Interview with Roger Lee: My proudest moment is “Simple Life”, because it tells my story

We speak with him about his career, Hong Kong cinema, his collaboration with Ann Hui, and many other topics.


Lee was an avid film buff from his school days in Hong Kong before immigrating with his family to the US at the age of 19 where he later started making short films. As a producer, he worked with the director Ann Hui three times – with "Summer Snow" (Best Actress award for Josephine Siao at Berlin IFF in 1995), "A Simple Life" (Best Actress award for Deanie Ip at Venice IFF in 2011), and "Our Time Will Come." The script for "A Simple Life" was based on the true story of his maid who worked for four generations of the Lee family for almost 60 years. His book "Taojie and Me" was published in 2012. His play "The Amahs" was produced by Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015.

On the occasion of his films with Ann Hui screening at Five Flavours, we speak with him about his career, Hong Kong cinema, his collaboration with Ann Hui, and many other topics.



What kind of training did you have to become a producer?

I was a chartered accountant in the US, so I quit my job and went back to Hong Kong and then I started as a production assistant in a TV station and then became a director. Next, Tsui Hark hired me as accounting manager because I know how to do my books. And then I was general manager for Tsui Hark for 3 years. After that, Golden Harvest set up a company for me and asked me to head the subsidiary. And that subsidiary company produced “Summer Snow” and “Final Option” and a few other movies. And that is how I got to become a producer. Actually, I was kind of producing when I was in Film Workshop already, because as a general manager you took care of anything.

How has the profession of the producer changed through the decades?
The 80s were the Golden Era of HK cinema. We were making more than 200 movies per year. I started up with Tsui Hark and Film Workshop. At that time, just with Tsui Hark’s name, you could pre-sell a movie and make money, before production. So, whatever films Tsui hark wanted to make, they were getting funded. That time was really crazy, all these actors were participating in 2-3 movies at the same time and we had to find time for them to come into the set to do the movie. That was the fun time and getting funded was easier and also the markets of Korea and Taiwan were major for HK films.

But as time changed, the audience in Taiwan and Korea chose Hollywood movies instead of HK ones. I think the 90’s were still ok, but after 2000, things got slower and slower and making films was harder than before. But afterwards, we had the market from China and co-productions with China and things started to pick up. But Hong Kong directors had to go to China to direct films instead of making films in HK. But still, they were using Hong Kong actors and the crew was from Hong Kong.

Recently, however, in the last 2-3 years, HK directors have less popularity in China, more popular films were made by Chinese filmmakers and the recent trend is that even big movie stars don’t guarantee box office success, since a number of box office surprises were comedies with no-name casts. For example, “Never Say Die,” which came out this year was a big success. It’s about a male boxer switching identity with a female reporter. The Chinese audience likes this kind comedy, which was made in a very low budget. I think the taste is changing. They want more local topics with local actors, not necessarily big stars, but this kind of movies are becoming box office surprises.

As a producer, do you think it is more difficult to make a movie now?



I think that, for HK directors and actors it is getting more difficult, but there are always changes. The latest trend is Internet movies. There are HK directors and actors who are making this kind of movies. Since people in China are watching films in their phones now, since the phone has become the replacement for television. And Internet movies can have a big budget, because the coverage is huge, since anyone who has a mobile can watch a movie. And even big movie stars in China are taking part in these movies, since they get paid good money. So that’s the latest trend. It went from theatrical releases, to TV and now, the newest thing is the Internet. And the market for those, which can also have like 8 episodes, not be only a single movie, is huge, especially for the younger people. Right now, everything is digital, so the phone seems to be the future.

In your career as a producer, did you manage to get your way in the end, with the higher ups, as you do in the movie?
I tried to, that is my job.

And is finding money the most difficult aspect of being a producer?

Finding money has not been my major job as a producer. For famous directors such as Ann, John or Tsui Hark, their name itself is almost enough for the investor to agree to a project, with some consideration of the script and the proposed cast. 

