Many film markets offer opportunities for less commercially-driven projects to connect with potential backers and partners. The Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) is no exception although – as far as some of its participants are concerned – ‘arthouse’ is a limiting label they’d prefer to steer clear of.
SCREENZ caught up with Thai director Rooth Tang, at HAF to present his second feature project March April May; and with Hong Kong director Cheung Suk-yee and producer Trevor Morris, presenting their project Coarse Tea, Plain Rice.
Tang had some success locally and internationally with his first feature Sway (pictured, top), which premiered at Toronto in 2014 and had its home-ground release late last year. Cheung’s first feature, Greed Hate Delusion (the “three poisons” in Buddhist faith – a more succinct seven deadly sins), is completed and yet to release.
Tang’s Sway collected decent reviews and made it into the Thai Film Journal’s Top 10 Thai films of 2015.
Rooth completed his first draft of March April May, a story about loss, holding on and letting go, over a year ago, shortly after the Toronto premiere of Sway. He’s spent time since moving it forward, to a point where he considers it “pretty close”. He’s storyboarding at present and shared some of those images, although not for publication. A storyboard, he explained, is his preferred tool to work from during a shoot, rather than a script. The script for March April May requires some VFX shots, and storyboarding is helping Tang plan those.
Rooth hopes to reassemble the team he worked with on Sway, partly because Rooth is an admirer of Steven Spielberg’s workflow and his commitment to regular team members, partly because he knows what he’ll get from people he’s worked with before. “It’s good to work creatively, and we’re a well-oiled machine.”
Rooth also shared location photos to demonstrate his intentions for the story’s colour palate, the stark monochrome of a Pennsylvania winter a sharp contrast to the vibrancy of Bangkok streets and the natural warmth of red rock caves in China.
Tang lives and works between Thailand and America. After HAF, he was heading back to Thailand, taking on editing work to pay the bills as March April May moves toward production.
At HAF Rooth met with several Chinese producers and financiers. While there was interest in his project, there was also discussion about how to marry Tang’s vision with China’s censorship regulations, particularly around the supernatural elements in his story. Creating one cut for China and another for other territories was one suggestion, so Tang was in no way discouraged. Also helping drive international interest will be the fact that March April May’s story plays out across a number of countries.
In Thailand as elsewhere, theatrical potential is diminishing for arthouse features. But as one door closes, the internet opens, and Tang has sold worldwide online rights excluding Thailand for Sway to a VOD platform.
Close to home
Producer Trevor Morris will be known to some from his time working with WotWots producers Pukeko Pictures and 2012 presentation at the 2012 SPADA Conference. Back then he was working towards a China-NZ co-production feature although it ended up not going ahead. Coincidentally, the day after we met in Hong Kong, Beasts of Burden was announced as the first official China-NZ co-production was announced.
Morris has a strong understanding of markets and of distribution, having worked as a producer for many years, including a stint with Disney as it expanded into Asia. Morris and Cheung have known one another for over 10 years, since before Morris’ time at Disney.
Cheung’s Coarse Tea, Plain Rice is budgeted below US$2 million, so it was of limited interest to the major mainland Chinese investors who were scouting HAF projects. That doesn’t mean HAF wasn’t a good event at which to place the project. Morris and Cheung booked three full days of meetings, most of which were very positive. Cheung had completed the first draft of the script prior to HAF, and picked up constructive suggestions for the second draft out of the meetings taken at HAF.
The film’s story centres on a vegetarian chef and his meat-loving stepmother, who meet many years after becoming estranged following the death of the chef’s father. As its title might suggest, food is a strong focus of Coarse Tea, Plain Rice. That focus opens up that specific subset of film programming, the foodie film. Such titles are especially particularly popular in Korea, where audiences have recently enjoyed Naomi Kawase’s An and Jon Favreau’s rather more broad Chef. There’s even a culinary film programme in the Berlinale these days.
Film festivals alone don’t recoup budgets, however. Coarse Tea, Plain Rice would also fit arthouse circuits easily enough, although Morris and Cheung both believe the film’s appeal will be broader than that. A multi-territory VOD deal for Coarse Tea, Plain Rice was another proposal to come out of the meetings at HAF.
During HAF Morris and Cheung also received proposals to consider developing the film as a multi-territory co-production. Morris’ legal and studio background would enable him to look after all the paperwork for such a venture, but it’s questionable whether it would be worth the effort for a project budgeted at the level of Coarse Tea, Plain Rice.
Meanwhile, Morris and Cheung continue with other projects alongside developing the film. Cheung trained in the US, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Southern California. Now, she educates the next generation of aspiring filmmakers in Hong Kong, teaching in tertiary level institutions.
Morris is also developing film projects for his sister, the award-winning actress and singer Karen Mok (Man of Tai Chi, East Meets West, Go Lala Go!). Coincidentally, the week after HAF, Mok announced her Regardez World Tour would visit Auckland on 1 June.