalling the Hong Kong filmmaking industry of the 1980s, when it earned the title of "oriental Hollywood."

That was the time when filmmakers produced hundreds of movies full of unique local flavors, beating masterpieces from the West and other Asian regions, Wong said.

However, its heyday began to wane from 1992, marking the start of a decade when the film industry was buffeted by the increasing influence of triads and rising film piracy - "a cancer for the industry, " as Wong calls it.

Wong recalls 1992-2003 as the darkest period for the local film industry, which was torn apart by these two evil forces.

A number of filmmakers and other experts left the sector in that decade, but Wong decided to stay true to his calling.

His persistence only strengthened after he overcame a family disaster by triggering what may only be called a miracle.

In 1997, Wong's wife was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer - and even renowned doctors held out no hope.

But Wong refused to give up. He quit filming and looked for herbal medicines for his wife. He also conducted rehearsals for each person who visited her so they would tell her jokes and comfort her, with no tears shed despite the difficult times.

And then came the miracle. Six months after her diagnosis, Mrs Wong recovered fully.

Even Wong could not explain the turnaround, but he wrote a book telling of his unforgettable experience.

"I asked myself a question after the miracle. My wife has been able to overcome cancer, why can't I surmount the cancer of the local film industry - piracy?" says Wong, who then once again put heart and soul into producing more masterpieces.

While Wong enjoys every facet of his career, actor, screenwriter, director and movie company owner, he sees the last as the most challenging.

"Acting is a way of enjoying life, and screenwriting is a process of creation and idea sharing. I can do both if I am interested, or quit otherwise. But doing business is another story," he says.

In 2009, Wong and his son Edmond Wong Chi-woon set up Pegasus Entertainment Holdings (8039), which went public on October 31 after raising HK$73.5 million.

As producer, Wong had also set up Mandarin Entertainment (Holdings) in 1991, which was taken over in the late 90s by mainland enterprises and renamed China Mandarin Holdings (0009).

Wong has his own philosophy for business expansion in the mainland.

Although he earned his reputation from comedy films, Wong introduced to the mainland action films instead - such as The Seven Swords, Dragon Tiger Gate and Flash Point. That was during 2005 to 2007, after Hong Kong filmmakers were given more access to mainland audiences through the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement.

"There may be some cultural gaps for comedy, but action films did not have that concern," Wong explains.

Only after he had triumphed with his action films did Wong launch the costume drama All's Well, Ends Well in 2010. "Enough preparation has to be made before introducing comedy," he says.

Unlike entertainment agents who sign contracts with several actors and actresses, Wong says his company only cultivates one actor over several years and produces films tailor-made for that person.

Pegasus signed a HK$48 million contract with Louis Koo Tin-lok in 2010, which requires Koo to star in nine films until 2016.

"The arrangement is like buying futures. As Koo becomes increasingly popular, the strategy turns out to be cost efficient," Wong says.

Before Koo, Wong also tailored films for the late Leslie Cheung Kwok- wing and Donnie Yen Chi-Tan.

Piracy in the mainland remains a big obstacle for Hong Kong filmmakers to expand the market, but Wong sees the problem from a different perspective. He said the problem reminds him of a shoe selling story in Africa. "Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa for market research. But they found nearly all Africans go barefoot," he says.

"One of the salesmen reported to his head manager that there is no business opportunity, but the second was excited by a good potential market. I think I am the second salesman," Wong says.

The box office of the Ip Man sequel in 2010 exceeded HK$230 million, but about 10 million mainlanders watched the movie online.

A number of those who watch pirated movies complain that their home cities have no cinemas.

"If we can attract audiences who watch pirated movies into new cinemas, the profits would be considerable," Wong says, adding that Pegasus is considering investing in cinema production in the mainland.

But Wong says Hong Kong filmmakers face difficulties in cooperating with mainland peers, as they have to commit to involving more mainland actors and face heavy restrictions on content.

This has also caused Hongkongers to complain that local films have lost their original flavor. Lowbrow movies featuring porn and foul language are more popular these days, says Wong, who is concerned about the impact of this "twisted culture."

Wong called on the government to approve free-to-air TV licenses as soon as possible, as he believes that will bring in competition and in turn attract more talent into the industry and improve salaries.

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