We met Hong Kong comedy king Michael Hui, producer, director, scriptwriter in Kowloon, Hong Kong, one evening in a nice hotel. He and his three brothers, Ricky, Sam and in a smaller role Stanley, formed the Hui brothers in several comedies that became instant classics from the seventies to the nineties. Games Gamblers Play, The Private Eyes, The Contract, Chicken and Duck Talk, Front Page, The Magic Touch, among other titles, are crazily hilarious comedies that film viewers should look after and check out, if they don’t know them.
This is a transcript of a conversation we held, and as you will notice, we also tried to transcript the way Michael Hui talks in a Hong Kong English that he doesn’t get to practice that often, and because he speaks very fast with an odd pronounciation sometimes, some words are missing and incomprehensible. Our apologies for this, but we prefered being faithful to the original discussion than making up and filling blanks randomly.
– Stéphane Lam: Dear Mr. Michael Hui Koon-Man, can you please recount us how your childhood was with your brothers
and the kind of joke you were playing to each other?
– Michael Hui: We are a very poor family. When we were young, we lived in a place called Diamond Hill on the other side, not much to play except running around kicking cans as football…
– Metal balls then.
– Metal balls! Flintstones and fighting with a piece of bamboo, imitating swordsmen… (chuckles) Very basic sorts of games at the time when we were very young. In our childhood, we lived by a small stream.
So you wanna know something about our childhood, right? In our childhood days, we used to swim and catch small fish in the stream and that’s about that.
– Okay, so nothing from the other kids?
I’m asking this because you are comedians, so I was just wondering if comedians when they are young, they play more tricky, more comic, more funny stuff.
– Oh, when you ask this question, I came to think of it, yes! But our house was so small, a few brothers jammed in a small house and no space, so a lot of time, especially in the evening before dinner, or sometimes after dinner, we would play outside the house in a small little grass land so we would assemble the kids in the neigbourhood and I would perform in front of them. Usually, I would sing for them and the two brothers would do what you might call tricks and…
– And put on a kind of special show?
– Usually, my brother Samuel Hui would sing and I wold probably do something funny as I recall and usually singing too. You know at the time, there was a potential, there was entertaining, comedy character even in the olds days when I was at the time… I’m referring to about 11, 12, 13, 10 to 13 years old.
– Any specificity between you and Ricky, you and Sam, and Sam and Ricky? Any special relationship, and secrets between two of you? Because you are three but it always go by two, by pairs, if you know what I mean…
– What do you mean by “special relationship”?
– Well, you have three brothers. I have two brothers. Let’s say with my first brother, we would play this and play that, like play tennis. But with the other one, I would not play tennis with him, I woyld tell him my secrets with my new girlfriend and all this. That’s the kind of special relationship I’m thinking of.
– It was more or less the same. (Silence) Except that… (silence) More or less the same. I don’t see any difference.
– Okay, no problem.
– How important has brotherhood been in your private life? Because many think the view of you two/three (depending on the film) actors on the screen is an extremely enjoyable view of brotherhood relationship.
– (Silence) Brothers are very important in those days (clears throat), brothers is in the only thing we had actually. (silence)
– Do you later when you were…
– Oh, sorry. Please!
– Our relationship is very good, also because we are a poor family. In those days, in those areas where we’ve grown up, (…) so we have to… A lot of bullying, brothers have to fight (laughter). That is important.
– So you were always protecting, defending each other.
( My tiramisu is served)
– (To the waitress:) Thank you. (To Michael Hui:) Please have some, it’s tiramisu, this is Italian!
– No, I can’t have sweet things.
– Oh… No? No more?
– No more.
– I was gonna bring you a cake or macaroons.
– Not preferrably.
– Oh… So between the three of you, who was the one who got more often bullied in school or just outdoor?
– Uh, Ricky Hui. Because he’s relatively timid, easily bullied and he has a very weak character. He seems to be intimidated so when we were around, we protect him a lot in those days so…
– Did he get tougher, like more protecting himself later when he was an adult? Was he more, stronger?
– No, his character remained unchanged. That’s why in my movies, when I wrote, his characters are usually protected by me. Although I demand a lot from him, but actually I’m protecting him actually, the protection is still there.
– As far as you can remember, what kind of comedy shows made you laugh, whether it was film, radio, comics books, or stage shows? Any Asian or Western references to name?
– When I was younger, I think I was quite influenced by the few major comedians in HK. Leung Sing-Bor [梁醒波] is a top comedian at the time, in the fifties, sixties and Yee Chaw-Sui was a really famous comedian and I love to see them acting, the jokes and the movement and so on. And actually, in the early days in my television days when I came out, having a hard time doing a living from acting, I did a lot of imitations Leung Sing-Bor. He was a partner with me in a TV program. He did not know that I was imitating the movement and exaggerating in the beginning. And Charlie Chaplin. I have the chance to watch almost all the shorties of Charlie Chaplin.
– Wow! There’s a lot! Thousands!
– Yeah, there’s a lot.