For Tsui Hark in the 80's, his name alone could pre-sell enough to the cover the production costs.
For John Woo's "Red Cliff", his executive producer Terence Chang gathered money from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan plus a bank loan.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience in “Red Cliff”?

I worked in the film for four years, so it was one year pre-production, one year shooting, one year post-production and one year distribution and settling insurance claims and backing up the movie. And Tao Jie died during the shooting, in the second year of the movie, and that was very difficult for me.

Which was your proudest moment as a producer and which your worst?



My proudest moment is “Simple Life”, because it tells my story (laughs). I am proud that Tao Jie got recognized. In Chinese now, her name is equivalent to “the maid”. All these stories from China or Singapore came out about maids who served in a house for a number of years, and thus she became an icon. So I am very proud of her.

The worst, as a producer, is when a film goes over budget, and the financing company and the director give me a hard time.

Who is the most difficult director you have worked with?
I don’t know, because I get along very well with directors that are known to be difficult. The two would be, though, Tsui Hark and John Woo, because they change things a lot and they get over budget a lot. But, in both cases I got along with them quite well. Tsui Hark trusts me, and if I say something he listens, as does John Woo. I always give them an option, like “if you don’t shoot this” or “if you shoot this before, it will save money”. In the end, both of them, are my friends, I think, despite the fact that they are known to be difficult.

Is Ann Hui easy to work with?
Ann Hui is the easiest to work with, because she is not only a director, but also a producer. She knows what she wants and what she does not. So if the art director says “I can give you more” , she says “No, no need, this is what I need, don’t overdress the set” or she would tell the production manager, “I don’t need four days, three days are enough”. And she always finishes ahead of schedule. Because, usually there is just one take. So everybody is happy because they finish early, but also very alert because they cannot make mistakes during the take. The actors know their lines, the cameramen know how to move the camera, the lighting men know how to light the scene, and everything is ready and when the time comes, nobody would allow themselves to make mistakes.

Ann’s idea is that the first take is the one the actor gives his/her best performance. And for many, this is not the case, because some directors have 20 takes, 30 takes, and the actors get tired. Unless you tell them what was wrong, and the director just tells them “do it again”, there is no point in redoing a take. In some cases, Ann asks for a second take, but she gives very specific instructions of what was wrong and what can be improved. So, in the few cases where there was a second take, everybody would know why there is a second take.

How much involved are you in the casting process, as a producer?
Ann trusts my judgment, and she consults me about casting decisions. For “Simple Life” especially (laughs).

How has Kara Hui changed through the years?
To me, she has stayed the same. Physically, she still runs like a steam engine. She can do night shoots for a week and still have no problems. She is a strong woman for her age. And I think she can go making movies for some time. And she has matured as a director as the years go by, and always knows what she wants and what she does not want on the screen. She would tell the production people, “you don’t need this”, “we can have simpler lighting, we don’t need so much light”, so she is a producer herself as well as a good director. So, to help her with the production is very simple, because she does all the work herself, or most of the work, at least.

In “A Simple Life”, why didn’t Roger (you) ask Tao Jie to come back, after she got well in the elderly house?
In the movie it explains that she insisted that she stayed at the nursing home and not to return to the house, because she knew I cannot take care of her. In the movie, Andy Lau says, “I will hire a maid, why don’t you come home?” and she says “no, I had a stroke, I will get worse and worse, and even with a maid you cannot take care of me”. Because in real life, Tao Jie took care of my grandmother who had a stroke, and she knew that the situation will get worse and that there would be more strokes. I am a man and she is a woman, so, me taking care of her presented some practical issues. She knew about that and she also thought that it is not right for the master to serve the servant.

How much did you depend on her, for everyday activities?
Almost everything, eating, washing and ironing clothes, she took care of anything I needed in the house. But I took it for granted and wasn’t aware of how much she was doing. The movie shows that I was looking at the manual of the washing machine, because I did not know how to wash clothes.

Did you manage in the end?
It was difficult, but in the end I managed.

