Oral History Series (3): Director Chor Yuen


A Lifetime in the Studio
Grace Ng, Kwok Ching-ling

According to Chor Yuen, his name was derived from two words he spotted at random while flipping through a dictionary. This became a name that traversed both the Cantonese and Mandarin film worlds, and was equally renowned when dialect distinction is no longer the rule in these more contemporary times.

When the film career of Chor Yuen began, he was considered the successor of the tradition of Cantonese wenyi films. His early works displayed both the delicate sensitivity of Chun Kim and the sprightly witticism of Ng Wui. The close link with tradition, especially in the portraying of relations between the generations, was particularly evident in the films he made for Shanlian, featuring his father Cheung Wood-yau and the veteran actress Pak Yin. His works under Rose Company on the other hand, were more indulgent, and in most cases were exhibitions of his own personal notion of romanticism. When he turned to making Mandarin films, his huge body of swordsman movies was never short of sensitivity, expressed through atmosphere and pictorial beauty.

Apart from a few rare exceptions, Chor Yuen's entire film career was closely connected to the film studio. Film critic Sek Kei described him as the ' last heir to the studio system'. One of Chor Yuen's best friends, a member of the entertainment press, jokingly nicknamed him ' The Studio Animal '. Interviews with Chor Yuen were either conducted in his favourite café or on set in the film studio. These interviews were all witty and intimate, in which the locations served as the backdrops of his daily life - a unique studio aesthetic was thus developed.

Chor Yuen declared himself a romantic, which the studio allowed him ample space for expression. The vast, spacious living rooms and the stylised decors in his melodramas, the costumes and sets that defied the constraints of time and history in his swordsman films, not to mention the omnipresent red maple leaves (quivering leaves on bare branches in the black and white era) and the setting sun in the horizon, all are part and parcel of a meticulously imagined world. But there were genuine feelings in this manufactured realm. The narration may be winding and bizarre, but it is eventually, a lament upon this imperfect world.

The artist appeared to be Chor Yuen's favourite character. Painters, musicians and novelists peopled his early films. His painter always lived in a European style attic, with a huge skylight that looked upon local style buildings. The studio is a closed setting, but with an unrestrained imagination, anything is possible. The living environment of musicians were much more ordinary, but Chor Yuen's musicians were capable of creating unimaginably astonishing musicals. The stage in such cases was actually Chor Yuen's own playground, in which he let his imagination run wild. Despite the unrealistic settings, Chor Yuen was concerned with issues such as art in relation to fame and fortune. The artists in these films may very well be Chor Yuen himself.

On the other hand, the illusory mansions and landscapes of Gu Long's swordsman novels, devoid of any specific historical time frame, was to Chor Yuen the ideal settings for the machiavellian plotting of the superhuman swordsmen. Every tree or tower could be recycled in a new context, for it was the impressionistic realm Chor Yuen was interested in. It was a realm of ancient, distant times of worldly intrigues, in which the essence of chivalrous knights-errant was more important than historical accuracy. The studio then became the perfect environment to conjure up these metaphorical backdrops in which the dark drama of human deception could be played out. As the director, Chor Yuen could manipulate these performances with leisure and ease in the studio setting.

Tracing his creative journey right from his birth to the blossoming of film career, Chor Yuen kept saying that it was the order of the day and the company's production direction that shaped his acclaimed works over the years. He is a firm believer that chance makes the man, and claimed that he kept pace with the changing times. The incidents he touched upon during the interviews - the decline of Union and the rise of Kong Ngee, were testaments that chance was a crucial element that led to the pinnacle of his career, and made him a legendary figure. He took his idea for The Pregnant Maiden (1968) from a relatively unknown Cantonese opera script written by Tong Tik-sang. Purple Night (1968) was the product of a chance encounter with the Cantonese ballad The Solitary Swan in the Setting Sun. When Cantonese film became out of fashion, he turned to making Mandarin films. A 'discarded' script, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), unexpectedly became the vehicle for his most stylish and striking film. The House of 72 Tenants (1973) brought about the rebirth of Cantonese films. For more than three decades, Chor Yuen remained active and creative. The passing of Cantonese and Mandarin films, the rise and fall of big studios such as Cathay and Shaws, are but historical phases through which this legendary director traversed. Special thanks should go to Mr Chor Yuen for his massive support throughout the making of this publication, in particular his valuable time for the interviews and untiring patience towards our hosts of questions.

As far back as the 1960s, film critics Sek Kei and Law Kar were already penning on Chor's works. They were again invited to talk with the director at the interviews conducted in 2004. The three articles by Sek Kei, written respectively in the 60s, 70s and a few years ago, offer an incisive study of Chor's style and the very literary romanticism of his own right; Law Kar on the other hand keeps his eyes focused on Chor's youth films, suggesting that 'Nowadays (1969), it is not really necessary to insist on distinctions between Chinese and Western films, between Cantonese and Mandarin cinemas. Instead, there is an inexorable trend to regroup and integrate Cantonese cinema with Mandarin cinema, while absorbing Western influences to form a unique "Hong Kong cinema".' A quick thinker, Chor Yuen has made his presence in our film history an extraordinary one by making his way through the changing times with equal strength and grace