The 50th HK Arts Festival

Wong Fei-pang Reimagines Yat-sen in The Language of Film

Text / Eugene Chan

Originally scheduled for early 2021, the musical Yat-sen was postponed until early 2023 due to the pandemic. But despite the unfavourable circumstances, the Hong Kong Arts Festival remained hard at work behind the scenes. In the leadup to the 51st HKAF, the Festival commissioned a one-hour documentary on the musical from Wong Fei-pang, filmmaker and recipient of the Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Film. Wong said that his project was "stirring things up", in a positive way, which led us to wonder if the film was a documentation of the show, a documentary or a making-of? Wong's answer to the question was an assertive "none of the above". He expressed confidence that he had encapsulated the dramatic essence of the musical without giving away too much of the plot. Rather than creating suspense, Wong said the goal of the documentary was to attract a crowd.

Going hybrid with a new storyboard

On the day of our interview, we observed an editing session for the documentary. Wong showed us the trailer, in which a group of young people raise their arms and chant slogans against a pitch-black background. In the front is their leader, with is back turned to the camera, his posture imbued with a sense of ambition and passion. Yet the band of youngsters soon start to fall one after another like dominos. The leader slowly turns his head, revealing the sombre profile that we soon discover belongs to the actor Ling Man-lung, who plays the young Yat-sen in the musical.

Wong has always had a passion for history. "In history books, we often come across nameless crowds without ever learning much about them. Who followed in the footsteps of those people and what happened to their aspirations?" This question—posed by Wong in an essay from 2021—echoes the scenes in the trailer. "The scene is designed very differently in the musical," says Wong. "We have been tinkering with elements taken from the script. In the musical, the scene has a bright tone, yet we took a completely different approach in the documentary." According to Wong, although both the musical and the documentary are based on the same text, they both hit quite differently. Specifically, the documentary emphasises atmospheric presentation and avoids discussion of specific plotlines or lyrics from the show. He stresses that filming a documentary is not as easy as simply setting cameras up to record a show from three different angles.

Theatre actors try their hand at performance for film

Over the course of a month between September and October 2022, Wong and his crew filmed the musical's production and rehearsals, following the team on and off stage. Documented are moments of crisis, such as when Ling Man-lung, the lead actor, struggles to overcome singing challenges, or when the Festival deals with problems involving ticketing arrangements or changes of venue. Most challenging of all was making time to reshoot parts of the musical in a rented film studio while working with a tight rehearsal schedule.

Before shooting, Wong drew up the storyboard with Leung Ming-kai, who was recently nominated for a Golden Horse Awards for Best Cinematography. To ensure a spoiler-free production, props, set designs and lights were all customised specifically for the film. Wong noted that, given that the original script was thoroughly developed, all he did was recreate some of the scenes. A good example are the scenes involving talk of an uprising, which he adapted into a gang-style meeting where deals are done over a hotpot. Another example is the use of falling snow for the wedding scene set on the peak of Mount Tai. "In the blink of an eye, the protagonist is transported into a world of snow. The scene was inspired by the famous sight of Mount Tai covered in snow." While differing in form, the cinematic and theatrical versions of the work were done in the same spirit. Wong attributes the success of the production to the support and trust he received from parties such as Yat-sen's creative team and the HKAF. In particular, he noted that director Tang Wai-kit and playwright Sunny Chan had shared helpful insights during the pre-production stage.

Wong's documentary was not simply a passive record of Yat-sen, but required actors to make time for rehearsals and shooting. Going from the stage to the screen, the actors were forced to recalibrate their performance styles. "I encouraged them to take it as a break, or a vacation," Wong says. "With the same script in hand, they were asked to reimagine the work." Included in the film are interviews with Tang, Chan, composer and music director Peter Kam, as well as lyricist Chris Shum, in which they share their thoughts on the music and lyrics created for the project.

A vivid portrayal of concerted effort  

Having gone to great lengths for the documentary, Wong sees his efforts to "stir things up" in a positive light. He was encouraged by the HKAF's decision to specially commission a film director, in clear hope of bringing forth a refreshing viewing experience for the audience. Meanwhile, the crew was moved by the musical itself. "Live singing has always been an integral part of musicals. I was in awe when I heard them sing in the rehearsal room for the first time. It caught me completely off guard; I was thrilled to see them perform live! Our goal is to draw the biggest crowd with whom we can share our excitement."

Wong likened Yat-sen to a vinyl record: the protagonist is on Side A as a heroic revolutionary, and on Side B a young man troubled by failure. To Wong, the brilliance of Yat-sen lies in how it breathes life, among many other human qualities, into a historical figure. "Reading the script, Sun Yat-sen feels like flesh and blood," Wong says. "I tried to do the same for the actors in the documentary. Other than portraying the characters in all their seriousness, we also wanted to capture moments of delight; we aimed to illustrate the times of grimness as much as those of disorientation and weariness. 

"As adults, we sometimes find ourselves unable to own up to certain things in life," Wong says. "We have all swallowed tears at work, taken sick leave only to stay home and cry…When we hit rock bottom, do we give up and go into a slump? Do we just leave everything to chance?" Wong was also moved by the way that delving into Sun's life allowed him glimpses into his own. "Like all of us, Sun Yat-sen had his troubled times. Maybe this musical is healing in a way, and by the end of it we can all return to our lives stronger. That said, it doesn't try to teach us a lesson; it urges us to make our own decisions."

Jockey Club Local Creative Talents Series
Before the Sun Rises: The Yat-sen musical diary

Available from 11 December 2022 (Sun) 10:00am