A Rising Star in Hong Kong Cinema Shares Her Creative Vision
Award-winning filmmaker Nicola Fan takes us behind the scenes of her projects, which often convey powerful social messages, for our series Through Her Lens
It’s not easy to fit Nicola Fan into one genre or label, and she’d rather you didn’t, anyway. “I never grew up seeing myself as an Asian female filmmaker per se; I never saw those identifications,” says Fan, a Hong Kong native. “I just saw myself as someone who really likes film and really wants to make a film.”
Fan's big break came with She Objects, a documentary collaboration with The Women's Foundation on how media influences girls’ self-esteem and body image. It was accepted to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Hong Kong and earned Fan recognition as a Gen.T honouree that year.
She Objects features a mix of real-life interviews, animation, and graphics, and mixing these elements is a signature of Fan’s work, as are social messages. Still, don’t define her as a documentary filmmaker per se; Fan also loves narrative storytelling. “I’ve been working mostly on stories based off of real life, but what I'm really interested in as a filmmaker is surrealism and fantasy—creating a fantasy world and even musicals.”
Fan is travelling to the Canary Islands in October 2021 as one of 50 participants selected for director Werner Herzog’s film accelerator. It’s part of her desire to continue pushing herself creatively, as is writing a narrative feature-length film.
“I’ve been applying to overseas programmes to really hone writing skills and bring forth my vision through words,” she says. “Since Covid-19, I realised, it’s time for me to develop more of my own stories. My ultimate goal is people wanting to see ‘a Nicola Fan film.’” Below Fan reflects on her creative vision and the making of her favourite scenes thus far.
You're reading Through Her Lens, our series showcasing the female visual viewpoint—and launched in partnership with The Women's Foundation, which strives to challenge gender stereotypes, empower women in poverty, and increase the number of women in leadership roles
Music has always been one of my favourite sources of inspiration, and it sparked my first self-initiated film project in 2013: The Eve, a music video for my friend’s electronic-funk band, Sonic MSG. When I close my eyes to quality music, I can often visualise a story out of it—and that’s what The Eve did for me. The video was about two strangers in a bustling city, connecting subconsciously through music. It was an opportunity for me to experiment with narrative style, mixing in graphics animation to illustrate the main characters’ dreamscapes.
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I met residents of cage homes and visited their living conditions while working on The Eve. When I shared these encounters with a friend, we decided to approach the Society of Community Organisation about a collaboration. It was my first documentary and a humbling experience in telling the stories of the NGO’s volunteer-mentors and young mentees.
One of my favourite interviewees was Ray, who was a bit reserved yet curious and playful (pictured at 9 years old in 2014). We asked him to bring us to his favourite spot, which turned out to be a corridor outside his subdivided home. His neighbours’ clothes were hanging across the ceiling. As I watched Ray ease into chatting with my teammates, I realised we’d been invited into his playground and safe haven. I felt this shot captured him in his element; this was where he carried the memories of his upbringing. (Watch the 15-minute film on Vimeo.)
More so than ever, nowadays we need stories to reflect on our times or put ourselves into someone else's shoes— Nicola Fan
A couple months after the release of Inspire Hope, The Women's Foundation contacted me to direct its first film project, She Objects, exploring how media create and exacerbate gender stereotypes. The moment I received the brief, I felt like it was my calling; the topic really resonated.
Many students were unwilling to speak about their personal stories on camera, so we utilised graphics animation to protect their identity and privacy. When I talked to these girls, it was a bit easier for them to feel at ease with me as a female filmmaker. I was still able to recall my high school experiences and I shared as well. I remember I would spent almost an hour just putting on makeup before school. Back then I thought I was the only person feeling these insecurities, but working on She Objects, I could see it reflected in the research.
We combined statistics and interviews with counsellors, professors, and decision makers from media and publication industries. I had all these voices swirling in my head. The editing process took time to fit them all organically within the 60-minute documentary.
I collaborated with experienced producers Jessica Kam and Patty Keung, who were so gracious in their advice and helped build my confidence. One of our discoveries was that feeling this pressure about how we should look comes not just from celebrities but from peers because of the competitive game of how we present ourselves on social media.
After screenings, audience members would come up to me and start sharing their most intimate incidents and stories. That was one of the most unexpected and pleasant surprises from making a documentary about a social issue. It really shaped me as a person and as a filmmaker.
In 2017, The Neighbourhood Advice-Action Council invited me to help visualise the stories of troubled teens in Hong Kong that it works closely with. During interviews, we learned that gang fights often occur in broad daylight on rooftops of homes, as the teens go largely unnoticed and ignored by their community.
We decided to craft the 15-minute short film Lil’ Tiger around a teenage girl’s first day out of a juvenile detention centre. This film-still sees Lil’ Tiger in an attempt to stop a fight by a rival gang against her friend. Among the many girls I met for casting the lead role, Rachel Leung stood out through her uninhibited performance.
Cha chaan tengs are a quintessential element of Hong Kong’s food culture. On Lil’ Tiger's first day out of juvy, we captured a glimpse of her relationship with her parents over a comfort meal. This outdoor shot is part of a montage where Lil’ Tiger frantically wanders the bustling streets alone, after being attacked by her drug-addled boyfriend. We wanted to show her anxiety, amid the backdrop of noisy city life.
I created my passion project in 2018 with the support of a dedicated crew of creative-hungry individuals. Daffodil, a 18-minute short film, combines my favourite elements of music, animation, fantasy, and live action. I was inspired by my fascination with the mind, and it was a chance for me to visualise a woman's introspection in the wake of her estranged mother's suicide. We looked for spaces that are so real looking and yet we had to make sure it doesn't look like Hong Kong—that it could be anywhere else, anywhere in the world.
In the film, the main character Mia, played by Lesley Chiang, travels down a multicolour staircase into her subconscious, in which the colours represent the seven chakras. It was one of the toughest scenes to shoot. We spent 3.5 hours setting up—just for one shot—in the Hong Kong summer heat without prior testing. Thankfully, we were all proud of the results, and it came out as I imagined. (Watch Daffodil on IndieFlix.)
Hong Kong Museum of History campaign
In 2020, I directed the Hong Kong Museum of History’s campaign for its special exhibition “Striving & Transforming: The History of Hong Kong Industry.” I did a series of interviews with the curators on Hong Kong's industrial development and unique product designs, and this is a behind-the-scenes photo from one of my favourites, in which Terence Cheung recalls his childhood, when families like his made plastic flowers or trimmed threads at home. Over the past decade, I’ve worked on numerous client projects, from conceptualisation to editing, and I always appreciate when they allow me this kind of creative freedom.
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