– But Leung Sing-Bor…
– Everybody knows him. He was a Chinese opera, Cantonese opera singer. Performed on stage. And also comedian on stage. And also subsequently did a few movies. That was in the fifties and the sixties.
– You mentionned Chaplin. But I was thinking of other splastick comedians like Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, Linder, or obviously the Marx brothers.
– Yes. I think I started watching Chaplin’s shorties in those days and he was who influenced me most and the comedy of surprise, how he used surprise. I remember when I was young, the first gag I watched was Chaplin doing fishing and hooked up a pair of shoes and everybody laughed. So that’s the first time I realised “oh, that’s how gag is; it’s something you don’t expect. Instead of a fish, it’s a shoe. That’s the beginning of education. And then in the later years, I came across The Three Stooges, I saw most of their movies. You know The Three Stooges?
– Of course, The Three Stooges.
– Now that you mention it, maybe The Three Stooges influenced the imagination and construction of my brothers’ films, that I was actually maybe the shadow of The Three Stooges, I was the one (…) bullying the other two, and then came Lloyd and Keaton and sophisticated comedy.
– Afterwards? When you were maybe 15 or 20 at the time?
– Yeah, probably.
– So The Marx Brothers, not so much?
– More Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
– Did you ever perform as a stand-up comedian at the beginning?
– I read you’ve been a high school teacher. How enjoyable was that experience? Did you personnalise the teaching? (Yes, some fans out here are fantasizing a bit on having you as a teacher)
(Michael Hui watches me struggling with my tiramisu and holding the voice recorder at the same time. He grabs it.)
– Can I hold it like that?
– (Surprised) OK.
– I enjoy talking, I enjoy speaking. I enjoy talking to crowds and to students, but basically I don’t enjoy teaching very much because… I find teaching a little bit boring because in my days, I have to talk seven lessons a day, seven. Six-six or seven at least.
– What kind of class? Science?
– Science and English and some-some-some…
– Oh, okay, so you knew everything,
– You were like a generalist.
– Generalist. I was a teacher in General Science and English, but because I have to teach six or seven lessons, 45 minutes per lesson, I have to repeat the same thing several times a day so it is very boring… to me, so it is a boring job. Although I try to make it funny even if that was..
– Yeah! Because…
– … I was teaching (laughter), I try to make it funny. But it takes too much energy, and too boring to repeat same… the same thing seven times! You can imagine me as a teacher, a lot of expressions, actions, and… At the time, I didn’t know that. At the time, I didn’t realise it was comical. As soon as they would laugh, I would exaggerate and so on. A lot of energy-demanding…
– Yeah, because it’s like a performance.
– Actually, I was performing; I have a nickname in those days among the students, who called me “the mad man”.
Because they seldom see teachers so…
– Okay, but who called you “the mad man”?
– The students. Because of the way that I taught. Make them laugh, very interesting, everybody focus and the lessons were very boring. This teacher comes and jumps and (???)…
– In that case, I’m sure your class was always full.
– Yes, that’s why now I realise the academic results very much depend actually not on the students, it depends on the teacher, who can (???) the interest: that’s the part. Most of the students that are not very good in subjects, probably because of the teachers who are so boring that there’s no appeal to them at all.
– Sounds like you should go back to (chuckles) teaching…
– … because you have a good philosophy of this.
– You know, from time to time, I go back to give some lessons in a University here…
– Really? What kind of class? Not science? Come on!
– No! Speaking of movies, not a lesson, but they want me to talk on comedies, on movies, on direction, directors and star of comics and things like that.
– And then how did it happen when… (I try to take my voice recorder back so he doesn’t have to do the holding)
– It’s okay.
– Sure? … when you were given your very first chance in TV?
– When I was in University, in second year, I don’t have money to pay the school fees so I ran around part-time jobs at night, but still not enough and I taught as a teacher in the evenings, but still not enough money so I… It so happened that there was a new TV station called TVB. My brother was a singer there, running a show there.
– Sam, yes. So I talked to Sam and said: “Can you, they say that they pay well there, you know? Can you introduce me to do something there?”, so Sam sent me to talk with the boss, the CEO at the time, so I met with the CEO and…
– Do you remember his name? The CEO?
– Colin Bednall, who came from Sydney. After TVB, he came back to become a Senator in Sydney, and died a few years ago. So he doesn’t know anything about Hong Kong and he said “What can you do?”, I said “I’m a student now, I teach so I can do something maybe, I don’t know what television is but probably you need somebody who talks, or sings…”
You know I was a student at the time…
He said: “Fine. I was thinking of doing…, I come from Sydney, I don’t know anything about HK, so I’m running this station and I’m thinking of organising a secondary school, interschool contest. So can you organise a show for me, sort of a (???) of secondary schools in HK? Fifity, sixty, seventy schools, see this quiz competition so that eventually, there’s an annual winner of a school and so on? If it becomes successful, we can run this show annually. Can you do something like this?”