Did Andy Lau study you for the role? Because I think he did a nice impersonation of you.
He is a good actor so he can imitate a person. Sometimes I was in the set, and he would ask me how I would act.

I was impressed by Deanie Ip’s performance in the film. How close was her presentation of Tao Jie to the real one?
Not close at all. The real Tao Jie was less confident, Deanie in the film was quite confident. Tao Jie in reality was always ready to serve others, and I think Deanie came across very sure of herself. And Tao Jie is actually funnier than Deanie. She spent all her money, she never had any money, she always owed. She even pawned her jewelry but she was always in debt.

Where did she spend it all?
Probably buying food for me. She never had any money, even when she went to the nursing home.

I would like to ask you about three episodes in the film, if they are true: The one with the producers, the one in the elevator and the one with the man in the funeral.
Actually, the episode with Tsui Hark was written by him, but he said it was similar to what happened to him, although with another producer, not me. The scene in the elevator actually happened, because I was wearing a T-shirt which was very similar to the uniform the guy who was going to fix the air conditioner wore. The scene in the end is also true. Uncle Kin, in real life, went to a brothel and he didn’t have enough money to pay, so people from the nursing home went to the brothel and paid cash, in order to let him go. That is why how they learnt he was visiting prostitutes.

So she was actually giving him money, although she knew where he spent it.
Yes, she was very kind, she always gave away money to other people, she did not care for money.

In a scene in a movie, Anthony Wong calls you “God of Money”. Can you elaborate?
Because I was the financial controller for a lot of films, I was called also the money guy, the one who controls money, which is actually the producer’s job.

How did the idea for “Our Time Will Come” came about?



Ann read some articles about the East River Brigade and she was very impressed by these stories, like the daughter and mother. The East River Brigade were just ordinary people fighting against the Japanese. So it is a bit like the Resistance in France against the Nazis. She was impressed by these stories and I helped her with the research and we interviewed some old soldiers who were still alive, in their 90s mostly, but some were close to 100 years old. They were quite interesting , particularly due to their insight about what really happened in the war.

In reality, what happened to the protagonists of the film (Fang Lan and Blackie Lau)?
Blackie Lau was not killed by the Japanese; it was only after the war, when he was on the Communists’ side (Mao), that the Nationalists (Chiang Kai Sek) ambushed him.A bullet hit his leg and it got infected and he died from that infection. And it is ironic because he survived the war. Fang Lan lived to be 77 years old. She became a teacher in HK and then was summoned back to China as the Women’s Movement’s leader. In 1977, she came back to Hong Kong and then, upon her return to China, they had a ceremony celebrating the East River Brigade and only that time she came back to Hong Kong to visit her mother’s grave. And then she died in 1988, the year after. She was married to a newspaper editor, they never had any children but the editor had a daughter from a previous wedding, so she was survived by her step-daughter. The poet lived a long life, was very prolific and he was respected.

Why does the mother get involved with her daughter’s cause?
In real life, she became a communist, she really believed in the cause, but in the movie, it does not specify that, much, she quite of tags along. I think that is the choice Ann wanted to make, to show that a mother would love her daughter so much, that she would anything to help her, although their relationship was a love-hate one.

