For every rule, there is an exception. If reaching stardom at an early age was synonymous with wishful thinking, then Cheong Kin Man, Emily Chan and Tracy Choi are the exception to this rule.
Still in their 20s, the three young artists from Macao have taken the territory’s name to international film festivals, to great acclaim.
In lives divided between Macao and cities such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Brussels and many others, Cheong, Emily and Tracy presented some of their work in the fifth edition of The Script Road, Macau Literary Festival.
What they share in common is their Macao identity, which inspires much of their work, in addition to big dreams and the strength to see them through.
“TO BE OR NOT TO BE” – THAT IS THE QUESTION
A quick glance at the Facebook page of Cheong Kin Man reveals that the 28 year-old is constantly on the move, carrying with him his most precious possession: his film, “A Useless Fiction.”
“Travel is a necessity. For me, more than the film, what’s most important is what I’ve been learning from the public at the screenings, so these trips are essential,” he said when asked about his energy and motivation.
From Granada to Hamburg, Vancouver to Singapore, in Cannes or Macao – the film he made for his Masters degree in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Berlin Freie Universität has been received with great acclaim.
However, the film’s path is full of ironies. The truth is that the project has been all but “useless” for Cheong; although much of it was inspired in Macao, to date the territory has been the last location to get a screening.
The 31-minute film has been successful not only for its content but also for its form. The experimental film, composed of overlays, is a search for identity, contrasts and the importance of language.
In addition to the images, the film includes texts in English, Portuguese, Burmese and French and Korean and Cantonese characters.
“The film is exactly like life. A diary with a dash of fiction,” Cheong Kin Man explained. “There were six topics I wanted to address in this film – the reflexive process of the making of the film itself; returning to one’s culture and ways of thinking; similarities vs. differences in cultures; translation-languages-interpretation; and the reflection of making “Ou Mun Ian, Macaenses” (a 2009 documentary).”
But can Cheong be called a filmmaker when he says he doesn’t want to be known as one?
“I do not like labels,” he said: “Nor can I be considered a visual anthropologist because I only have a Master’s.”
If he were only allowed one adjective, it would be “self-taught”; he learned languages by reading subtitles in foreign films and learnt to edit videos by watching Youtube tutorials.
At the age of 28, Cheong Kin Man has singlehandedly taken Macao’s name to the Cannes Film Festival in France, but stardom is not what fascinates him.
He said that the best part of this “adventure” was really the feedback he received from the public and the professionals he gets the opportunity to meet.
Despite being fluent in several languages such as English, Portuguese, French, Cantonese and Mandarin and living in Europe, far from Asia where he was born, Cheong said he still doesn’t know himself and the search, as witnessed in “A Useless Fiction”, would continue.
For the presentation of this film overseas, Cheong Kin Man had the support of several Macao institutions such as Creative Macau, Macao Foundation, Cultural Affairs Bureau, the International Institute of Macau, the Institute of European Studies of Macau and Tertiary Education Services Office.
PRAISE FOR WOMEN
Fighting for support from institutions is also part of Tracy Choi and Emily Chan’s day-to-day life.
Also born in Macao, the two producers divide their time between Macao, Hong Kong and Beijing, looking for further support to bring their ideas into life.
“To make a 90-minute film, I got some budget from Macao but it is not enough. So I need to go to other places and search for more money,” explained Tracy, who is currently developing a feature film with support from companies in Hong Kong.
The director said that the process could be time-consuming and a finished script could take years to take shape and be screened, mainly due to bureaucratic procedures.
But, after two years in a drawer, the new feature film “Sweet Home” was filmed in Macao last February and the filmmaker hopes to put it on screens in 2016.
The story portrays a masseuse from Macao during the Portuguese administration, reaffir-ming a theme Tracy Choi has already introduced in her films: praise of the feminine figure.
“My films are all about women, actually [laughing],” she said. “And this one has a lot of stories that I heard from my mother.”
Out of all her experiences, Tracy likes to make films – something she realised when she was in high school and confirmed when she graduated in Film at the University of Shih Hsin in Taiwan.
In 2012, her documentary “I’m here” won the Jury Award at the Macao International Film and Video Festival; that same year she was invited to join various festivals in Asia and even the line-up of the Paris International Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival in France.
“The end result of the film is not related to the original idea. I started by wanting to make a documentary that put homosexuality and the church side by side. But soon I realised that the Church in Macao would not talk to me. So I ended up making a documentary about my experience and that of my friend,” she said.
Tracy Choi believes that there are no taboo topics and that homosexuality should be discussed openly, but realised that not everything can always be published.
