HIGH SOCIETY ON CELLULOID
Mather Scott interviews Nicholas Chin
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
THE THING ABOUT high society is that, for those looking in from the outside, it can seem at once so familiar and yet so far away.
Nicholas Chin grew up in North London hearing tales around the dinner table of rich and famous people from Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the lifestyles of the people being discussed carved a deep impression.
Art History at Cambridge University stoked Chin's storytelling desires and developed his eye for detail — a talent immediately on show when he cast his lot with the Hong Kong filmmaking world with the short film Tai Tai in 2002.
That project was Chin's first attempt to shed light on the world he had heard so much about as a child - a world that seemed so distant at the time but became so familiar. And while Tai Tai - which starred Josie Ho and Jimmy Wong, and was screened in the Official Selection section at Cannes 2002 — can be seen as a brief fling with that milieu. Chin's latest effort, the full-length feature Magazine Gap Road, is his relationship with it since, now fully realized "At first my plan was to expand Tai Tai into a full length feature", explains Chin, 35, "But to be honest, it took me a long time to come down from going to Cannes and all that attention. When I finally did, I just felt like I had been around that project too long."
But the fascination for that social set never left Chin, who bides his time between Hong Kong and New York, dabbling in documentary and commercial projects for the likes of BBC and PBS.
"For me there's an interest in perceptions, in the presentation of that particular lifestyle and that particular world", he says,"I had made a lot of connections through Tai Tai and a lot of friendships, and I still wanted to explore what I was seeing. It's also very important part of Hong Kong society that has not been touched upon by film."
A chance encounter guided Chin towards the story revealed in Magazine Gap Road. He overhead a friend talking on the telephone, allowing for that moment a window into whom she might once have been.
"She worked as a call girl but had by then found herself an entirely different life", he recounts. "But you could see during the course of that call the person she once was , and get an idea of that life that she had left behind her. There was this level of detachment in her that I had not witnessed before and it came as a surprise."
And so Magazine Gap Road follows a similar route. It's about a woman trying to escape a past that comes to reach out for her. And, as its title suggest, it's set among the surrounds of the upper reaches of Hong Kong society."
"I wanted to look at someone with a past," he says, "It's about how we move on, but sometimes can never escape from out past and about what lengths people will go to protect what they have."
As was the case with Tai Tai, Chin has been able to surround himself with a cast that's pleasing to the eye- among them Jessey Meng and Qu Ying- while drawing on some of the city's most photogenic venues to provide the backdrop of Magazine Gap Road. And then, of course there's the fashion.
"I've been really lucky", the director explains,"I've had the support of places such as Opia, Kee Club and Jia Hotel - and that has given me a chance to present the story in the style and the surroundings I think were needed. It has to look real, even though, as with any thriller, there's also a sense of fantasy. the clothes, too, play such an important role- as they do in real life."
Magazine Gap Road comes with rich a richly evocative "fashion noir" style, highly artistic in its presentation, with scenes seemingly set fr visual impact as much as the impact of what exactly is going on. Veteran cinematographer Chan Yuen-Kai allows his camera to play with the "high art" backdrop. As for the clothes, the collections, from Fendi, Lanvin, Diane von Furstenburg, Celine and Loewe are stunning.
The style of the piece is obvious, says Chin, but there's substance there as well. The pacing is slow and deliberate -something modern audiences are not that used to, especially in Hong Kong, where we're used to a lot of bang for your buck.
"I'll admit it's not a commercial film", he says,"it requires some sort of patience, and it is cold, it is reflective. It gives people space to breathe it all in. But it's also set up so that I think you are rewarded by the end."
Magazine Gap Road has been touring the film festival circuit- having screened in Houston, Indianapolis and Boston- and is set to make local bow at November's Hong Kong Asian Independence Film Festival.
"I have no idea what people make of it.", says Chin. " as a filmmaker, part of what keeps your heart pounding is that you never really know." he laughs. "But I am happy with what we've done."
Lately he's been looking at projects with a local producer who's trying to steer him towards different subjects. "I think it's definitely time to move away from high-class sort of feel," says Chin, 'I've only done two films, and I suppose as your interest change, the type of films make changes as well. But I think it's time for me to close the book on this area, for sure."