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Clifton Ko Chi-sum
Veteran film and theater director Clifton Ko Chi-sum is a master of the stage and screen. His movies, such as “All’s Well, Ends Well” and “I Have a Date with Spring,” have been local box-office blockbusters, while his play “A Sentimental Journey” ran for a record 100 consecutive nights. He talks to June Ng about creativity, career change and being right.

By June Ng | Feb 19, 2009

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I am the eldest son, with two sisters. My father was a sailor and my mom was a seamstress. Becoming self-sufficient was always my top priority.

I have worked my whole life, at least part-time. In the mid-70s, I was a production assistant at TVB. I received $30 a day. At the time, a movie ticket was only $2.

My first commercial performance was at a restaurant, where I played the groom in a traditional Chinese wedding. It was a tourist show that was supposed to give foreigners a glimpse of Chinese culture. Funnily enough, the bride went on to become a successful TV actress.

At age 17, I became a scriptwriter for RTV, which is ATV today. I could have become an actor, but I chose not to go on screen because I’m not cute enough.

By age 20, I already had my first career change. I decided to become an assistant director, though the pay was lower. My dream was to become a director. I saw the opportunity, I went for it, and I was right.

Life was tough. I woke up at 5am, and went to sleep at 3am the next day. One time I didn’t come home for six days. My mom filed a missing persons report.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being detail-minded. You can’t challenge me, because I know every tiny bit of information about my projects. That is my source of confidence. I became a director at age 25. My original goal was to become a director by age 45.

The difference between directors now and those in my generation is we’re more focused on substance. These new guys are all about presentation.

I never wore sunglasses. I want actors to read my facial expressions so they know if they’re doing the right thing. Some directors are the opposite—they say they want to leave the actors hanging, but actually I think they probably don’t know what they want.

I’m lucky. I’ve had many highs and lows in my life. Many people shine only once.

When I set out to make a movie version of the play “I Have a Date with Spring,” everyone thought I was crazy. I once met an investor in a restaurant and gave him my pitch. He said I was nuts, and I left before the dishes even arrived.

Despite all the doomsayers, I decided to push on because I knew the play was getting such a great reaction. I leveraged my flat to make that movie, because I believed in what I was doing. I was right.

Theater in Hong Kong has grown a lot since when I was a kid. It’s a lot more sophisticated and mature now. That’s why my interests began to shift from film to commercial theater.

It’s really hard to produce stars in Hong Kong now. In the 80s, the greater Chinese community admired Cantonese culture, but not anymore.

Everything has an expiration date. In the past, there was a generational change once every three years, but now it’s every few months. I don’t recognize 80 percent of the names in the entertainment pages.

Creativity is about taking myriad different elements and combining them into something unique. To do that, you need to have lots of experiences, both good and bad. People these days seem to be skeptical about everything and hate looking into other’s work.

The performing arts have a future in Hong Kong. It’s just we don’t realize how much potential we have. Our biggest advantage is our creative freedom: our performances are not censored. It’s a nightmare working in Singapore or China.

We shouldn’t look for so much help from the government. If you come to utterly rely on them, then later they will be able to ask you to do whatever they want.

People from the creative industries should spend more time preparing their own projects instead of fighting for funding.

My main concern is that West Kowloon will fall into the hands of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department—a true tragedy if it ever happens.

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