- 10 years in the making, 300,000 hours of footage, and 3 years editing
- Calling 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self a “National Treasure“
- What good can documentaries do? Can you imagine documentaries changing lives or society?
- Director Mabel’s “Final Cut” & Ying Wa’s “Final Decision”
- re Mabel and her filmmaking & loving life partner the late Alex Law 羅啟銳
- Has Mabel thought of donating Alex’s and her creative archives to her alma mater HKU or NYU like Canadian author & living national treasure Margaret Atwood had donated 600+ boxes to create the Atwood archives at U of T?
- Sending my thanks & love to Mabel & team, student interviewees, and Ying Wa Girls’ School 英華女校 staff
- Concluding thoughts
- Postscripts 後記
Note: Distributor Golden Scene has provided this link to get Live information on showtimes of 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self in HK (wide release Feb 2nd, 2023).
10 years in the making, 300,000 hours of footage, and 3 years editing
It was my great honour and pleasure to have an extensive ~2.5 hours four parts insightful video interview (watch here) with Ms. Mabel Cheung 張婉婷導演 , an award winning director from the start of her career including her first student film (the famous “Migration trilogy“: The Illegal Immigrant 非法移民 (1985), An Autumn’s Tale 秋天的童話 (1987) and Eight Taels of Gold 八兩金 (1989)). My previous “record” of longest film interview was ~2 hours with Taiwan director Mr. Shen Ko-shang 沈可尚 to talk about his documentary LOVE Talk 幸福定格 which he took 7 years to film 8 couples.
Mabel and I chatted last Sunday Hong Kong time (2023/01/15) to talk about her documentary (10 years in the making, 300,000 hours of footage, and 3 years in the editing room) 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self (in short 給十九 ToMy19). And then the film won 2022 Best Film from Hong Kong Film Critics Society 香港電影評論學會 one day later on Monday (2023/01/16). Perfectly timed for Mabel‘s words of thanks to be appended to Part 4/4 of the interview clips.
My extensive ~2.5 hours chat with Mabel covers many topics, including scenes I love in 給十九 ToMy19 from the perspectives of movie viewers and also things that documentary filmmakers like myself or aspiring filmmakers want to know. Some viewers and filmmakers maybe curious how Mabel worked with 300,000 hours of footage to create a film that is loved by many? Or when the student interviewees didn’t want to be interviewed anymore, what did Mabel & team do to keep things going? What kind of advices does Mabel have for documentary or drama filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers wanting to create their first film?
Have a watch of all four parts of the interview. Mabel & I were originally scheduled to chat for 2 hours and those time flew by in the blink of an eye. And Mabel was so kind in giving me a 30 minutes extension. I used my additional time to ask questions I previously collected from a photographer friend interested in filmmaking and three questions by Norris Wong 黃綺琳 (note: Norris 黃綺琳 is Mabel’s former university student and current filmmaking project mentee 香港電影發展基金「薪火相傳計劃 ((2022?)-(3) 張婉婷 / 黃鐦 黃綺琳)」).
Calling 給19歲的我 To My 19-Year-Old Self a “National Treasure“
Right from the start, I mentioned to Mabel that I’ve watched 給十九 ToMy19 6+ times and I love it. In the same way that many Brits now love the Up (film series) (a series of docs featuring group of ~14 people in UK when they were 7, 14, 21, 28, … all the way to 63 years old) and consider Up (film series) a National Treasure, I love 給十九 ToMy19 a ton and also consider it a National Treasure.
Love is hard to explain. In some sense I started falling in love with longitudinal documentaries in 1988 as I was lucky to discover and watched the first four Up (documentary series) when the subjects/interviewees were 7, 14, 21, and 28 years old, at the SigSam audio-visual library of my alma mater University of Toronto. To my knowledge, the Up (film series) produced by Granada Television for ITV is the oldest, most famous, and most successful longitudinal documentaries of all time. Hoop Dreams (1994) is another longitudinal doc I love. There is also longitudinal dramas like director Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood (2014) (same actors filmed from 2002 to 2013) and the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013)) of romance films featuring the same leads.