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Johnson,1,Matthias Hoene,1,Maundy Thursday,1,Mayurakshi,1,Meghe Dhaka Tara,1,Memoir of a Murderer,1,Merantau,1,Mermaid,1,Michael Haertlein,1,Michelle Hung Tsz-ching,2,Midi Z,1,Midnight Runners,1,Midori Impuls,2,Midori The Camelia Girl,1,Mikhail Red,3,Milk the Maid,1,Ming-Yeh Rawnsley,1,Minoru Kunizawa,1,Mira Nair,1,Miss Zombie,1,Miwa Nishikawa,2,Mohammad Rasoulof,1,Mohammad-Reza Lotfi,1,Mon Mon Mon Monsters,1,Mong-Hong Chung,2,Monika S-r,1,Monologue,1,Moon Lovers,1,Mototsugu Watanabe,3,Mouly Surya,3,Mountains May Depart,1,Mourning Forest,1,Movie,2,Moving,1,Mr. Socrates,1,Mrs Fang,1,Mrs K,2,Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation),1,Mumon: The Land of Stealth,1,Museum,1,My Beloved Yak,1,My Dad and Mr Ito,1,Myanmar,1,Nah Hyeon,1,Nandita Roy,1,Naoko Ogigami,5,Naomi Kawase,3,Naosuke Kurosawa,1,Naoyuki Tomomatsu,3,Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit,1,Neeraj Ghaywan,1,Neko Atsume House,1,Neomanila,1,Nepal,1,Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival,1,New Neighbor,2,News,3,Newton,1,Nicholas Poly,4,Night Bus,1,Night is Short,1,Night is Short Walk on Girl,1,Night of the Felines,1,Nikkatsu,1,Nikola Cekic,1,Ninja Pussy Cat,1,Nirbaak,1,Niwatsukino Norihiro,1,Noboru Tanaka,1,Noboru Uguchi,1,Nobuhiro Yamashita,2,Nobuo Nakagawa,2,Nobuyuki Takeuchi,2,Noise,1,Non-fiction Diary,1,Norbu,1,Norihiro Niwatsukino,1,Norjmaa,1,Norman England,2,North Korea,2,Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon,1,NYAFF,34,Odd Obsession,1,Old Boy,2,Old Stone,1,Old-School Kung-Fu Fest,3,Omar Rasya Joenoes,3,On the Job,1,On The Line Festival,3,On the Run,1,Onibaba,1,Operation Red Sea,1,Ophilia,1,Ordinary Person,1,Osamu Sato,1,Our Happy time,1,Our Time Will Come,1,Outrage Coda,1,Over the Fence,1,Oxide Pang,1,Padmavati,2,Palatpol Mingpornpichit,2,Pale Flower,1,Panos,1,Panos Kotzathanasis,216,Paresh Mokashi,1,Park Chan-wook,2,Park Hoon-Jung,2,Park In-je,1,Park Ki- hyung,1,Park Kwang-hyun,1,Parkpoom Wongpoom,1,Party Round the Globe,1,Past and Future,1,Patrick Hofmeister,56,Pedro Morata,9,Peerachai Kerdsint,1,Pelden Dorji,1,Pema "Tintin" Tshering,1,Pema Tshering,1,Pen-Ek Ratanaruang,2,Peng Xiaolian,1,Pepe Diokno,1,Perfect Blue,2,Peter Chan,1,Peter Chen,1,Phanumad Disattha,1,Philippines,11,Pieter - Jan Van Haecke,4,Pieter-Jan Van Haecke,7,Pink Eiga,10,PinkEiga.TV,1,pinku eiga,1,Pinneyum,1,Poet on a Business Trip,1,Poolside Man,1,Posto,1,Press Release,2,Prophecy,1,Proshoon Rahmaan,2,Psychic,1,Rabbit and Lizard,1,Radiance,1,Rage. Lee Sang-il,1,Rahul Jain,1,Railway Sleepers,1,Rainy Dog,1,Raja Mukhriz,1,Rajkumar Gupta,1,Randy Mckenzie,4,Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead,1,Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead 2,1,Ravine of Goodbye,1,Re:Born,1,Real,1,Realism,1,Red Beard,1,Red Persimmons,1,Reipu zonbi: Lust of the dead 3,1,Resistance at Tule Lake,1,Revenge: A love story,1,Review,6,Reviews,230,Reviews.,2,Reviews. Panos