Hong Kong’s homegrown zombie invasion

Feature Story

HKDI alumni Nero Ng Siu-lun and Alan Lo spoke to SIGNED about their recent film Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight to give us an insight into how they broke into the world of film

HKDI alumni Nero Ng Siu-lun and Alan Lo have turned heads with their Zombie movie, Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight. Far from making a movie that simply apes familiar film tropes, the pair have allowed Hong Kong’s culture and politics to seep into their work. While they are still early in their careers, Nero and Alan didn’t go straight from school into writing and directing a feature film. Their success is the result of years of hard perseverance. SIGNED spoke to the writer and the director to find out more...

Signed: Could you start by explaining what Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight is all about?

Nero Ng Siu-lun (screenwriter - Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight) The film is a (very loose) adaptation of the graphic novel Z for Zombie by Yu Yi. It’s about two eccentric and hot-headed young men, Lung and Chi-Yeung. They think of themselves as heroes, but they’re really just slick-talkers. When a mysterious monster starts transforming people into zombies chaos breaks out. Lung, decides to stop being a coward and risks his life to break into the infected district to rescue Chi-Yeung and his dream girl. And a lethal battle against zombies becomes inevitable!

Alan Lo (director - Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight) The movie turned out to be very different from the novel. Zombiology talks about overcoming fears. The Zombies in the movie are merely a plot device - not the scariest villain. You are your biggest enemy. The ultimate challenge is to conquer your own flaws and fears. Our protagonist’s biggest flaw is his tendency to avoid reality. But once he faces his fears that is when he becomes the most powerful.

How did the project come about?

A In 2012, Nero and I produced an east meets west online short called Zombie Guillotines. The production company looking to make a movie of Z for Zombie saw the film and invited us to work with them. It was my first directing job, so we were excited to accept the opportunity.

What did you hope for the project at the outset?

N Just for Hong Kong audiences to approach Zombiology with an open mind. It is not an ordinary zombie film - it doesn’t heavily reference the occult, nor is it a big-budget production. Rather, we incorporated a lot of local culture into the film. The zombies in Zombiology are not straightforward villains, they are a reflection of our human wickedness, our greed, our ego and our weaknesses. We want our audience to see that.

A Another message I wanted to highlight through the movie is independent thinking. Hong Kong has gone through a lot these past two years. There’s been so much negativity built up in our society and so much anger - and a lot of times the anger causes us to lose our independent judgment. We hear something often enough; we blindly follow. The zombies in Zombiology are metaphorical in this respect.

Where does your interest in zombie films come from?

N Zombies have been around as long as I can remember. I used to play Resident Evil (known as BIOHAZARD in Japan) when I was younger and the trend is still on the upswing in pop culture, Walking Dead being the latest iteration. Yet there haven’t been many HK produced zombie films apart from Bio Zombie.

A Zombies are universal. Everyone knows what zombies are - there’s almost no language barrier. It’s a versatile genre, zombie films can be action, disaster, romance even comedy. I wanted to create something which no HK movie has attempted before. I wanted to make a novel/movie/comic mash up.

Zombiology has been recognised with several awards and nominations - what accounts for this success?

N Quite frankly, a lot of the Hong Kong audience didn’t take to the film, many even bashed it. As I said, Zombiology is not your usual gore-packed zombie film. But I am glad that it was able to reach an international crowd, and that the panels spotted our uniqueness and recognised our efforts.

A It’s difficult to measure the success of a movie. Of course I was encouraged by the nominations, but I don’t know if I’d regard Zombiology as a successful movie. Having said that, this was an important project for me. As I said this was my very first directing experience. It’s a big thing for me! I spent many sleepless nights working on it. I felt like a student again - as if I was working on my final year project and I’ve now graduated from Zombiology. What I find interesting though, is when I was in New York a week ago for NYAFF, some of the audience approached me after the screening. Their interpretation of the film was completely different to what the Hong Kong audience observed. I was so intrigued by the fact that audiences from different cultural backgrounds see things so differently.

Does setting this film in Hong Kong differentiate it from other zombie flicks - what makes this film unique?

N The film is more than bloodshed and monster slaying. It discusses ethics and moral standing, family dynamics and regional concerns. Hong Kong people are a mischievous bunch. We may be money-driven, but we treasure our relationships more than our money. Especially our family. This has a lot to do with our geographic density - a huge population with very little land makes a tight community. I think this is what differentiates our zombie film from others. It may seem weird for anyone to still stay with their parents above the age of 30 in America, but this is very common in Hong Kong.

