【LOVE WHISKY LOVE STORIES】A Talk with filmmakers MAK Hei-yan and Siuyea Lo: ‘I’ exist when I don’t force it

Text: Vicky Fung

I first heard of Heiward Mak Hei-yan through her movies. In 2007, Heiward made her directorial debut with High Noon at the age of 23, and was given a Film of Merit by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director. Although it took a good eight or nine years for us to ‘meet up’, we became acquainted with each other back in 2007, as my composition Poor U, was the theme song of High Noon. Last year, I finally got to work with her in person when I invited her to direct Tang Siu-hau's music videos Walk with me and Same Table. She featured a few extraordinary actors in the MVs, with Siuyea Lo Chun-yip being one of them. While Siuyea’s character Ho Yin-kwan in the movie Besides Happiness in 2011 left a good impression on me, his recent appearances in Fagara and Suk Suk are also remarkably impressive. He is also a director of independent movies, his film Days After n Coming in 2012 brought him much success at film festivals such as Hong Kong International Film Festival and Hong Kong International Documentary Festival. He has also won prizes in South Taiwan Film Festival and received the Award for Young Artist from Hong Kong Arts Development Council. In this episode, we are honoured to have Heiward and Siuyea here to sip whisky and talk about movies.

Directors and Actors
I’ve always admired those who make movies, they are ‘beyond human’, as their attention span exceeds most of our physical capabilities. Siuyea once worked 48 hours straight, but he has heard that someone in the industry has doubled that time, while Heiward recalled that her record is “just” 38 hours. It does sound like tough work, but perhaps that shows exactly how much movie makers are committed to making movies. So, what is it like for directors and actors to communicate on set? Siuyea said some directors would leave no stone unturned, while others may only set the framework but then leave room for the actors to explore, so the movie is an end product made by interweaving the different styles and ‘textures’ of directors and actors. Some directors may request the actor to repeat the same scene over and over again, until they are near their breaking point, to trigger a more honest performance in that fragile state. From Siuyea’s sharing, I realised ‘a role’ does not necessarily need to be ‘played’, it depends on whether an actor can immerse themselves in the role.

 

There is no simple way to fully explain the work of a director, but to guide people in different fields, such as acting, arts, lighting, editing, music, to work magic and create the vision together. I always associate the role of director with the master blender of a whisky distillery, who needs to understand the characteristics and maturation status of each barrel, use their perception and feelings to judge the changes, and evaluate the effect of blending, in order to retain the characteristics of each type of whisky, while also keeping the consistency of blending. 

‘I’ Don’t Exist
This time, I chose Suntory Hibiki Harmony that has something in common with the work of our guests. Hibiki is a mixture of ten types of malt and grains, distilled in five types of barrels, coming from three distillers of Suntory. The iridescent-amber-coloured whisky brings out the aroma of rose, lychee and a hint of rosemary. While its sweetness may remind you of honey, candied orange peel, and white chocolate, the finish is delicate, with a long, tender aftertaste and a note of Mizunara oak, highlighting the exquisite craftsmanship in whisky blending. At Siuyea’s first sip, he was already amazed by its ‘fullness’ and ‘smoothness’. Heiward believes her work is to combine the imagination of the actors and crew. Through the process of interacting, sharing, and blending with each other, they can work towards a common goal while striking a balance between the specialists. The more she thinks about it, the more she realises that ‘I’ don’t exist, the process of creation is not to emphasise oneself, but to put oneself in the work to interact and echo with each other, then the work will naturally fall into place and make ‘I’ happen. Siuyea cannot agree more with this kind of ‘coworking’ where actors ‘live in the story’ set by the director.  

While we were still only tipsy, I introduced another whisky called Chita to them, which is known for their balance much like movie making. Chita is another distillery of Suntory which was established on the coast of Chita Peninsula in 1972. Forty years of continuous improvement in grain whisky gave birth to this single-grain whisky. Chita used to play the role of ‘dashi’ to provide a wonderful balance in Suntory whiskies, but after continuous research and innovation, when it had reached a certain level of sophistication and complexity, it finally stepped onto the stage as the main character. Both Heiward and Siuyea agreed that Chita has a sharper and stronger taste, probably because of the mixed profile of its delicate mint aroma, rich honeydew flavour, and refined bittersweet aftertaste.

From Visual to Vision
It so happened that the whiskies we tasted this time were all Suntory, which started with Scottish traditions, adapting to the geography and climate features of Japan, and integrating the water and wood of the country to finally make this unique Japanese whisky that suits the palate of the Japanese. Suntory whiskies began to attract international attention when Yamazaki 12 Years won the ISC Gold Award in 2003. In the following ten years, Suntory's products swept the board in international whisky awards ceremonies, taking home prizes every year; while Japanese whiskies are already considered to be in the top five whiskies in the world. There’s this saying ‘to be international, you must be local’. Only by treating the local elements as the main characters, rather than belittling their value, one could have a shot to be world famous. When asked how to conjure the taste of Hong Kong, Heiward said Hong Kong is a very special place, she could be ‘all’, but she could also be ‘nothing’. Nothing is not a derogatory term, as it means it has the potential to be anything. In order to give this international city a good look, creators should try to pay more attention to the possible links between Hong Kong’s situation and Hongkongers’ mindset. Siuyea quoted the ‘disappearing culture’ written about by Ackbar Abbas, a former professor of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong - Hong Kong is a constantly changing city, and ‘disappearance’ and ‘change’ may themselves be the characteristics of this place; because of ‘disappearance’, we continue to free up ‘space’ to allow new establishments. Making a movie through a Hong Kong lens is like ‘taking the pulse’ of the city, documenting the everchanging city and its people, turning visuals into vision.

Epilogue
It has come to the final episode of Love Whisky Love Stories. Having the opportunity to sip whisky and talk about movies with these two filmmakers I admire has brought the series to a close. Heiward once mentioned that every person who appears on-screen has his own life and story, even though some stories are hidden behind the screen. In the process of creation, if we bear in mind that everyone is living their own life and should be respected as a person, the end product will be much more true to life. Just like every wine and winery has their unique origin and history, we should be curious about the stories behind the wine, and savour every drop of it.

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