I said “Yes.”, and he said “Go back and give me a plan to organise all the secondary schools in HK, the quiz, the format, how it’s gonna be this and that, bla-bla-bla, and I give you six months”. I said “fine”. And I go back home, that was probably the evening so I start writing, ask my girlfriend to come over to my house do the typing, so I was writing, writing until six o’clock in the morning which is eight hours and we typed a book about 100 pages. So next morning, I came back to the station and wait for him at nine o’clock.
He came back and said “What are you doing here?”, I said “You need a plan for the quiz; here it is!” Then he looked at me and turned the pages very fast and said “come in” into his office and he looked at the, turned over the pages again, and he made a telephone call, acccount department, something like “How much do we pay for…” something, bla-bla-bla, and so brrbgmlbgl. Then he said “Mr. Hui, okay, I think we can go ahead with the project, I hire you starting from yesterday. Can I start paying you from yesterday? ”
“What about, let’s say, three thousand dollars a month?”
At the time, $ 3,000 a month is equal to 3 months of my teacher salary. And I said “Okay, fine.” So I got a job, he said “Okay, now, you know nothing about television but I will send someone technical to help you so I hope you can come up with this show as fast as possible so work together with the television director” so we came up with this quiz show in about two months. So during the quiz show, I was supported by the other directors of the other variety shows and said “This chap can talk quite well. Why don’t we invite him to come to our own variety show to do some interviewing, talking, translating English into Chinese and bla-bla-bla and so on?”. So I went over for a few months and some supported the idea that “this man, when he talks, he looks quite funny, can we invite him to do something… maybe… his brother is singing, maybe he can act a little bit, he looks funny and talks funny, let’s do a show together for fun, so one annual one day during Chinese New Year, I did a show with my brother (???) called Hui Brothers Show so I came up some gags and Sam sang some songs and call it The Hui Brothers Show. “[Incomprehensible title]” at the time so it was a overnight hit. So all television comes in, bla-bla-bla-bla-bla, so everything is very very high and then two weeks later, 7 Up and Coca-Cola said we want to sponsor that program. “Can you make a longer…, of course they cancelled, so they make a series of The Hui Brothers Show. The Hui Brothers Show became the hit for three years for TVB at the time and during the first year, motion pictures director called Li Han-Hsiang [李翰祥] from Shaw Brothers. He was looking for the lead character for the movie called The Warlord, but he spotted me, he said “this young man has the comic potential to do my new film. Why don’t we ask him to cut his hair and try?”. So I did The Warlord and becomes a very successful as one of the best-selling box office in Shaw Brothers and after that, Golden Harvest invited me to shoot some… Actually, the period when I worked with director Li, I have a chance to take a look at how 35 mm film was shot, how the editing is so on, so on…
– Oh, the technical aspect…
– The technical aspect of things, “Wow” – I said I can write my stories, and play together and shoot it in film and launch in the big screen, it was meaningful, interesting so I… when I came out after one year in Shaw Brothers, I started working with Golden Harvest to do a few films – that you have seen – then after a few movies, I said the format is more or less the same the Hui brothers so I talked with Sam, I said “I want to some time to re-think how movies should be done, instead of still the gags and the three brothers, why don’t we for the time being, we do each other our own things, let me try some new formalism and see and try it out.” So I tried that out, I did a few films, not very successful, the other formats and while I’m still thinking of what to do, your telephone rings!
– (laughter) That’s a very good one.
Please have a drink.
– (Mr. Hui drinks)
To cut it very short!
– Working with family can be very rewarding when the goals are achieved. But can also be very frustrating when things do not work out, because of the difference of personalities and the extreme proximity of the current colleagues. Any specific advice to give to sibling partners?
– (Silence, then a Joe Hisaishi music is played in the room where we are meeting)
Brothers are like friends. The rules are the same. To worth together in harmony, one thing is try to respect and understand the other side’s difference. Every individual, human being is different. But because everyone is different, there’s conflict. To be friends is still easier because if I have conflict with you, I don’t have to see you. I don’t have to see you tomorrow. As brothers, that’s bad: face to face 24 hours so this respect and understanding, taking the word “conflict” and changing into “difference”, then you realise we are different, we have different wish, outlook, character and that’s why we have 100 small conflicts. It’s not because it’s bad or good, because we are different and we have to be together 24 hours a day which is a gift of god, a destiny that we should be under the same roof for such a long time, maybe forever, we should respect and appreciate much more.
– I see, I see….
You seem to be particularly interested in…
– …in brotherhood…
– …in brotherhood… Can you tell me why?
– I think the questions were natural. It came naturally, spontaneously because I think there are not many many artists who work together. Two brothers, it’s a lot, and three, it’s even more, so I thought it was a good question to understand how it was in your experience. And I have two brothers.
