Shortly after 8pm at a bustling street corner illuminated by a bright yellow McDonald's sign in an otherwise quiet industrial area in Hong Kong, director Tsui Hark (徐克) dispenses advice to actors and observes footage from behind the camera.
Tsui is wrapping up shooting on Jigsaw, a unique directorial collaboration between Tsui and fellow directors Ringo Lam (林嶺東) and Johnny To (杜琪鋒). The trio developed the story of a woman fearful of her husband's violent tendencies together and agreed to take turns shooting it.
Tsui, known for works such as Jet Li's (李連杰) Once Upon a Time in China and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Double Team, is up first. After about a dozen days of filming across Hong Kong, he hunkered down for his final shots in Kwun Tong district late Tuesday.
It was a hot, muggy summer night interrupted only by an occasional breeze and the smell of fried fast food.
Dressed in a black shirt, loose-fitting gray trousers and white sneakers with double Velcro straps, the gray-haired, mustached Tsui is focused but relaxed. He casually strolls around the set like a retiree in his pajamas, removing a lighter from the black fanny pack wrapped around his waist to ignite his cigar from time to time.
A big-name director in Hong Kong, Tsui is the chief executive on site who charts the general course but doesn't bog himself down with manual labor. The set is a flurry of activity though, with no more than a dozen workers in constant motion, dismounting and remounting the camera.
The lean crew showcases the economy and flexibility of Hong Kong filmmaking. Men in shirtsleeves and shorts wearing handyman's belts lined with gear constantly hover around Tsui. Two workers wearing fluorescent vests direct traffic.
They remove the windshield, hood and two side doors of a red taxi tied to a tow truck and mount a camera in front of it for filming an interior scene. Two workers circle light beams on opposite sides of the taxi to simulate passing cars.
There are no lavish trailers. Tsui and Taiwanese actress Kelly Lin (林熙蕾) rest on folding chairs. A worker pushes around a metal cart carrying red baskets neatly lined with white thermos mugs labeled with strips of duck tape with names written on them.
Each shot only involves several takes and the crew doesn't shut down the street for shooting, simply clearing out the area captured in each frame while pedestrians and an ongoing stream of traffic pass by.
Tsui is somewhat of a minimalist director, giving actors brief instructions then fading to the background. Coaching Lin on a scene where she frantically chases a taxi, he raises his slender arms gently and bulges his big, youthful eyes to portray a panicked look, steps back and lets Lin get to work.
Tsui's actors agree he gives them space.
“He won't spell out that I should do this or that. He lets you inject your own elements of imagination,” Lin said during a break in between takes.
“He'll discover your unique qualities and let you show them in the movie. I think he's instinctive in his filmmaking,” she said.
The parsimony in instruction is also an intentional cinematic device. Tsui said the three directors have agreed to only feed actors information about their respective characters, instead of a full script.
“We want to maintain a world where the characters don't know what each other are thinking,” Tsui said.