Thursday, March 10, 2011

Yves Montmayeur Interview

Yves Montmayeur is a French documentary filmmaker and film critic. His work has covered a wide-range of subjects within film. His current project is on the rise and fall of the Japanese Pink Film industry (a type of softcore pornography) that was popular from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and he is also making documentary about the legendary Austrian film director Michael Haneke. He managed to find some time in his busy schedule at the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival for a quick chat. Yves talks about his experience while working in Hong Kong, his thoughts on documentary filmmaking and the future of Hong Kong cinema.

FIJ -What is your impression of Yubari Film Festival? It’s quite different to most festivals isn’t it?.

YM - It is. This is the second time I have come here. The first time was in 2004. They invited me because I did a film documentary on Miike Takashi. The film was called Electric Yakuza Go to Hell. And the movie was screened here with Miike Takashi. Big deal [laughs]. And at the same time they invited me as a member of the jury too. It was quite convenient because I was there, so they asked “Ah, maybe you could be a member of the Jury”. So it was an incredible experience. I loved it so much the time I spent there. After that they invited me again two years ago because I did another documentary this time on Korean cinema. It was called “The Angry Men of Korean Cinema”. But at the time I wasn’t in Japan so it was impossible to go. This time they invited me again. And this time I was making a documentary in Japan on Pink Eiga so I said Ok. I managed my time in Tokyo and came to Yubari with my documentary which you saw. But I love this festival!

FIJ -It is called “Johnnie Got his Gun”. Could you tell us a little bit about that, and what the circumstances were around making it?

YM -In fact I’ve been very concerned with Asian cinema for years. With some friends I was a critic and with a circle of film critics in France and at that time we were writing about Hong Kong Cinema. It was the early 90s and we suddenly saw that brand new generation of Hong Kong directors, with Wong Kar Wai, John Woo. I would always blast about them. And at that time I was quite focused on that brand new cinema from Hong Kong. And after some years of course the films of Johnnie To emerged. So I had the opportunity to see the Mission. I was like Wow! What is this? And I have to confess I am a big fan of Film Noir. And one of my favorite directors is Jean-Pierre Melville, the French from the 60s. . And when I saw the movie by Johnnie To. Wow! This it’s like Jean-Pierre Melville in Hong Kong you know? So I became totally interested in his movies. And after that I was in HK in 2003 I think and I had the opportunity to come on the set of Breaking News. They were so nice because they didn’t know me and they said come on the set and you could have an opportunity to have an interview. So everything started with shooting on the set of Breaking News.

FIJ -How did that opportunity come about?

YM -Yes I don’t actually remember how, but I met the first assistant for Johnnie To who was in charge of International Affairs or Sales. A very nice guy, we are still in touch. And he said, Ah okay I could arrange something on the set. So I came. Of course I didn’t have any idea I would be making a documentary on Johnnie To. I came to Hong Kong with the intention of doing many interviews with other people. And each time I was there I would try and shoot something interesting. I was quite lucky by the way because every time I came to Hong Kong there was always something to shoot. This is Johnnie, you know, he was always doing something. You know his way of working; his filming five movies at the same time and even if there was no chance to see him, then there was always an actor that I could have an interview with. So it was like a puzzle. I had many pieces; parts of interviews and images of the sets. And I thought let’s unite all these different pieces. Because I thought that I had a documentary, so let’s achieve it. I didn’t have a big budget to make this film. And as I explained to audience [after the film was shown] I am a thief. This is my way of working. [laughs]

FIJ -So how long were you working in Hong Kong for on and off?

YM -I think it was something like 8 years.

FIJ -What is your impression of Hong Kong from a filmmaker’s point of view?

YM -You know what, as a film director I have to fall in love with the city. Especially in Film Noir for example, the main character is the city. If you go back through the history of cinema: whether it is American cinema of the 70s or French cinema of the 60s and so on. It could be New York, it could be London, Paris, Hong Kong - the city is the main character. All these directors tried to catch an atmosphere or mood of the city. And it creates this unique atmosphere of Film Noir. Very good directors of Film Noir are very connected to their city. Johnnie, you can see that he is very connected to Hong Kong, like you saw in the documentary. Hong Kong is a part of his films. Immediately when you come to Hong Kong for the first time you say “wow”. The city is amazing, it is so vivid. Hong Kong reminds me, even now, of the New York from the 70s. But unfortunately this New York from the 70s doesn’t exist anymore. That’s why the American cinema of the 70s doesn’t exist anymore, because now you can’t find this atmosphere of the streets that we could find in Scorsese, Coppola, and de Palma. Now it’s a very light city. And even when they shoot in the street it looks like it’s from a studio. It’s quite artificial. But it’s not the case with Hong Kong. You can still catch an impression of the street, like many directors have done in their movies. Hong Kong is key to my work. It is because I fell in love with it that I did this documentary.

