Academic journal article CineAction

In Her Own Words: The Journey of Cecile Shu Shuen Tang, Hong Kong Independent Filmmaker

Academic journal article CineAction

In Her Own Words: The Journey of Cecile Shu Shuen Tang, Hong Kong Independent Filmmaker

Article excerpt

Cecile Shu Shuen Tang may not be familiar to mainstream movie lovers or even cinephiles of Chinese Cinema, but she was actually the first internationally recognized, award-winning independent filmmaker in Hong Kong. In addition, she also happened to be a woman at a time when the Chinese film industry was controlled by studios run by men like the Shaw Brothers. The studios would only finance commercial films. Since Tang's film ideas were nothing close to box office hits, there was no chance that she could get funding from them. As there was no government funding program for films in Hong Kong at the time, if anyone wanted to make films for love not profit, they had to go independent with money outside of the film industry. Consequently, Tang's debut film, The Arch/Madame Tung/Dong Fu Ren (1970), was self-financed and shot in Hong Kong on a limited budget. It garnered four Golden Horse Awards in 1971 including Best Actress (Lisa Lu), Best Cinematography, Best Artistic achievement and most important of all, the Special Jury Prize of Creative Innovation created and awarded to Tang for this film. Four years later in 1974, she made China Behind/Goodbye China/ Zai Jian Zhongguo, a film that questioned the quality of life of the Mainland Chinese people after the Cultural Revolution and the politics of the Gang of Four. Film critics have consistently placed The Arch and China Behind on the list of 100 Best Chinese Films. Tang, went on to do a third film, Sup Sap Blip Dap/Shi San Bu Da, a comedy, in 1975. Her final work as a director was The Boss/The Hong Kong Tycoon (1979), an absurd social satire on the rapid industrialization of Hong Kong, and its social consequences.

Cecile Tang was born in 1941 either in Yunnan or Hong Kong. Her biography has been somewhat enigmatic as her grandfather had been a powerful warlord and she was never comfortable with her ancestry or some of her family history. At one point during her film career, she actually dropped her family name "Tang", referring to herself only as "Shu Shuen". Brought up in Hong Kong, she moved to Taiwan with her family when she was sixteen. Her family, politically liberal, was very wealthy and supported her decision to study filmmaking in the United States at USC when she was nineteen.

This conversation took place in 2013 when she was a guest during the special film program "A Century of Chinese Cinema", hosted by the Toronto International Film Festival.

"I am not a professional filmmaker. I utilized film as a medium for internal examination, to find an answer; it's like ... psychoanalyzing myself. We were, at a young age, encouraged to explore our own potential. There was never a cap on our imagination when we grew up. I never thought that I would be the first independent filmmaker or the first woman filmmaker in Hong Kong to be recognized internationally. It was just a way for me to get to know a certain subject matter and I chose film as a medium or the channel to tell the story."

The Arch (1970)

In the late 60s, after her studies at USC, Tang returned to Hong Kong to prepare for the shoot of her first feature, The Arch. The film is set in 17th century China; its protagonist, Madame Tung, is a widow for whom a triumphal arch is going to be erected by the king to honor her contributions to her village--the arch being an ancient Chinese symbol of honour. A conflict arises when a young officer is billeted in her house, and proceeds to show romantic attachment to both Madame Tung and her daughter. Madame Tung must choose between her own desire and her duty as a widow and mother, a situation that foregrounds the cruelty of societal pressure on a woman whose voice has been taken away from her after the passing of her husband. The title role of Madame Tung was meticulously played by Lisa Lu, an actress born in China but active in American film and television since 1958. The film was well-deserving of the Golden Horse Special Jury Prize of Creative Innovation as a similar expression of female suppression had never before been seen in Chinese films. …

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