Maybe it’s easier for our families the way we were taught, you know when we were very young, our fathers, our mothers, especially our father that the rules of the game: as a big brother like me, I would take care of them, so you have to take care of THEM, that is the rule, and then as brothers, you have to respect the other brother regardless, this is basic rule. So it’s easier to manage with this kind of rule I think. (Silence) Of course, we have a lot of conflicts, but because of this rule, still brothers are still brothers. Still we turn together, still when we come to work, anyone in trouble, we still try to hold together, help each other, and that’s why we’re in the movies gradually. When I was successful in The Warlord, as soon as it become a hit, so I write Sam to team-up with me and become the two together to be famous and then invite Ricky to come together so eventually, the three brothers joined again. Come to think of it, it’s a lot of father and mother’s influence in the old days, it’s destined to be like that.
– How were usually your writing sessions? Do you take a lot of notes, like when we are eating right now and you go “oh, I’ve got a great idea!” ? From scratch? Or do you gather a lot of past material and notes?
– There’s two aspects of this: one is… I gather all my jokes from ordinary everyday experience. Whenever I see something funny, I mark it down, and put it in a book. That’s the small aspect of things. But the important thing is… (silence) to look for a theme worth-telling, to start a story. That’s why for the past 10-15 years, I… difficult for me to locate something to direct, because I didn’t find anything that excites me, never done before, and meaningful to me in life but…
– So something original…
– Yeah, and original, there is actually, there’s some but because of the political scene now, China of course inevitably is a big market. Do I have to shoot, direct, for a comission in China, but beacuse of the political situation, a lot of…, especially for a man like me who is a satirist, who usually satires on contemporary everything, it’s difficult to have something imaginative enough that excites me and yet that can pass. That’s the problem so the part two is that frequently, find something that is original and new but meaningful to me to talk about. After I get that, I’ll try to write a story, when I’m writing, I will refer back to the notebook to see some of the notes, some of the gags that can fit over here. Like for example, Chicken and Duck Talk was one of the good ideas because to me, all my life, I think that Chinese food is number 1 in the world, second only by the French of course…
– …basically number 1. Food! Food, huh? One day, I was sitting in my family duck shop…
– Oh, your family had a duck shop?
– No, no, no! I was in this restaurant where I frequently eat, a small duck shop by the street side, small, dirty, but very delicious…
– Oh, that’s, that’s,… You know? The first day I came here, I say “I have to go to a very tiny place, dirty,…
– … but delicious and cheap, delicous, I don’t care!
– Delicious and cheap! Especially delicious! Very delicious and cheap. I was sitting in this duck for 10-20 years actually, everything, noodles and things like that. One day, he said “Mr. Hui, if you want to eat anything, fast, because I’m gonna close in a few months.”
I said: “why?”
“Because, well, they’re gonna open a Kentucky Fried on the other side and people said that the new place will be very beautiful and I’ll probably be out of business. Now, only old men will eat this kind of things, all the young people will Kentucky Fried…”
I said: “are you kidding? This Kentucky American dz-dz-chicken is no comparison, without a doubt!”.
He said “no, it’s not the same, the world is changed…”.
“I don’t believe” – I said, okay. But that was the beginning and suddenly a sparkle comes in and I said “the Western culture, the American, the Western culture can… a lot of number ones now: in fashions, in movies, in music, … but definitely not food! We are still number 1, it’s China! That’s the way the anger comes, that’s why how meaningful, I said I have to talk about the fights of this American infiltration, now finally on food??? Which I think is a very touching subject. And to me, to ridiculously think that this McDonald thing, a piece of meat with two br… pieces of bread can conquer our Chinese noodles, wan tan min and all, this is impossible! That is how I sparkle this a very exciting, original and new, then I start writing a competition between the duck shop and the fried chicken. Some of the gags may be from a notebook but still a theme… (silence)
– Did you have try-outs with Sam and Ricky to see if the stints were efficient, or did you just use them as in the script the very day of the filming, and adjust if needed?
– No. No chance. In making movies,… In comedy, no there is no experiment, it’s just a gut-feeling, you think that something is funny: it’s just a gut-feeling. It might not work, especially in movies, there’s no chance to experiment, (???) a gag work or not (???).
– Okay, so you don’t rehearse first?
– No. And also because that’s why in the later days in the past few years, I do some stage work as a stand-up comic and talk.
– When? When was that?
– I did a few stand-up comic shows…
– A few years, annually. I did it in July in Canada, in HK, I stand on the stage two hours, just talking. That is different, you have a gut-feeling of what it works for the first time but the second time you do again, then you know what to remove and so on.
– You should come to Paris perform one time…
– In French?
– No, because I’m not sure you speak French. You don’t, right?
– I know Mr. Hui speaks a lot of languages.
– I love the French people because I like their sense of humour because the French have a changing sense of humour, which is different to the Americans.
– Yes, it’s very different. I mean, I like both , but it’s very different. And to me, the Cantonese humour is even more different, it’s very very unique.
– And because I can understand basic Cantonese, I would never, if it’s dubbed in French or in English, I would never watch it. The sound, the audio has to be original Cantonese, because otherwise I’m missing too much you know, missing the humour, missing too many things.
Is there any improvisation when you shoot your films?
– Everything’s from the script?
– A to Z? OK.