FIJ -The influential kinetic HK cinema of the '90s has been borrowed and imitated internationally since the early 2000s, making it more accessible and mainstream. Furthermore, in recent years HK has undergone a degree of political alignment with mainland China. In your opinion, how will this effect the HK film industry and what do you think this means for the future?

YM -It is very difficult to talk about the future. But there is a big crisis with the HK industry. If you make a comparison, 250 movies were being produced in the ‘80s every year. Now its maybe 30 new movies or something like that. So, you know it’s going down. Let’s not forget this was the Golden Age of HK Cinema. It was the ‘80s – so many new directors and actors. Then again, on the other hand if you consider the quality of the productions, yes there are fewer movies now but they are much more stylized. If you go into the past, all these movies were only made for a kind of choreography; just for martial arts or just for the big stars. This was nice because there were some great moments. But there were not so many interesting stories. Now it is the opposite. They are working so much on the screenplay now, sometimes maybe it is too much. You know all these brand new movies, the scripts can be too complicated sometimes [laughs]. But anyway now the story is more important than the past and of course the image is very stylized too. So that is the point that HK cinema is in crisis but the movies are stronger now. Still there are those kind of blockbusters that I am not so interested in, like in every other part of the world. But around the main industry there are many little companies who are very focused on er…we can’t say ‘auteur movies’, but much more involved in cinema, like what Milkyway Image (Johnnie To’s production company) are doing. There are some labels out there like Milkyway in Hong Kong there is hope.

FIJ -So there are some independent production companies who may be able to preserve some of the artistry and style of yesteryear?

YM -Exactly. Absolutely true. Even if they don’t have a big budget it’s not such a problem because they have much more freedom and they can sell their movies abroad. If they were to make movies just for Hong Kong it will be a problem, even for Johnnie To because there is not much of an audience for that kind of movie. But if you have a niche in France, or if you have a niche in the US and you put all these niche markets to together, you could have a real audience. This lets you finance your movie. But this is still a kind of a gamble. It works because they know that they can sell their movies to foreign audiences. Especially in mainland China, because even if there are not so many people who are interested in Johnnie To films, not so many people means [laughs] hundreds of thousands of people.

FIJ -In your film Johnnie To makes a point of saying that filmmaking in the US during the 80s began a steady decline in quality, the ‘90s are not worth talking about and that films nowadays while technically superior still have nothing to say. What are your views on American cinema?

YM -This is absolutely right. US films are very formatted, there is a formula for most films. They have no liberties. It is like you are watching the same movie. They have a sense of image but again they have nothing new to say. Sometimes if you’re going back even to the 90s, when then were some very interesting movies – we are talking about action movies – that inspired by HK and Asian movies. You know this is Hollywood. This is a big vampire, always watching the rest of the world for new ideas, a new way of making movies and remaking them. Of course they have some exceptions in the many independent directors who are doing good things. But I mean if you judge the main cinema industry in the US, its not so convincing [laughs].

FIJ -What is that you like about Johnnie To’s style?

YM -In Johnnie To’s films what I like is that kind of abstract way of filming. I love the architecture, again we are back to this idea of filming a city. It’s like between painting and architecture, it’s so visual; the idea that you don’t have to film in a frontal way. It’s always with filters, images captured in a semi-abstract way, which in the end is very stylish.

FIJ -So not a literal style?

YM -Exactly. That’s what I was talking about in my documentary; he had a great influence from Chinese painting, which was very interesting. I don’t so much like directors who shot an open space. It’s that very classical way of filming – very frontal, demonstrating. With Johnnie sometimes it’s just a character [picking at the air], some background, he catches a little detail and something happens. That’s what I love in his movies.

FIJ -And is it quite different to John Woo?

YM -Yes, John Woo is much more about fantasy. With Johnnie To it’s much more realistic. But these were two different times. When John Woo did movies, we didn’t care at that time about the realism. A character of John Woo could shoot ten bullets, maybe twenty bullets without reloading. We didn’t care at that time because it’s like a musical. A work of fantasy, and it works, it was wonderful. But at this time, with Johnnie, the audience is much more concentrated on reality. They don’t accept someone who is not motivated by something or is just shooting twenty bullets without reloading. Now the audience says ‘oh it’s impossible’. This could be a problem to get involved in the film and the narrative. So I love them both. But again it’s about different times.

FIJ -What is the key to a successful documentary for you?

YM -What I can say is, and I am referring to myself, to always keep a distance between you and your subject matter. You have to have in mind as a spectator that you have to forget about the journalist or director who is behind the camera. You have to forget that. That’s the reason why I don’t use any voiceover, any comments or whatever. Sometimes it can be quite difficult because you need to have all the information without adding some voiceover from the director. But my idea is to forget about the person who makes the documentary, forget about the idea of the documentary; you just have to jump into the world of your subject. So you have to be very anonymous. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t print your own shooting style. But it could be very subtle in your way of shooting. But again this is my advice. Try to keep a distance from your subject matter, don’t be too imprisoned. I don’t like when you see documentaries where the director is more important than his subject. [laughs] You know what I mean?

