For an artist specializing in life paintings, a good work cannot be produced if the settings before him are not compelling. Just the same, a director without a setting appropriate to the film he is making would not be able to create the world in which he can tell his story.
If a cinematographer’s role is to capture the key moments of a filmic world, then the set designer is the person who helps the director construct the world he envisions, realizing on the screen the director’s visions through architecture and decorations. The set designer’s contributions to film are vitally important, yet the roles they play have often been neglected. Generally, set designers are required within a short span of time to build their sets, work that includes contemplating on the script, conducting research, fabricating drawings and coordinating with different departments such as carpentry and props. Without one’s realization, a film’s success may largely depend on the work of the set designer.
In the 1930s, Hong Kong cinema was still in a rudimentary state-of-the-state. Facilities in studios were far from state of the art. Chan Ki-yui (1908﹣1996) started his film career wanting to be an actor but ended up working behind-the-scenes, becoming a set designer at the age of 29. He worked on a wide variety of genres, with over 400 titles to his credit in a career that started in the 1930s and lasting till the 1970s, when he passed his mantle to his son. From the theatre stage of The Pangs of Love (1947) to the westernstyle 15th century palace of Lady Robin Hood (1947), from the wealthy home in Everlasting Love (1964) to the period streets in One-Armed Swordsman (1967), sets of different time periods and cultural origins were fabricated with care and flair. The conditions of walls representing the emotions of characters, the sways of willows evoking the changes in seasons, for example, his sets were always in tune with the development of the stories. When used by directors of accomplishment, the result was even more remarkable.
There is a saying: “Teacher for one day, father for an entire life”. Chan Ki-yui doubled as both teacher and father in grooming his son Chan King-sam (1933﹣ ). The younger Chan entered the film industry at age 16, serving as art director to assist his father, sometimes sharing duties with his father as set designer. He quickly became a set designer in his own right, leaving his own imprint on his sets but not without inheriting his father’s penchant for accuracy, efficiency and prolific productivity. Joining Shaw Brothers in 1963, Chan found a stability that allowed him to further develop his skills and creativity. He was well versed in the complicated process of set building, reputed to be able to tell how long a set could be finished by just briefly listening to the sound outside a studio stage. He also knew well the styles of Shaw Brothers directors, from their favourite colour schemes to architectural preferences. It came as no surprise that he became the designated set designer for many established directors, including Li Han-hsiang and Chor Yuen. As the studio system began to falter, Chan began working with young filmmakers, even using assumed names to build sets for New Wave directors. He retired in the mid-1980s, but remained involved in his trade serving as advisor for television productions.
Between them, the Chans had been involved in over 1,000 films. Yet they had always kept a low profile, never calling attention to their own work. They had experienced the many highs and lows of the Hong Kong film industry, worked with production conditions the most primitive as well as the most technologically sophisticated and with budgets the most deprived as well as the most lavish. Their dedication to their craft is an embodiment of the best of the Hong Kong film industry. The 45 films presented in this programme hardly provide a full representation of their amazing accomplishment but merely stand as expressions of our admiration for them as well as other outstanding set designers.
Chan Ki-yui (1908 -1996)
Born in 1908, Chan Ki-yui graduated from The 1st Lianhua Training School for Actors in 1931 and entered the film industry afterwards. The first film he received the credit of Set Designer was The Illegitimate Son (1937, directed by Wong Toi). He worked as a freelancer for a number of studios, such as Nanyang and Wader, in his early years. He joined Shaw Brothers in the late 1950s as Set Designer and Art Director until the 1970s when he retired.
During his illustrious career of over 35 years, he had worked on more than 400 titles, including Cantonese, Mandarin and Amoy films. The directors he had worked with included Ng Wui, Lee Tit, Lee Sunfung, Griffin Yue Feng, Li Han-hsiang, Chang Cheh and Doe Ching. He also helped build the sets of Ferry to Hong Kong (1959, directed by Lewis Gilbert) and The World of Suzie Wong (1960, directed by Richard Quine) when they came to Hong Kong for location. He won three Best Art Direction Awards at the Asian Film Festival, for The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959), Back Door (1960) and The Love Eterne (1963), all directed by Li Han-hsiang.
Chan King-sam (1933 - )
The second son of Chan Ki-yui, Chan King-sam was born in 1933 in Hong Kong. He joined his father to work in film studios at the age of 16, upon his graduation from secondary school. He started by doing sketches for sets. The first film he earned the credit of Set Designer was Wild Flowers are Sweeter (1950, directed by Hung Suk-wan). He joined Shaw Brothers in 1963 as Set Designer and Art Director, and was soon promoted to first, Head of Art Department, then Studio Head. Under his patronage, a whole new generation of set designers and art directors was nurtured. During the two decades he worked in Shaw Brothers, Chan continued to design sets for other studios, including its rival, Golden Harvest, and many independent films, either uncredited or under such pseudonyms as Chin Sum, Chin Sun and Lu Ma. The last film he was involved in was Jackie Chan’s Project A (1982). He continued to act as Art Consultant for Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) for many years after his retirement.
The number of films he had designed for exceeds 500. Of the directors he had worked with, the most frequent were Chor Yuen (65 films) and Li Hanhsiang (32 films). He won five Golden Horse Best Art Direction Awards, for The Empress Dowager (1975), The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung (1977), The Dream of the Red Chamber (1977), The Tiger and the Widow (1981), all directed by Li Han-hsiang, and An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty (1981, directed by Eddie Fong).
This programme is guest-curated by Cantonese Cinema Study Association (CCSA)
The contents of the programme do not represent the views of the presenter.
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