– Because as I said, whether it works or not, it’s a gut-feeling when I rehearse it in my head, especially in films. A five-minutes gag is divided into many shots, you know that. When you are shooting individual shots, it’s very boring, it’s not until the 20th shot put together when it forms a gag so I have this plan in mind and when it comes out… there’s no improvise! And usually, these things, the people laugh on the spot while we are shooting, when they laugh, usually it’s not funny on the screen.
– Never funny on the screen.
– So it’s not a good sign if the crew is laughing?
– …laughing, exactly. (…) Because when a gag is put in a context of a story, when you sit in a theater for two hours and anything happens, sparkles, it has all a connection the things beforehand, ina continuous line (???). Without one hour and a half to that point, while you’re shooting this particular 5-30 seconds, no one know what this is, so even if it looks funny, hahaha, it doesn’t make sense when you put inside, OR it seemingly makes sense but when you put it inside, it becomes…
– … something else.
– … something else. I’ll tell you a joke; when I was shooting The Private Eyes, there was a sequence when I was cooking a chicken in the apartment, following the radio instructions, cooking lessons, how to remove the hair. Incidentally, Sam switch to another channel, becomes a sport exercise channel so I thought instruction is the same as…
– …so I cook the chicken using the instruction of the exercise: “1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4” and so on… Right. At that particular ???, people think that it’s very very funny, but I shot it in one shot: ten minutes, no cutting, just middle shot. So after I finish the movie, we met Raymond Chow, the one gentleman…
– Yeah, yeah, the gentleman I just met…
-… and the star of the Golden Harvest. He watched the initial screening. After the screening, Raymond said “Michael, congratulations. I think this film is very funny, except everybody agrees that there’s a segment inside that was 10 minutes long where you hold a chicken. It’s too long, it’s 10 minutes! Everybody knows this misunderstanding. Once you laugh, oh it’s a misunderstanding, it’s okay, you don’t have to continue. Why don’t you cut that part as short as possible, it’s okay. I say “okay, fine.” But fortunately, at the time, we have something called the midnight show. That means before the major release, we choose a Saturday night to open to the public for one show.
– Some kind of premiere?
– Some kind of premiere, yeah. Not exactly a premiere but secretly…
– Like a test-screening or something?
– Yes, a test-screening, one week before the actual release, just in case for directors to re-do the editing… So everybody go to see the secret midnight show. The midnight show finish at…
– Why does it have to be midnight? To keep it secret?
– No, because… I don’t know, very good question.
– (chuckles) Maybe because at midnight, there’s no commercial screenings, so they can have a special slot…? I don’t know.
– Ah, come to think, it’s customary for a film to have a Saturday night at 11 o’clock, 11 at night to have this secret, some sort of a midnight secret to see it first. Very popular at the time, now they don’t have it.
– Not anymore?
– They don’t do it anymore. The show starts at 11, finish at 1 o’clock AM in the morning. I didn’t go to see it because I usually stay out of this sort of… And then, Raym… Mr. Raymond Chow give me a call five minutes after he left the theater and said “Michael, congratulations, it’s a very… everybody enjoys, and laugh a lot and the important thing is ‘Don’t cut the chicken part!’.”
– I guess you were right!
– Exactly! And also, when I was shooting the picture, the camera hold it for 10 minutes. Me along listening to the radio broadcast, turning the chicken head this way and that way and so on so I would do this alone and all the crew look at me, just no one laugh at all. A very long 10 minutes, right? I tried two takes. Two takes: no one laugh. I remember Sam coming to my side and he said “Oooh, Michael, I think maybe we can (???), no one laugh at all, maybe you can cut this part…”
for once in the context because this particular individual, look at this character is so mean for almost 45 minutes. It’s very fulfilling to see this man being fooled by other people. Once this scene comes in, the whole set is different.
– Yeah, I agree. I think the looooong duration of gags, it comes from, I think it comes from generosity, being generous. I’m thinking of The Magic Touch, okay? In a Magic Touch scene, maybe twenty minutes after the beginning of the movie and you are trying to help a girl being raped in the alley.
– But you don’t want to be recognised and you do EVERY thing possible just to hide your face!
– Yeah (chuckles)
– And this is scene is, okay we understand you don’t want to be recognised, fine, so it’s a gag. But then it took one minute, two minutes, three minutes, you use every tool possible, you grab paint, oil, what is it – some kind of glasses, a tennis racket, I think it’s crazy, the first time I saw that with friends, we were three friends watching this, and we laughed so hard because it was unbelievable, it was too long! It was too crazy! And I think it comes from generosity, to add more and more and more!
– What do you mean by “generosity”?
– Generosity is like “I give you this, just five dollars”. Regular people would just give five dollars. And you, Mr. Michael Hui, you would give us fifty dollars! That’s being generous. Generous in time, in the duration, it’s not twenty seconds, it’s three-four minutes so I was thinking when you’re writing this, are you very demanding to yourself, do you have a lot of expectations, are you very demanding to yourself and also to the people you work with?