Kotzathanasis,1,Riri Riza,3,Ritwik Ghatak,2,River of Exploding Durians,1,Robin Weng,1,Roger Lee,1,Roman Porno,1,Ronja,1,Rouge,1,Running on Karma,1,Russia,1,RV: Resurrected Victims,1,Ryoo Seung-wan,1,Ryota Sakamaki,1,S. Korea,64,S.Korea,2,Saayak Santra,9,Sabrina Baracetti,1,Sabu,3,Salaam Bombay,1,Samui Song,1,San Diego Asian Film Festival,13,San Diego Film Festival,1,Sanjay Leela Bhansali,2,Sanjeewa Pushpakumara,2,Sankha Ray,28,Satan's Slaves,3,Satoru Hirohara,1,Satoshi Kon,3,Satyajit Ray,1,Say Yes,1,Sayandeep Bandyopadhyay,6,Scarlet Heart,1,Score,1,Seijun Suzuki,3,Sekigahara,1,Serga Mathang,1,Sexy S.W.A.T. 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Minh-Ha,3,Triple Threat,1,Tsai Ming-liang,2,Tulsi Ramsay,1,Twilight Dinner,1,Twitch: You Are My Toy,1,Typhoon Club,1,Um Tae-hwa,1,Unbowed,1,V.I.P.,1,Vampire Cleanup Department,1,Vanishing Time A Boy Who Returned,1,Vannaphone Sitthirath,1,various,1,Varnyathil Aashanka,1,Verena Paravel,1,Vesoul International Film Festival,6,Vidya Balan,1,Vietnam,5,Vikramaditya Motwane,1,Vimukthi Jayasundara,1,Vinay Shukla,1,Violated Angels,1,Visitor Q,1,Vital,1,Vitaly Mansky,1,Voyage to Terengganu,1,Wai Ka-fai,1,Walk on Girl,1,Wang Bing,2,Wang Lung-wei,1,Wang Ming-tai,1,Warriors of the Dawn,2,Weeds on Fire,1,Wei-Hao Cheng,1,Wellgo USA,1,West North West,2,What A Wonderful Family 2,1,What Time Is It There?,1,Whispering Corridors,1,Whispering Star,1,White Sun,1,Who Killed Cock Robin,1,Whore Angel,1,Wilson Yip,1,Wiman Rizkidarajat,1,Wine War,1,With Prisoners,1,Woman of the Lake,1,Won Shin-Yeon,1,Wong Chun,3,Wong Jing,1,Wong Kar-wai,2,Woo Ming Jin,1,Xaisongkham Induangchanthy,1,Xu Bing,1,Ya-che Yang,1,Yamato (California),4,Yan Pak Wing,2,Yang Chao,2,Yang Ik-june,1,Yang Jong-hyeon,1,Yao Tian,1,Yeon Sang-ho,2,Yes Madam,1,Yeti Obhijaan,2,Yiu-wai Chu,1,Yoji Yamada,1,Yoo Ha,1,Yoon-chul chung,1,Yoonsuk Jung,1,Yosep Anggi Noen,1,Yoshihiro Hanno,1,Yoshihiro Nakamura,2,Yoshihiro Nishimura,3,Yoshimasa Jimbo,1,Yoshinari Nishikori,1,Yoshishige Yoshida,1,Yoshitaka Mori,1,Yoshiyuki Kishi,1,Yosuke Takeuchi,2,Yotsuya kaidan,1,You Losers!,1,Your Name,1,Youth,1,Yu Aoi,2,Yu Irie,1,Yu Sang-wook,1,Yuen Chor,1,Yuen Woo-ping,1,Yuji Shimomura,1,Yûji Tajiri,2,Yujiro Harumoto,2,Yuki Tanada,1,Yukihiko Tsutsumi,1,Yusaku Matsumoto,1,Yutaka Ikejima,2,Yutaro Nakamura,1,Yuya Ishii,2,Zakka Films,1,Zhang Lu,1,Zhang Yimou,1,Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight,1,Zuri Rinpoche. 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Asian Film Vault: Interview with Roger Lee: My proudest moment is “Simple Life”, because it tells my story
Interview with Roger Lee: My proudest moment is “Simple Life”, because it tells my story
We speak with him about his career, Hong Kong cinema, his collaboration with Ann Hui, and many other topics.
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Asian Film Vault
http://www.asianfilmvault.com/2017/11/interview-with-roger-lee-my-proudest.html
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