FIJ -I can think of a few. You actually went into filmmaking after being a film critic for a number of years. How did that come about and how did you get into that new world?

YM -I still love to write about cinema. I have to confess it is the most difficult thing. It is always the same nightmare, you know? Staring in front of a blank page and thinking I have to write as a critic. But I was always frustrated about one thing: How can you translate your feeling about the images of a movie with words? Of course you can write about something, but I was thinking about translating my feeling in images, from images to images. That is my way of working in documentary. I’m sure you noticed that in my film at some points. I use some images of Hong Kong and try to approach, not in a pretentious way, the style or the ideas of the director I’m working on. And maybe sometimes the audience catches a real idea of how the director works with those kind of images, more than comments or even interviews. So I love to do that. So that’s the reason why I decided to do documentaries to be closer to the filmmaker’s style; using other tools for expression my idea of the work.

FIJ -You have expressed you’re love of Johnnie To films as well as Asian cinema. As a French film-maker are you interested in European cinema?

YM -Of course many genres, many movies but I have to confess I didn’t do so much work about French cinema which is always quite paradoxical because people think ‘ah you are French so you have to be concerned about French cinema’. French cinema is very important as well. My belief is that it was important, not so much now. There are many movies but it doesn’t mean they are all interesting because that cinema was very bourgeois at that time. It would try like American cinema, try to imitate other cinemas especially Hollywood.

I told you of course that I very much like Asian cinema just because it is the most exciting nowadays; Hong Kong, Japan, even Thailand, Korea. But I am interested too in some European cinema, Australian cinema, Spanish cinema. I am always trying to be on the lookout for new things that are emerging. For example, I did a documentary on the brand new Spanish horror movies, about the brand new wave of Spanish directors; it’s called Viva La Muerte [laughs]. Just because,”wow” something suddenly happened in Spain with a real identity, something that we didn’t really know before in that kind of genre of horror movies. A little bit similar to Korean genre movies by the way. There are some little similarities between Spain and Korea. Right now I am working on a documentary on Michael Haneke, who made The White Ribbon and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years ago. So Michael Haneke is so different from Johnnie To. But anyway there’s a universe there, a mise en scene, ideas expressed that I am very interested in.

FIJ -A different style of filmmaking to explore?

YM -Exactly, you have to always be curious. You always have to be passionate. I can’t imagine doing a documentary on something I don’t care about, you know? Because the audience will see that too. And I am not so interested on doing something on directors who are very renown, who have so many previous documentaries made about them. So why do another one, you know?

FIJ -You aim to look at the unknown?

YM -Yes. I think it is much more exciting. And why is it exciting? Because sometimes you are discovering things while doing them; much more than when you know your subject perfectly so that there is a certain mechanism for making your documentary. You know the answers in advance. So it’s not stimulating. You have to sometimes be lost in it because you are much more focused on this brand new matter.

It’s the reason why sometimes – I don’t want to be pretentious about this – but you know you are not in a classical narrative when you are doing a documentary. You are between documentary and feature. And in features sometimes even you don’t know where you are going. You have your way of shooting and through that it brings something new.

FIJ -Talking about features, what is your take on fiction? Would you ever consider making a feature film?

YM -[laughs] You know, it’s funny because I have any friends in France who are directing feature films. Maybe you know Pascal Logiers, he did Martyrs. And another one is Christophe Gantz. The problem is, I saw all these guys because they are my friends and it is such a complicated thing to make a movie. So I said ‘Wow, they spent so much time, maybe five years on making a movie’. Maybe that’s the problem, in that I was so close to them and I saw so many problems when trying to make a feature film. Woah, woah, I prefer to do maybe five documentaries in the same time it takes them to make one feature [laughs].

FIJ -Nearly one a year.

YM -Yes, and at the same time I’m working on a TV program, doing extras for DVDs, that kind of thing. I’m a filming machine. [laughs] But now I’m getting older so it’s so tough to do a feature. Sometimes people in audience ask me afterwards ‘When will you do a real movie?’ A REAL movie? Does that mean documentaries are not real? Anyway I love documentaries so much. Mainly because you have the opportunity to meet people, not only your subject or your directors, but even common people. There are so many exchanges with people. It’s very rich. It’s very…I love that, I love that kind of exchange you can have in documentary.

Shot simultaneously while the director was making a documentary on Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Johnnie To Got His Gun, provides a comprehensive view of the working methods of Hong Kong director. It takes us behind the scenes of a number of To’s films, giving us interviews with his charismatic collaborators as well as plenty of insightful thoughts from the man himself. Some ‘making of’ scenes are later compared with how they appear in the film, allowing us to appreciate the talents of its maker. An excellent documentary, that explores the practices of one of Hong Kong’s great contemporary filmmakers.

Interview by Kenjo McCurtain

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