– Let me ask you a question first: for instance, for this particular scene when you cover yourself, it’s about 4 minutes , 4-5 minutes. Of course, as soon as you realise that you cover your face, it’s okay right? You don’t have to extend for another 4 minutes. If you had the choice, would you recommend me doing this 5-minute thing or 1 minute?
– As a viewer, because I’m very selfish, and it’s always for my pleasure, 5 minutes is great. The longer duration the better because we just kept laughing more and more! Because it was incredible. Because it’s not in the standards, very unexpected. It’s a good thing!
– Thank you, I understand what you mean. This is what I say: it’s what I call gut-feeling. When I was writing that, I was thinking in terms of… I was trying to feel the laughter and then I come to these actions, the hand movement, and then you’ll laugh again, (???), but with this, there’s a flow in my mind to imagine how long. I time it actually so “I think this is okay. By the time it comes here and we’ll be probably four and a half minutes so I decided four and a half minutes so when I shoot it, I will shoot it like that. Whatever people say, I don’t care because I know I’m the only one in control of the time because in one full length (“film”, ed.), 20 minutes fit into a day so it’s very exaggerated. Not every gag can (???), every joke is different, some joke can sustain for 30 seconds, you just let it go, some can longer, so it’s just a gut-feeling, I feel that… (silence)
It’s just like Charlie Chaplin days when he was eating his own shoes, everybody laughs to death. No one knows how long he can handle. Actually Chaplin is eating his shoe alone for seven to eight minutes, just cutting his shoes and… Can you imagine? No one can imagine, except Chaplin himself with just his gut-feeling, he thinks just by that, he holds for eight minutes but then the surprise should be according to modern analysis: “hungry, nothing to eat, a plate with a shoe”. What kind of shoe, eveybody laugh… right? So move to something else instead of carrying it to another eight minutes, which Chaplin does.
(telephone has been ringing)
– (picks up the phone) Wei?
(…, then phone conversation ends) Your questions are very good. You ask questions which make myself curious.
– How do you think your humor and your comedies would be if you had nothing to do with Hong Kong? Let me rephrase that: if you were born in a different culture, let’s say you were born and raised in Beijing and you would do comedies. Do you think your humour, the fun, and also the comedies you create would be different? How influential HK has been to your creations?
– Very difficult question. (laughter)
I can never tell. I suppose I can never be able to answer this question because… very important ingredients. Actually, to become Michael Hui, there’s three ingredients:
# 1: Michael Hui’s character himself: the nature, the DNA,
Second is Hong Kong is exposed to HK’s comics culture: Leung Sing-Bor and all these Cantonese comedies of the past, so this DNA exposed to this kind of Cantonese… and then, same time, affected by Charlie Chaplin – Western culture.
The three elements together to form one Michael Hui, so if you ask this question in Siberia… If you were born in Siberia, it’s impossible to… The DNA is the same, but the other two may not be the same, so… would it come out the same? I don’t know.
– I see. Because I think in Cantonese humour, it’s like it can be very silly – you know what I mean? You don’t see this in other comedies in the world. It can be very verbal…
– The one thing is in comedies as I look back earlier and mentionned in the interview, in my very young days, with Sam in Diamond Hill, we’d perform in front of our house. Somehow, the DNA, is performing from my part and the other kids laugh. It’s in the nature. Probably in Siberia, it would still be more or less the same. (…) There’s no local comedy there to be influenced to begin with, maybe I don’t have the chance to see Chaplin to begin with, so… still! Trying to make the Siberians laugh is still in the character.
– Okay, so, it’s something very natural?
– Yeah, I think so… Look! You have to believe me: everything is in the character. How old are you?
– I’m 18.
– I wish. (…)
– Actually, character controls everything. So it’s already actually in it. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, but whatever you do is already in the DNA. There’s not much really to do about it. It’s in the DNA (???)… in variety. Each of us have a different DNA, so we are set for different paths, different things differently, you know? If it’s not there, it’s not there. You try very hard, still the direction is not in the DNA, … For a singer for example, as I talk with Sam, we discuss all the time: in singing, you can attend very good schools, very good teachers, you can train, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, you can never become Madonna, you can never become Elvis Presley, you can bring yourself to the level dreamed, every 70-85, to 100 max is God. So it’s still in the character. Because… in order to do something well, it’s a lot of pain, a lot of work, you have to love it, to sustain the pain, right? You have to enjoy. People can work for only three hours but you can work thirty hours! Because you love the thing, you love – whatever it is – there’s a passion. Without the passion, you can not suffer the pain – whatever it is – so it has to be in the DNA that it so happens that you like football, that you can spend eight hours kicking a tin can. That’s what I believe.
– Women characters are usually very pretty, kind of an ideal girlfriend, or sometimes a geeky colleague. Have you ever had a woman being the lead character of your scripts, maybe unfinished? Are you reluctant to see them pretty and everything but acting completely silly?
– Can you ask the question again?
– I think Audrey Hepburn is very attractive, to me.
– Exciting. Did you use the word “exciting”?
– Excitingly attractive!
