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"A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" exhibition opens at HK Film Archive

     Veteran set designers Chan Ki-yui and Chan King-sam produced numerous great works in their film careers. Among their many highlight creations were the grand Forbidden City in "The Empress Dowager", the vivid attractive landscape of Jiangnan in "The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung", the mystical giant cave in "Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain", the grandiose palace in "Yang Kwei-fei, the Magnificent Concubine", the contemporary black-and-white apartment in "Rose in Tears", the multi-function sets in "The Man from Interpol", the similar set structures albeit with different atmospherics in "Beyond the Great Wall" and "Empress Wu Tse-tien", and the minimal style of the Bamboo Lodge that highlighted the pessimistic character of Lin Daiyu in the film "The Dream of Red Chamber".

     The father-and-son team designed over 1,000 films' sets in a combined career that spanned over 50 years. Their work covered a wide spectrum of genres from romantic features, martial arts pictures and court epics to musicals and comedies, and they won many Best Art Direction awards. The Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA)'s new exhibition "A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" is being held from today (August 10) to November 4 to showcase their set building and amazing accomplishments.

     "A film set is to present but not to represent," said Chan King-sam when describing his half-century's endeavours in just a few words. To produce state-of-the art film sets, set designers have to be observant of details and highly creative in sketching out ideas when they start reading scripts. They develop scene design by identifying the historical background, characters, time and seasons and locality of the story. To realise a marvellous film set, set designers also have to work in detail in the use of colours and materials, patterns and decorations. With deft touches of magic in both architecture and decoration, they make outstanding film sets which help bring to the screen the world of fantasy visualised by directors.

     Three sets from films in different eras - director Li Han-hsiang's historical epic "The Empress Dowager" (1975), director Chor Yuen's contemporary drama "Rose in Tears" (1963) and director Wong Hok-sing's period Cantonese opera film "The Story of Muk Kwai-ying, Part One" (1959) - are featured at the exhibition. Thanks to the movement of a hidden camera installed at a film set, audiences can witness the mechanism and results of set design onscreen.

     The Chans were also the designated set designers for many established directors including Li Han-hsiang and Chor Yuen. They worked with production conditions ranging from the most primitive to the most technologically sophisticated, and faced budgets that varied from the most deprived to the most lavish. Working within the limits of resources, they recreated the visual splendour of grand architecture, dilapidated buildings and dandyish decor. Their dedication to their craft embodied the best of the Hong Kong film industry.

     The exhibition features the works and visions of the two masters, with oral history from Chan King-sam, veteran photographer Lam Chiu (aka Lam Wa-chiu) and producer Wan Pak-nam. They also disclose the numerous secrets unknown to audiences such as set building procedures and the work of various sections. Film critic Shu Kei and art director Bill Lui also share their views on studio sets, cinematography and the works of the two masters.

     Set designers have often been called "magic masters" as they painstakingly utilise ever-limited resources and space to help bring a script into realisation. The exhibition also features the magic tricks of film sets and the four paths to outstanding set design. These are the double or triple combined set that plays with lights, models and camera angles to complete the make-believe setting; the "cover-up" of lighting grids and the like with props; use of a scale model with perspective and lighting tricks to provide an illusion on-screen; and how to "dress up" a set with different decor to convey different scenes and styles.

     The first film for Chan Ki-yui (1908-1996) to feature his credit as set designer was director Wong Toi's "The Illegitimate Son" (1937). He worked for studios such as Nanyang and Wader in his early years and in the late 1950s joined Shaw Brothers, where he worked as a set designer and art director until his retirement in the 1970s. During his illustrious career, he worked on more than 400 titles, including Cantonese, Mandarin and Amoy films. From ordinary houses to architectural grandeur, his works have never failed to impress. The directors he worked with included Ng Wui, Lee Tit, Lee Sun-fung, Griffin Yue Feng, Li Han-hsiang, Chang Cheh and Doe Ching. He also helped build sets for the Hollywood films "Ferry to Hong Kong" (1959) and "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960). He won Best Artistic Direction awards at the Asian Film Festival for "The Kingdom and the Beauty" (1959), "Back Door" (1960) and "The Love Eterne" (1963).

     Chan Ki-yui's second son, Chan King-sam, joined his father to work in film studios upon his graduation from secondary school. He started by doing sketches for sets. The first film for which he earned the credit of set designer was director Hung Suk-wan's "Wild Flowers are Sweeter" (1950). Later, he joined Shaw Brothers as a set designer and art director, and was soon promoted to Studio Head. He designed sets for over 500 films, and worked with directors including Chor Yuen and Li Han-hsiang. He won five Golden Horse Best Art Direction awards, for "The Empress Dowager", "The Adventures of Emperor Chien Lung" (1977), "The Dream of the Red Chamber" (1977), "The Tiger and the Widow" (1981) and "An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty" (1981). He now acts as Art Consultant for Television Broadcasts Limited.

     In addition to the exhibition, there are also screenings and workshops. Presented by the HKFA of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) and guest curated by the Cantonese Cinema Study Association, a retrospective entitled "Father and Son: Two Visionaries of Cinematic Dreams - A Tribute to Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" is being held from now to November 18. Thirty-nine films featuring sets by the Chans and six reference films featuring sets by peer set designers will be shown at the Cinema of the HKFA. Films from a wide spectrum of genres, including melodrama, suspense, thriller, gangster, musical, comedy, Qing and early republic, historical, opera and wuxia films, will be screened.

     To complement the retrospective, seminars entitled "Over Half a Century of Great Set Design: In Conversation with Chan King-sam" and "Set Designer, the Unsung Hero of Cantonese Cinema" will be held on September 30 and November 4 at the HKFA respectively. Three workshops entitled "Introduction to Film Set Design" will also be held from October to November at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

     Detailed programme information can be found in "ProFolio 64", which is distributed at all performing venues of the LCSD. For enquiries, please call 2739 2139 or 2734 2900, or browse the webpage

Ends/Friday, August 10, 2012


The Hong Kong Film Archive exhibition "A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" opens today (August 10) and will run until November 4. Photo shows (from left) set designer Chan King-sam and film critic Shu Kei at the exhibition.


One of the featured film sets, director Li Han-hsiang's historical epic "The Empress Dowager" (1975), at the "A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" exhibition.


One of the featured film sets, director Wong Hok-sing's period Cantonese opera film "The Story of Muk Kwai-ying, Part One" (1959), at the "A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" exhibition.


One of the featured film sets, director Chor Yuen's contemporary drama "Rose in Tears" (1963), at the "A Touch of Magic: Veteran Set Designers Chan Ki-yui & Chan King-sam" exhibition.



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