And now you see why I’m primed to LOVE Mabel’s 給十九 ToMy19 which has become my latest favourite. Yes, a National Treasure. If I were a betting man, the 2022 Best Film mentioned above may just be the first of many awards. Of course, “winning awards” should never be any good filmmaker’s goal and definitely wasn’t Mabel’s as she told me. But a good film about HongKongers should be watched by more HongKongers.
What good can documentaries do? Can you imagine documentaries changing lives or society?
Many documentarians (good and even bad ones) aspire to capture their times for history. You may ask what good can documentaries do? Is it even possible that documentaries can change lives or society? Let me share two examples to illustrate.
Oscar winning director Errol Morris‘s documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) was instrumental in Randall Dale Adams‘ (wrongly convicted of murder) exoneration the following year. Dear Zachary (2008) is a documentary that is instrumental in changing the legal system (specifically, bail reform) in Canada which I had the heartbreaking honour to video interview David & Kate Bagby when they attended the 2008 Calgary International Film Festival screening.
I hope a good documentary like 給十九 ToMy19 can lead to self and collective reflections, follow by positive changes in minds and actions of Hong Kong students, parents, teachers, school admins, education system, and even Hong Kong society in general. I wonder can and should 給十九 ToMy19 be screened at Ying Wa for all incoming new students in future years? Or will other Hong Kong schools want/plan to screen the film for teachable moments and learning purpose? I think the film contains many universal truths and can be used as good teaching aids in the hands of wise and loving teachers, vice-principals and principals. I think. I hope.
One scene that breaks my heart into a million pieces is the one that Vice-Principal Siu-Fung 小鳳 talked about some school where students (and their parents?) were thrilled to burn their school books after public exams were over. How tragic? Joi Ito (伊藤 穰一), former director of the MIT Media Lab, said this in a cool TED talk which I love, “Learning over Education. To me, Education is what people do to you. And Learning is what you do to yourself.”
For the books burning students, their cheering teachers & parents, I wonder what were they thinking? Do they think all their learning were “finally over” once they got accepted into university or graduated and got their undergrad degrees? Have they ever heard of or aspire to the idea/ideal of “Lifelong Learning“?
I want to especially thank the student interviewees and their families for their open sharing of a wide range of topics, including public health topics like mental health, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and many other topics that we can all learn more about and become better members of our communities. Be kind, be caring, and be loving of others.
Director Mabel’s “Final Cut” & Ying Wa’s “Final Decision”
As Mabel told me in our chat, she has the Director’s Final Cut on the documentary so that means anything that is on screen (or not on screen), the length, etc were all her decisions to make and her decisions were final. And “luckily”, the Hong Kong film censor did not have to cut one frame off her film.
And if my memory serves me, Mabel in one of her many interviews with media directly said (or implied) that it is always Ying Wa‘s “Final Decision”, in it I took it to mean that Ying Wa could have nixed the whole documentary after Mabel had done all the hard work. But Ying Wa did not. And for that, I thank the higher-ups at Ying Wa for letting 給十九 ToMy19 have her own life with us HongKongers and viewers around the world.
re Mabel and her filmmaking & loving life partner the late Alex Law 羅啟銳
My heart was broken into million pieces as I watched hours & hours of YouTube videos of insightful interviews of Mabel and her filmmaking & loving life partner the late Alex Law 羅啟銳. (see links below) The sudden passing of Alex last year came as a shock for Mabel and HongKongers and deeply saddened us all. Many in the film industry and media lovingly call the duo “雌雄大導” (for directors) drawing parallel to the saying “雌雄大盜”. To me, Mabel & Alex were 形影不離, the duo were actualization of the word inseparable for their creative & personal lives (see this 美紙 Art & Piece 2022 Nov cover (FB link)).
Some day I would love to ask Mabel about her & Alex’s creative process. Hopefully Mabel will let me interview her again in the future. Will see.
Recommended YouTube videos: a) 書展2013：移民3部曲 – 羅啟銳、張婉婷 (2013, 76 minutes), b) 影談系列——張婉婷 · 羅啟銳《秋天的童話》映後談Movie Talk—Mabel and Alex “An Autumn’s Tale” Post-screening Talk (2022, 105 mins), c) 影談系列——張婉婷 · 羅啟銳《玻璃之城》映後談 Movie Talk—Mabel and Alex “City of Glass” Post-screening Talk (2022, 88 mins)
Has Mabel thought of donating Alex’s and her creative archives to her alma mater HKU or NYU like Canadian author & living national treasure Margaret Atwood had donated 600+ boxes to create the Atwood archives at U of T?