(Mr. Hui laughs)
But don’t tell her! (laughters)
I mean, come on! If I was a director, a screenwriter, would I ever write a role for a girl that – very pretty – but for a comedy? Is it possible to associate the idea of “very pretty” but also “acting silly and doing crazy things”? Have you ever had the idea of this, of writing a woman character role being pretty and also being funny and crazy and silly and stupid?
– I do not want to see my dream type of a woman – attractive- as a… comical figure. I don’t know why.
– That was my question, you just answered.
– Your question is usually… there’s quite a lot of depth in it… so I begin to have a second thought… I beging to ask “why”…
– Tonight, you’re not gonna be able to sleep. “Why? Why not Audrey Hepburn?”
– I don’t want to imagine Audrey Hepburn in crazy, well, you can write Audrey Hepburn in a comical situation, where she’s still Audrey Hepburn but she doesn’t have to do anything silly, and to make people laugh, but the situation is funny, but NEVER Audrey Hepburn actually physically, whatever, make people laugh. I don’t like to see that.
– (laughing) Okay.
– You understand what I mean?
– Yeah, yeah, yeah… the same for me I think.
– Woman is uh…
– Something… some kind of sacred idea… I don’t know…
– (Mr. Hui agrees by mumbling) … especially Audrey Hepburn.
– Have you had the chance to meet her?
– No. You met her?
– Uh… well yeah, I was having a drink with her last night…
– Last night? Audrey Hepburn? (laughs)
– I wish! (laughs) I wish. I just had a dream come true an hour before meeting Raymond Chow already, well, he’s not my type of woman but…
– You should be in comedy too.
– (laughter) Thank you. Oh, coming from you, it’s just a very nice compliment.
Comedy elements can be listed as: situation, verbal, slapstick and many viewers are reluctant to silly-type comedy. It can be considered as merely stupid and easy, but it’s not. The most difficult part is to find the right balance, because it’s harder to make people laugh than to make people cry, I think.In your everyday life, here at the hotel, or later at the wedding, is it hard to be seen as a “clown”, and therefore be expected to be always in a good mood whenever you go out, being very welcoming, and eventually funny?
– Very difficult. All my life is (???) arrive at the hotel, the pain of having to attend wedding parties for example like this one. All my life is… suddenly you’re invited to… “Michael Hui is here, so can you come up to make a speech and…”.
– All the time.
– That’s very demanding.
– Yeah, but to other people, they think “Michael is here he always says something funny for people to laugh, and also give us some advice to married couples and…”. Can you imagine, give some advice to the married couple who’ll live happily ever after, something that they’ll genuinely treasure, that is useful and during these five minutes of speech, and make everybody laugh the hell?
– That’s quite an exercise.
– That is… All my life has been like that. But… A lot of times, it’s best friends or friends to say something…
– Oh yeah, the closest.
– “Why don’t you say something? All we demand is to be funny.” So Michael climbs the steps again, “Congratulations, and… that’s it, good-bye!”, …
– …what’s the point? (laughter)
– Anyone can do it.
Let me know if you need to…
(Hui See-Wai, Mr. Hui’s son has arrived. I go to greet him.)
– It’s okay with you?
– Yeah, yeah, yeah…
– The dinner starts at 7.30 so…
– Ah, let me see… Okay, so we have ten minutes. So five minutes.
– Can I ask you what was your question again?
– Oh, the last question? It was about being expected to be always funny in public, and always being in a good and how hard it is in your daily life.
But you just answered.
– Yes, I just answered.
– You just answered, so it’s fine.
People tend to categorise actors. They forget comedians are just like any actor: they can play serious characters as well. I think you would do great as a very depressed and tortured policeman.
– You would like to see me in a drama film?
– No comedy, nothing?
– Comedy too, but I think you’re a good actor, so I think you can also play in dramas.
– As a police? Detective?
– Detective like in HK, bandits and it’s hard and you don’t have the time to take care of your wife and your kids so they left you, they divorced you so you’re alone but you’re still very hardworker. I think you’d be great in that, but I was wondering if you had any film directors you would like to work with, maybe, as a lead actor?
– (Clears throat) Actually I’m writing a story as a detective myself. It’s a continuation of The Private Eyes. Sam is more… Actually I’m trying to use my character as a way to show how HK has changed since the old days. He’s still the same guy, but he’s tired now, detective, as a “Private Eyes” but the way things about HK, the way he thinks about his family, his relationship and all the life in the future is totally different and the crime is different. I’m still working on it, hopefully I’m directing this film hopefully next year for long long time.
– With your company? Hui’s Film Production?
– A filmmaker is a person who has dreams to fulfill. You have made everyone’s life better with laughter. What are the dreams you are working on these days? I know you’ve been involved in diabetes and suicide public issues.
– This is a charity show where I worked as a stand-up comic. I raised fund for the cause, nothing to do with the…
– Okay, you were helping for this cause, right?
– Any other cause you are working on right now?