A I think, given that the story is set in Hong Kong, it’s inevitable that elements of local culture will be portrayed in the movie. It wasn’t really deliberate, It was just natural. Place any story in Hong Kong and you’ll get a few local elements slipped in.

Who was your favourite character in the film?

N The delivery boy, played by the talented Alan Yeung (Yeung Wai Lun, “A-Lun”; Best Comedy Actor for The 24th Hong Kong Drama Awards). He’s an amazing theatre veteran and a movie star-on-the-rise. I’ve always admired Wai Lun and I am so glad that he took this role. The character he plays is deeply in love. My favourite line in the film is from the scene when the delivery boy reassures everyone that he is fine after being bitten by a zombie - “Everyone, I’m alright! I bit him back!”. I guess he’s my favourite because of the great affection that he has for those he loves. I think I could learn a lot from this character!

A I see a lot of myself in Michael Ning’s character, Lung. Or perhaps I should say, when I crafted his character, I gave him a bit of my own. Again, this is natural. It wasn’t deliberate, it’s part of the creative process. You always reflect a bit of yourself in your work. Lung’s downfall is his tendency to avoid his problems. And it’s usually too late when he actually confronts them. He wants to achieve great things, very ambitious dreams… but he doesn’t think nor plan how.

How did studying Digital Film and Television at HKDI help you grow as a filmmaker?

N Completing group projects with classmates has taught me that movie production is all about team spirit; and team dynamic building is never an easy task. I actually met Alan at HKDI, we were classmates. You may share the same interests as other team members, but there will be little flaws in everyone that we must learn to accept. If you are passionate enough for what you’re working on, this part will be easy.

A I would describe my HKDI experience as an enlightenment. I guess what I’m trying to say is that creativity cannot be taught. What I learnt from my teachers was more formative, rather than anything technical, theoretical or academic. When you graduate, you might realise what you’ve learnt in HKDI was merely the basics, but the basics are the firm foundation you need to build on. Your teachers won’t teach you how to be creative as that simply cannot be taught, but they will teach you how to transform your abstract ideas into tangible pieces.

What is your favourite film project that you have completed so far?

N Hong Kong will be destroyed after 33 years; I didn’t give it much thought when I put the short film online and it took a good few months before it found an audience. Then suddenly the views skyrocketed. Many commented below that my story resonated with them. I never expected such a positive reaction from such a large audience. I’ve since then learnt to have a little more faith in myself and in my work. It’s just a matter of time before your work will be discovered.

A Like I said, Zombiology was my directorial debut, which makes it special for me. I devoted a lot of my youth to it. There was a lot of pressure, but when the movie was completed and I caught my breath, I felt a glow of satisfaction.

From where do you get your inspiration from?

N My nutrients are the tvb soaps of my generation, Japanese anime and manga and wuxia/sci-fi novels by Jin Yong (Chinese wuxia novelist) and Ni Kuang (Hong Kong-American novelist and screenwriter).

A My inspirations are my surroundings and foreign films. I have a strong interest in various social issues, but I like to present these ideas figuratively, in an otherworldly fashion. The passion for film has been with me since childhood, my mother used to rent DVDs every weekend which sparked my interest in film at young age.

What challenges did you encounter getting into the film industry?

N My earlier days as a screenwriter, or should I say, an aspiring screenwriter, were very difficult. There just weren’t a lot of screenwriting opportunities for a fresh graduate. Nobody knew who I was and I had no connections with anyone in the industry. I spent the first few years of my career doing side projects with my friends and old classmates. I directed a few films, wrote a few scripts. Most of those projects I did just for fun, but slowly viewers started to show their appreciation for my work. Slowly some of those in the film industry began to recognise my name. Slowly I got on track with my screenwriting career. So don’t be afraid to side-track a little. Persist, and things will fall into place for you over time.

A I’m one of the lucky ones that had the opportunity to learn from mentors from different fields who are all very willing to teach. Not everyone has this privilege, especially fresh graduates, to learn from mentors who genuinely want to help.

What is your advice for HKDI students?

N Be more active! Approach more people! As I said, the movie industry relies on teamwork - and we need new blood. So get out there and approach your seniors and alumni. See it as a cultural exchange opportunity between generations.

A I actually went to the end of year show just recently. It was quite sentimental. It reminded me of my own final year project and why I wanted to make films. Whatever path you choose after graduation, always remember your original goal. Remember, and you will never feel lost.