Local documentaries don’t usually get a wide release in cinemas, but The Taste of Youth, a documentary that follows nine young Hong Kong people, was shown on 16 local screens. We caught up with director Cheung King-wai and some of his young crew: line producer Nicole Chan Wai-yee, 29, editor Nicky Tse Siu-pong, 24, and editor and cameraman Shermen Leung Shu-moon, 30.
Could you walk us through the filming process?
Chan: We started in December 2014, when students gathered to sing at the Ode to Joy Concert of Ten Thousand [at the Hong Kong Coliseum]. We interviewed 100 of the students, then narrowed them down to 30. We filmed them, and then finally narrowed them down to the nine that you see in the film. I marked down any special events that were coming up in their schedules, and made sure that we followed them around when they happened.
Editing must have taken forever with all the footage.
Tse: At first we had no idea what the theme of the documentary would be. As we shot, we would watch all the footage and mark down interesting bits. We filmed for 65 days, about six hours each day, so that’s like 390 hours. We figured out in the middle the way we wanted to go. The toughest part was finding the moment when a particular expression flickered over a person’s face. It’d be like one second in six hours of footage.
Leung: But it’s very important to get these moments; it’s more authentic than what even the best actors can pull off. It’s these tiny details that make the documentary what it is.
The Taste of Youth is about ordinary young people in Hong Kong. Was it a challenge to give the documentary an impact?
Cheung: Time is often the strongest tool in a documentary. When I made KJ [Cheung’s previous film], seeing the protagonist grow up over six years was very impactful. But for The Taste of Youth, I had to film in six months to have it ready in time for the 55th anniversary of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, which produced the documentary. While I only followed one family in KJ, I had nine subjects in The Taste of Youth, which opened up a lot of possibilities. I could jump from a Band 1 school to a Band 3 school, from someone who is bullied to someone going home to Qinghai [on the mainland]. As a creative person you always try different methods to tell an impactful story.
Tse: There were also little things we could do during the editing process to make things more dramatic; I let some shots linger to show the internal struggle that is going on, like when Hoi-ting contemplated her future or when Lok-yan was alone at home.
Do you find that your presence affects the truth of what is happening in the documentary?
Cheung: Documentaries are never entirely objective. It’s impossible. You have to know that behind the camera there are often several people. We try to use the best cameras possible whenever we can, and those are often big, and there’s a sound person with a huge microphone, so that can be invasive. To minimise our influence, we must make the subjects comfortable. I’d ask them, what would you normally do at this desk? How would you eat? And I’d ask them to carry on with their routine, instead of directing them or moving the furniture to suit my filming. But sometimes it’s tough. When we went to Qinghai, Hua’s family insisted on eating with us, but we didn’t want to affect the dinner scene. We couldn’t refuse because that would have made them uncomfortable, and that would show in the film. In the end we settled on asking to eat at a separate table nearby.
How do you make your subjects feel comfortable?
Chan: I stay very open-minded, and I don’t go into interviews with any presumptions. I treat them as equals. For example, you might have noticed that Hoi-ting, who looks tough, is actually lonely in school. So she’s happy that someone is listening to her, and she was comfortable enough to show me the playground she hid at when she bunked off from school.
Cheung: And when Nicole asked her what she thought of her future, she couldn’t answer for a long time. That was a magical moment. The shots we got weren’t perfect when she answered the question, and we asked her to say it again, but we had to use the first take because that was the most authentic. Some people say documentary makers need to dig into a subject, but I think it’s better to say we work alongside a subject. You also need to observe what they’re doing, and be quick to capture that with the camera when they do. Sometimes it’s alright to ask them to pause for a moment if you didn’t roll the camera on time. It’s also tricky to ask a question in a way that will get them to answer in a full sentence, because if you tell them to do so directly it will make them very self-conscious. After all, they are not actors. If you keep on correcting them as they speak, they’ll feel like they are working, and not just chatting.
Music plays a big part in the documentary.
Leung: The great thing was that all the students loved music, and they sang a lot, so there was a lot to choose from. We chose lyrics that matched the story, so that was great chemistry.
Tse: It was also really interesting that the Band 1 students were singing really old church music, while Hoi-ting’s school did more pop music, and Lok-yan listened to anime music.
What was the toughest part of editing?
Tse: Finding linkages among nine subjects who didn’t know each other so that we could jump from one to another smoothly. We matched Brian talking about philosophy with Angel and Vicky’s views on studying, and there was a moment when Angel said she envied the younger kids, so that was a perfect lead into the 10-year-old subjects.
What changes were made to Leung and Tse’s edited version?
Cheung: Sometimes I thought that the views of the parents were left out too much, but by adding a bit of what they say, the documentary has a lot more depth. For example, we showed some pottery that Brian’s dad had given him, so I thought we should also let his dad speak in the documentary. It’s interesting because his values are very different to Brian’s, simply because he grew up in a very different Hong Kong. So picking a single line that the dad said, that reflected his values, brought a nice contrast to the film.
What was the most rewarding moment of working on this documentary?
Leung: Seeing the audience react to the film was great; there were moments when everybody laughed at places I totally did not expect them to, and that was amazing because we worked really hard on it.
Tse: It was my first time editing a documentary, and I think it’s ten times harder than editing a fiction film. The footage is often flawed, and learning to work around that to make the film work is a very useful skill.
The Taste of Youth opened on June 2.