Knowing how precious Mabel’s and Alex’s creative archives can be of inspiring values to filmmakers of this and future generations, I asked if Mabel had thought of donating Alex’s and her creative archives to her alma mater HKU or NYU like Canadian author & living national treasure Margaret Atwood had donated 600+ boxes to create the Margaret Atwood Papers at U of T that anyone can access digitally and freely?
Mabel thought who (no one really?) would be interested in Alex’s and her creative papers? I promptly said I would and think many people would too! And I suggested the papers should be digitized for easy and free global access. (Yes, I’m selfish and thinking of making sure me in Canada can access easily.) Mabel wasn’t thrilled of the amount of work involved. Of which I said it would totally be the receiving institution’s job (in fact, a pre-condition) to make sure these precious papers and creative materials of Mabel’s and Alex’s are as easily, digitally, and freely accessible for research purpose as the Margaret Atwood Papers at U of T that people can access and have a look anytime, like now.
If and when Mabel has decided to donate more of their creative papers, I would love to chat with Mabel to talk more.
Sending my thanks & love to Mabel & team, student interviewees, and Ying Wa Girls’ School 英華女校 staff
I want to send my thanks & love to Mabel & team for their hard work in the last 10 years. Without their dedicated and persistent hard work, 給十九 ToMy19 would have been impossible to make. My special thanks to the so called “師奶兵團 (義務導演) C9 Army corps (Volunteer Directors)“!
And I want to send my thanks & love to all 30+ Form 1 student interviewees, all 13 student interviewees that appeared on the film credit list that, I understood, to have participated till the end. And in particular the 6+3 interviewees that we got to know a little in the film.
In order of featured appearances
「香港小姐」“Miss HK” Katie
And I also want to send my thanks & love to all of Ying Wa Girls’ School 英華女校 teachers, vice-principals, and former & current principal.
To all who appear in front of the cameras, I again thank you for making 給十九 ToMy19 possible.
After watching 給十九 ToMy19, a National Treasure, that took 10 years to make, it is easy for us viewers to think we, all of a sudden, “know” all of the interviewees “deeply” because we watched them “grew up” in front of our eyes for 10 years, right? 10 years flew by in the blink of an eye. Some of us may think we know something or even a lot about them, right? I’m afraid that will be wrong. I think, all documentaries, no matter how good, can only capture some very small parts of people. In fact we only know very little about our beloved student interviewees as there have been a lot of growths and changes happening off cameras. Especially since the film finished shooting in 2019 which was over 3 years ago.
If I may use a “musical tangent” of a song example to illustrate growth and changes. Do you remember in the first few minutes of the film 「阿佘」Britney sang an excerpt of “Think of Me” from Phantom ? I love it. But Britney didn’t. Britney wasn’t too happy as she told Mabel, because she thought she kinda sang off-key (走音) for a few words and would rather see her singing cut. But I (we) love it, right?
Thing is life is all about growing & learning. We all mature in time. Our singing. Thinking. Now here comes my “musical tangent” from me doing “too much research”. This is a clip of the talented Emmy Rossum singing “Think of Me” in The Phantom of the Opera (2004). And in 2012, eight years later, Emmy on a late night comedy talk show singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” impromptu and it was, to me, 20x better than her 2004 movie singing because her voice has more practices and time to mature. I’m no expert in music. Maybe Britney can have a listen and tell me? Or better, maybe we all can have a “listen” to the “music” of growth, learning and maturity with our “ears” in our hearts.
P1.S.) 張堅庭 Alfred Cheung’s take ===> I read from Facebook that Mabel’s director good friend Alfred Cheung 張堅庭 watched 給十九 ToMy19 in Taiwan twice in three days. Alfred shared a story of an interesting encounter with a 2x viewer concluding with the comment “這就是「給19歲的我」的另一種吸引，有時紀錄片比劇情片更讓人刻骨銘心。近期的心水推薦。”.