“When I was in high school, there was a film competition in which I participated with a short film about drug use. That year, other short films touched on other issues such as bullying and adolescent problems resulting in a halt of the competition” she said with a laugh. “You still can’t talk about everything.”
However she does not seem to be afraid; her mother’s support plays a fundamental role. During previous presentations in Macao, she realised that praise came not only her way, but was also directed towards her mother, for the encouragement she gave her daughter to become a filmmaker.
THE REBELLIOUS GIRL
If Tracy saw rebellion through the films of classmates in high school, Emily Chan lived them in the first person.
At 14, Emily ran away from home, got into various conflicts and went to seven different schools because of her rebellion.
But how did Emily become the discreet 27–year-old with the open smile we see today?
The answer comes easily: “through film,” she said. “When I was a rebel, I felt life had no purpose. And then, one day in middle school, I had to make a film for a project and everyone really liked it. So film became the meaning of my life,” she explained.
In 2008, Emily started making docu-mentaries about situations relating to her daily life. She portrayed the people of Fujian – the province her family comes from – and the lives of workers in Macao casinos.
“Because Macao has no film school, I eventually learned to do things on my own,” said the young woman who ended up studying journalism at the University of Macau as an alternative to her biggest dream.
Frustrated by not being able to achieve what she wanted most – making films – due to “financial issues and lack of family support,” she moved to Beijing with only 70,000 yuan in her pocket, no contacts and many doubts about the future, to take a master’s degree in film at Remin University of China.
“When I was at university in Macao, I did part-time jobs to get enough money to go to Beijing. I bought a one-way ticket and stayed there for two years, taking advantage of the scholarship I was given in the meantime,” she said.
With the money she managed to save in Beijing, Emily invested in the production of the film “2200 km” which tells the story of Macao people who, like the filmmaker, moved to Beijing in search of the realisation of their dreams.
After her Masters, Emily sent her CV to almost every film production company, until she was offered a job in a 3D production company where she worked for hours on end, carried heavy film materials and gained experience and contacts.
THE PERFECT “TIMING”
The film “Timing” brings special memories to Emily, mainly due to the challenges it raised. As Tracy stated, support is not always sufficient and Emily was forced to ask a contact for a loan of 900,000 patacas to be paid within 14 months of the completion of the production.
“I took the risk and I signed a contract guaranteeing to pay within the agreed deadline,” she said. The story did not end there.
“My producer told me I had 20 days of shooting in Macao but, when it came time to begin, he reduced the time, giving me only 12 and a half days to shoot when I already had agreed all the numbers with the crew according to the initial deadline,” she recalled. “That’s when I realised I was losing half the money that had cost me so much to collect.
“When it went to edit, the producer again meddled with my time as if it were a magic act and I had to finish everything in seven days when it normally takes three months,” she added.
In 2015, the film was shown in Macao, to good reviews. After 14 months, Emily completed the “Timming” project and paid back all the borrowed money, despite the pressure.
“This film was more successful in the cinemas than some of the films from Hong Kong,” she said proudly.
In that same year, the film “Yesterday Once More” was awarded best film at the Macau Indies. At the time, the director remembers going on stage in casual clothing and no make-up, thinking that she would not win and therefore did not need to bother with an elaborate costume.
With the same simplicity that she took on stage with her, Emily continues on her path. She currently has a contract with a mainland Chinese company for the production of three commercial films.
“In Macao, people rarely think about making a film to make money; they make films for themselves. The government gives support to the order of two million patacas that do not need to be returned,” she said.
“Making film in China is very different from Macao. In Beijing, I learned to make films for the public, a bit like those of Hollywood – aimed at feelings, causing tears or laughter.”
MACAO AND THE INDUSTRY
When asked about the existence of a film industry in Macao, the opinions of the three directors are the same: Macao still has a long road ahead.
“Macao’s productions need more visibility both locally and internationally. It also takes mental openness, freedom of expression and many other conditions,” said Cheong Kin Man.
“If you want to make films, you have to dedicate yourself to it full-time, from writing to production, and not just part-time. Only then will the market in Macao become mature,” said Emily.
Screening their movies in Macao, Cheong, Tracy and Emily are happy to participate in the Macao Literary Festival that will present “A Useless Fiction”, “Farming on the wasteland” and “When Felicity Calls”, respectively.
But they know that the long road ahead means dividing their hearts with their homeland and all the other places where they can be more than filmmakers – they can be makers of dreams.
Text Catarina Mesquita
Photos Cheong Kam Ka, courtesy of Emily Chan, Tracy Choi and Cheong Kin Man