– That’s my dream. My dream is still movies. I’ll tell you what – my secret dream is to direct my next picture but it can be to express what I (silence) see the world, actually, the world according to Michael Hui in a movie (???) without language, without having to speak even…
– Without dialogues then?
– … minimised! The subject is so universal, is so basic. That’s my dream. People can understand even without much dialog. You can share it, and people laugh, and the world is more beautiful after you see the movie: that is something I wanna do before I die. That’s the dream that would be exciting to me. (…) In twenty years, I didn’t do it because I didn’t have the thing that excites me. (clears throat) A lof of my heroes has done it, a few actually, films that are immortal, films like Chaplin and films like And God Must be Crazy (“The Gods Must be Crazy, by Jamie Uys, 1980″, ed.) : it’s just the African walking around with a Coca-Cola bottle… (…)
I don’t have one of that. If I have one, I’d die happily and to be someone who feels about life itself, before I leave this Earth, and this is one Michael Hui film about… according to Michael Hui and… people laugh and afterwards, they thing they can share and being inspired, that is my dream.
– To get back to your collaboration with Sam, how did you guys prepare the songs for your films? You talk about it before?
– Yes. Sam is a genius and I owe him a lot. At the time, I thought it was easy. Usually, when I start with a concept. I say I want to do a detective story: you and I, two detectives to catch some thieves, robbers, basically, it’s about exploitation boss and employee, employer and employees. Human beings have been exploiting others for a long long time. Our father has been exploited since his childhood. You know, my father retired at sixty years old, came home one day, suddenly and said – we all remember the day – “they come to give me a watch”. A watch. (silence)
We grew up hearing him complaining how he suffer, how his boss, how he bullied him, no money, no time to sleep (mumbling) for, for, for ten-twenty years and suddenly he retired with just a watch, with nothing. So I said “well, this is the theme so I’m gonna be the boss, you’ll be bullied, this kind of relationship. (???) So you go back and write your music and songs.” While I’m filming, he’s writing it. (???) Everything is ready, the film songds and so on. This is the perfect combination. But sometimes, I would tell him something, I would say “I think it’s not very good because blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. – OK.” Sometimes I would give him an idea, I give him a lot of ideas when finally we agree on: “this is good. – this is good” again.
– A word on Raymond Chow as a producer?
– Raymond is different from all the filmmakers, most of the filmmakers in HK I think. He’s… he loves films: that’s the difference. He’s not a businessman. That’s why I like him, even at the beginning.
– Well, maybe, he’s a businessman, but he’s a filmlover first?
– Yes, filmlover first. He loves films actually, to begin with. And technically, to artists’ works, in the corporation, he is the first one to give maximum freedom to artists like Bruce Lee, like me… We were under Shaw Brothers sort of very tight, long-contract, eight-years-contract, cannot-do-anything type of a world and suddenly comes Raymond Chow: “I believe in you, fine, so you take this project and do whatever you like, and good luck.” Wow! This is the first time, so he inspired a lot artists in HK, because of this. He never say anything, just once he said it’s you, it’s okay, go ahead.
– He just gives you total trust.
– Total trust, yes.
– Now it’s a wrap, so it’s gonna be a final word, because it’s the 10-year anniversary of Anita Mui’s disappearing. Any word on her, so people can commemorate and…? Because we all miss her… How was your relationship?
– I was talking to someone who worked with me in Inspector Chocolate. When I was watching television for a long time, and suddenly, I find this woman which I… my sons and daughters just love and like and I said “What’s her name?”, they said “Anita Mui”…
– So your son knew her, but you didn’t?
– I’ve heard the name.
– Oh, you just heard her name.
– I discovered that this woman sings very rare, but the way he sings, when he move, every movement is so beautiful, so stylish, so original and the singing is so original too. That’s why i like him… (silence) But Anita Mui… we are similar, we are perfectionist, she told me that eventually you know, every move that I make on stage, that you think is very natural, so easy, like a graceful ballet, actually, every single action is intensively rehearsed in front of a mirror. Unbelievable perfectionist. (silence)
– She was a very hardworker.
– Very hardworker. And appears onstage so naturally, so easy, that it move like that. That’s how she inspired me in terms of being a perfectionist. My sons and daughters did not tell me: I find this particular girl, very outstanding of all the rest, so I asked my kids, I said “Who…- Mui Yim Fong, duh-duh-duh…”. That was the very early days when she won some contest…
– In 1985 or something?
– I don’t remember because at the time, I was out of the pop music scene… I don’t watch too much of it.
– But your son was like 15 years old, or something like that?
– Okay. Well, we all miss her a lot. Do you have any other thing to say or…?
– I have nothing to say except that your questions (laughter)…
– Thank you very much, Mister.
– Pleasure meeting you, and I think uh… it was interesting to me, because of the character…
– To me too.
– Because your questions. (laughter)
– That’s because of you, Sir, you inspire me, a lot, and a lot of other people.
– Thank you.
Michael Hui, aka Hui Koon-Man, aka Mr. Boo!, aka 许冠文, was born in China in 1942. He lives in Hong Kong, China.