P3.S.) Words about translation of National Treasure and pandas 熊貓 ===> I’ve decided to keep on using the English words National Treasure and not translate it to Chinese for this article. For my generation, it feels easier to say “love you” to my parents instead of saying the words “我愛你” which feels very 肉麻. To me, the words 國寶 should ONLY be used to describe pandas 熊貓 like the adorable Jia Yueyue (加悅悅 ‘Canadian Joy’) and Jia Panpan (加盼盼 ‘Canadian Hope’). So 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self will always be a National Treasure to me. :)
P4.S.) 金成 + 張婉婷 ===> Of the many recent interview videos of Mabel I’ve watched, 金成 has done one of the most comprehensive and insightful interview and I highly recommend watching, 叔叔的愛（番外篇）：金成、張婉婷對談.
P5.S.) Unprofessional to call 給十九歲的我 “National Treasure”? ===> I can always count on my Better Half being frank with me and call my bull beep out. She warned me that by calling 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self a National Treasure, I appear rather “unprofessional” and appear to “suck up” to Mabel and others. But did I? Did I NOT ask some tough questions during my extensive interview with Mabel? Did I NOT try to correct Mabel about some minor factual info (about the Up (film series)) when I could easily have said nothing? I felt important to ask questions in a respectful manner as Mabel is an accomplished filmmaker and yet, to do a good job, good (and sometimes tough) questions must be asked. While I was typing this, I kept thinking of Alex telling Mabel that her 1st and 2nd versions of 給十九歲的我 To My Nineteen-Year-Old Self was “boring” 好悶啊. Something only an honest and loving partner can and must keep on telling each other. I continue to mourn the passing of Alex, one half of a beautiful creative duo. To expand, “雌雄大導” focus on their creative work, while “形影不離” transcend work and become encompassing of work and life with love. Me think.
P6.S.) Ming Pao’s insightful interview with video ===> worth a read and watch, “花十年拍紀錄片變「老頑童」 張婉婷面對生活像快要崩潰的牆｜張婉婷專訪” [HT YWGS]
P7.S) 張婉婷想做飛機師 ==> I love this interview a ton, “(端傳媒) 導演張婉婷專訪：用十年紀錄香港千禧世代之後，她想做飛機師” [HT YWGS] I wish I had more time to chat with Mabel about her dream (or desire) to be a pilot (想做飛機師). You see, my US Wyoming based political talk show host friend Glenn is a private plane pilot and owns a small plane. With my previous CAATS – ATC (Canadian Automated Air Traffic Systems – Air Traffic Control) Software Engineering experience, we love to talk shop sometimes including topics like glass cockpit, Boeing 737 MAX tragic crashes & groundings, … and sometimes Glenn shares beautiful made-by-pilots cockpit YouTube videos like “Vancouver Island Series – Tofino, Long Beach – Can’t believe this is allowed! – Part 4 – (S3:E4)“. I would love to ask Mabel if she really wants to fly herself? Or would she be just as happy (like me) to watch beautiful clips like Vancouver Island Series – Tofino, Long Beach – Can’t believe this is allowed! and be amazed? Or Mabel really want to fly in the air?
Update history: 20230128 6:28am Minor editorial changes + adding news links. 20230125 11:20pm Minor editorial changes + adding internet links. 20230121 12:25pm Created Internet archive saved page to properly and permanently link info to 香港電影發展基金「薪火相傳計劃 ((2022?)-(3) 張婉婷 / 黃鐦 黃綺琳 project. 5:52am Added P8 and reworded the beginning of each Postscript a little. 20230120 12:50pm Title change to match video clips and few other editorial changes. 11:22am MST Style and top picture position change. 5:18am MST – Add a pix up top which links to YouTube list of all 4 videos. Add P6.S., P7.S. and other minor updates. 20230119 10:25pm MST – Added P4S 金成 video interview recommendation. Added P5S My Better Half challenged me and asked: Did I “suck up” to Mabel and others by calling 給19 ToMy19 a National Treasure? P5S is a reply to her legitimate question. 20230119 9:47pm MST – Fixed typos and making minor changes
First published: 20230119 ~8pm MST