Last week Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema Film Festival wrapped up its 15th season showing eight Hong Kong productions. I was fortunate to interview one of the filmmakers behind one of these movies, Hoi Yeung, about the coming-of-age gem “The First Girl I Loved”, which he co-directed with Candy Ng. Currently in its festival run, the film’s original screenplay was co-written by Candy and Susan Sin, based on their experiences in secondary school. The plot is a love story between two girls, Nam and Yuet, whose love blossoms during their secondary school years at an all girls Catholic school in Hong Kong. One treats their relationship as love, while the other deems it as personal growth. The film takes place in the early 2000s during the same time Hoi and Candy were in secondary school.
English is not Hoi’s first language, so for clarity, I have abbreviated some of his answers.
How did you and Candy come to this story and bring it to the screen?
This story is based on true events that occurred in Hong Kong. This is a universal film because you can connect to the feelings of this relationship, even if you study in a co-ed school, which I did.
Can you share with me more context about Candy and her collaboration with Susan on the script?
Candy, Susan and I were classmates from the same university. In the beginning, when Candy and I discussed the film, we talked about getting one more perspective. Susan, like Candy, also studied in an all girls school. With all three perspectives, we found a good direction with the story.
Any films or filmmakers that inspire how you shaped the film? I did see some parallels with Wong Kar-Wai’s work. Was that intentional?
Wong Kar-Wai is our idol. That first scene in our film, “The First Girl I Loved,” was a tribute to his film “Days of Being Wild” (1990). That scene is very iconic. In our generation, most people who love movies like Wong Kar-Wai. That scene is very famous, so we used it to build up that moment.
I love that.
Wong Kar-Wai should be noted as an influence, but also this movie is a tribute to a Taiwanese director, Giddens Ko, and his film “You Are the Apple of My Eye” (2011). It’s also a coming-of-age love story. During the time of the release, the movie was really famous in Hong Kong. Candy and I both really connected with the film and were like, “Why don’t we make a similar film for Hong Kong?” We’ve seen films like this one in Taiwan, the mainland, and Korea, but not anything like this in Hong Kong since 2015. I really wanted to make one for Hong Kong. We wanted the film to be based during the period we were in secondary school, so during the years that we remember from our youth. Some of those memories we put into the movie.
I feel this film speaks to an international audience, especially in the US with the religious angle.
You’re not the first person to say this. Many people have a similar story, even though these events happened in Hong Kong. That was really surprising to me. When you get to the wedding scene at the end, we would hear people cry and think, ‘We did it, we connected with the audience!’ Even though that may sound kind of weird, but it’s great to know the film has a universal appeal. It makes us happy.
What are some of the unique aspects of the film? Like what do you feel “The First Girl I Loved” brought to the screen that hadn’t been seen before?
When we were focusing on this story, we weren’t trying to just focus on the lesbian story, we were focusing on the love. The love is universal, and it’s just by circumstance that it happens to these two girls. The journey of this relationship is similar to everyone’s story. We meet our first love, we fall in love, we break up, and then want to get back together. The journey is the same, whether it’s between a girl and a boy, or the same sex–love is love. Because the journey is between two girls, this is very unique to be seen onscreen in Hong Kong. We had not seen a film like this one with a relationship between two girls. Candy said, “This is a real-life story, let’s bring it to the screen, let’s do it.” That’s why we made this movie.
What is the film industry like in Hong Kong regarding the number of female filmmakers versus male? I’m just curious, as both female stars in the film pursue filmmaking to some degree as a career. In Hollywood, it’s been an uphill battle for gender equality and equity, although change does seem to be incrementally happening.
I feel it’s similar here. Some people may think that women filmmakers are not as tough as men. But thinking of my female filmmaker friends, they are really tough, maybe more than me [laughs]. Also, now in Hong Kong, the old generation of women filmmakers make a point to encourage the newer women directors to try to tell their stories. So more and more women directors are coming up in our industry, and they are really talented. I hope there will be change, because there are a lot of differences between a male director and a female director. They have different approaches and perspectives. So yes, there are some challenges here, but I think it’s getting better.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I want people to see the story and remember who was their first love. Your first is so special. Even if you go through many relationships, your first is different. When you grow up, you forget things, but this film can help you remember. Memories are really important. Memories make us.
After watching, I really want people to share the stories of their first loves with others or their partner. Maybe this film will inspire people to reconnect with their first loves, even if they had broken up a decade or twenty years before. I always tell my friends who are afraid to end their relationships that if the break-up is meaningful, you could have a positive change in the relationship. If you talk about the break-up and feel some closure, this break-up is useful. I hope this film will inspire people to open up more of their lives. Then there are no regrets.
I love how during the credit scenes you have those interviews with real women who’ve dealt with similar stories of meeting their first loves in school, and are open about being queer through sharing their stories.
We did the research after we wrote the screenplay by interviewing women who were in their thirties, close in age with Candy and myself. We want to know more about their relationships and what they are thinking when they had these relationships. Some of them say that “this was love”, and some say, “this was a friend,” even if the relationship was more intimate. It’s interesting, I want to hear more and know why people look back and see things differently.
It’s funny because the women would talk, keep talking, and then they were crying when they shared this memory. Sometimes they don’t want to talk about it. But when we ask and they share, most of them are sentimental in that moment. I felt this research was very useful. Because the story is sometimes coming from the point of view of Candy, and sometimes Susan. They have to explain some aspects to me because I’m not a female, and their perspective is important. I may have disagreed with some of the things they were saying, but after listening and hearing these stories, I think they are right. This helps me understand why some of the people feel they are only friends, and some feel they are lovers, and what is the difference. I do appreciate that we did a lot of research, because it helped a lot.