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Hong Kong director finds success in violence

“I felt that people were too comfortable,” says Soi Cheang, whose new film "Accident" is vying for the Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Soi Cheang has distinguished himself as one of Hong Kong’s top young directors by portraying apparent lowlives — and then complicating those portraits by highlighting his characters’ redeeming qualities. Now his work is gaining international attention, with his new urban thriller “Accident” nominated for the top Golden Lion Prize at the Venice Film Festival competition in September.

The 37-year-old director told The Associated Press in an interview Friday he has made a career of exploring dark, cruel characters because he wants to highlight the suffering of the less fortunate.

“I felt that people were too comfortable. They weren’t aware of society’s problems. ... There is a positive side and a dark side to the world. But when people focus on one side, they lose sight of the other,” Cheang said.

“I want to tell the audience that there is a different world out there. The people in that world might be a little extreme, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have any feelings,” he said.

Cheang has a penchant for monster-like characters. In the 2005 film “Home Sweet Home,” a disfigured woman who lives in ventilation shafts and kidnaps a young boy. The 2007 release “Shamo,” based on a Japanese comic book series, follows a teenager accused of slaughtering his parents who becomes a vicious fighter.

In “Dog Bite Dog,” Chinese-Canadian heartthrob Edison Chen plays a Cambodian orphan who kills on command like an attack dog. Beautifully shot in Hong Kong’s deserted yellow-lit streets, the gritty 2006 film was picked up by American producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty label for U.S. DVD release.

Cheang infuses all his characters with deeply human qualities. The woman ultimately releases the boy. The orphan rescues a girl who has been repeatedly raped by her father. The alleged parent killer turns out to have been wrongly accused after covering for his mentally ill sister.

Cheang’s films are also marked by nihilistic violence — many of his films end in mutual destruction — but he also likes to end on a message of hope, often symbolized by the birth of a baby.

“At the end, I still hope the audience can find a glimmer of hope,” Cheang said.

“Accident,” which was produced by Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, is less violent than Cheang’s previous films. To is known for his crafty, stylish action thrillers like “PTU,” “Election” and “Exiled.” But Cheang says the story of a team of criminals who design intricate murders that look like accidents is “psychologically violent.” The leader of the gang, played by Louis Koo, becomes deeply paranoid after a job goes wrong and believing he was set up by his fellow schemers and others, seeks revenge.

“It’s still about the dark side of human nature,” he said.

Cheang said he will next make a racing-themed film, also with To’s production company Milkway Image.