Hong Kong Director Peter Chan Steps Out of His Comfort Zone

Director Peter Chan’s She’s Got No Name features a who’s who of contemporary Chinese stars, led by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonMemoirs of a Geisha) and including current box office draws Wang Chuan-jun (Dying to Survive) and Lei Jiayin (Full River Red). But the film’s biggest draw may well be the real-life character that the Hong Kong filmmaker and his script-writing team has revolved this story around.

In the Shanghai of the 1940s, housewife Zhan-Zhou (played in the film by Zhang) finds herself charged with the murder — and gruesome dismemberment — of her husband. Zhan-Zhou initially pleads guilty, but her story evolves over the years, as do rumors about everything from how many pieces of the carved-up husband were found to just who — besides the wife — might have been involved, and why.

“It was one of the most celebrated cases of vilifying domestic violence and even of women’s power way back in the ’40s,” Chan said on a recent afternoon in the Hong Kong office of his We Pictures and Changin’ Pictures production houses. “We tried to find the reason [for the murder], and we gave it a very feudal reason of beliefs that if your body is not whole, you would not get into your next life because otherwise, in ancient Chinese feudal beliefs, you would meet again — it doesn’t matter whether or not you kill him. So to the woman, it was like ‘OK, I’ll kill him in his life. I’ll dismember him so that it doesn’t matter if I go to jail, or be executed, at least I won’t see him again. I’ll be free of him.’ ”

Chan’s film arrives at the tail end of a period of prolonged upheaval in Hong Kong, as the city still reels from social and political tumult, as well as the lingering effects of the pandemic. So while the traditional Lunar New Year (roughly January to February) boom period this year was a washout in terms of box office — at $6.2 million in revenue, it was down 24 percent from 2023 — the past 12 months have also seen some surprises. They include the Jack Ng-directed courtroom drama A Guilty Conscience becoming the city’s highest-ever earner ($15 million) and some strong showings across the genre market, such as the latest offering from the maverick Soi Cheang, whose actioner Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In (a Cannes Midnight Screenings title this year) enjoyed the second-biggest opening day ever for a Hong Kong film at the start of the month ($677,000) as well as healthy returns in mainland China ($35.8 million on opening). 

But despite the ups and downs of Hong Kong’s film sector in recent years, Chan’s career has remained one of the city’s most consistent success stories, with hits across the decades, from the achingly romantic Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), which won nine Hong Kong Film Awards and two Golden Horse Awards, to action epics such as The Warlords (2007), which collected eight HKFAs and four Golden Horse awards. He’s also found fame as a producer, nurturing young talent from Hong Kong, a role he took on with rising star Derek Tsang on his breakthrough hit Soul Mate (2016), which Chan co-produced. Tsang then went on to direct the Oscar-nominated schoolyard bullying drama Better Days (2019) and was among the directors behind Netflix’s sci-fi epic 3 Body Problem.

But when it comes to his own work, Chan is still demonstrating that he’s willing to take risks, with She’s Got No Name marking his first foray into pitch-black film noir.

And the film isn’t simply a genre exercise. As well as the case of Zhan-Zhou — and the arc of her life both before and after the events depicted in the film — Chan says he wanted to place She’s Got No Name within the context of the tumultuous evolution of Shanghai and Chinese society from the 1940s onwards, beginning with what the country knows as the War of Resistance to Japan, continuing with the post-war reign of the Nationalists, the country’s Civil War, and on through the rise and rule of its Communist Party thereafter.

“[Zhan-Zhou’s] fate was intertwined with those changes to Chinese society,” says Chan. “Somehow, every time those changes happened, her life and her fate would be altered. She never served her full sentence. She walked out in 1960 and she lived until 2006. She outlived everyone. I like to do films over long periods that look back and see how society changes and how that affects an individual.”

Chan was first presented with the Zhan-Zhou story as a film possibility in 2016. To tap into the project’s possibilities as a piece of film noir, Chan and his team first looked to shooting in the northern city of Tianjin, which retained parts of its old city that more closely resembled 1940s Shanghai. They even considered shooting in London.

Eventually, Chan landed on the Hongkou District of Shanghai, known as “Little Tokyo” during World War I and also part of the city’s International Settlement district, which was featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II drama Empire of the Sun. Remarkably, the district has until recently been left relatively untouched by modernization, in terms of the foundations of its architecture, at least. Chan found he could rebuild and fit out certain sites to resemble recaptured Shanghai over the decades. 

“It’s been one of the last districts to be developed,” explains Chan. “It’s now called North Bund, but it’s pretty untouched. We were behind one of the oldest cinemas in town — the Victory Cinema — and that whole neighborhood was where the early Shanghai film business was [in the 1920s]. It was like old Hollywood, so the buildings were modernized, but we were able to dress it all up like it was 1945.”

But Chan discovered he could only shut out the modern world for so long: “The funny thing was, the minute we started building, there were literally 40,000-50,000 people turning up to take photos for their social media accounts on the weekends. So they ended up blocking it all off.”

She’s Got No Name marks the third collaboration between Chan and the Taiwan-based American cinematographer Jake Pollock, who says in the film’s official press kit that he and Chan wanted to “use a modern sensibility to create a unique interpretation” of a period in Shanghai that might be unfamiliar to international audiences.

“I always like to wander away from my comfort zone,” says Chan. “I told Jake I want to make a film that doesn’t look like my films at all. There were many visual reference points, from Hong Kong photographer Fan Ho to Edward Hopper, and it doesn’t look like anything I have done before.”

The 61-year-old Chan first brought the martial arts epic Wuxia (also known as Dragon) to Cannes as part of the Midnight Screenings section in 2011. But his first-ever experience of the Croisette came during his earliest days as a filmmaker, when he found himself working as a production manager on the set of the Jackie Chan vehicle Wheels on Meals, which was being shot in Barcelona in 1984.

“I managed to sneak away from set and went to Cannes for a day and just bought a whole bunch of posters,” reveals Chan.

The years since have seen Chan establish himself at the forefront of Chinese-language cinema and among the most forward-thinking creatives in Asia. In the early 2000s, he was an early adopter of the “pan-Asian” concept of co-production through his company Applause Pictures. As China opened up its film industry to co-productions, Chan’s We Pictures drove such box office hits as the Teddy Chan-directed actioner Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) using a combination of Hong Kong filmmaking know-how and the mainland’s vast and varied resources. 

More recently, Chan established Changin’ Pictures in 2022 with plans to develop projects alongside the likes of Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen, while also exploring the streaming market, and he reveals there are projects set for release soon in South Korea and Thailand, although he wasn’t ready to reveal details. 

That’s where his focus will return once She’s Got No Name is released, but for now, he’s riding the high of making a film that has pushed him in a gratifying new direction. Says Chan: “I’ve never done a movie with so many characters, and the fact that I was able to work with so many big names and give all these characters a story arc, that’s just been fascinating.” 

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