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Hey Kids, I’m so thrilled to present a wonderful chat we had with the creators of the wonderful film, The Drummer (Click here for our review). Director Kenneth Bi and Producer Rosa Li sat with us to nosh and chat about Zen Drumming, working with the human tornado known as Tony Leung Kai-Fai, the brilliant Josie Ho and the challenge of turning sweet Jaycee Chan (- Yes, the son of Jackie) into a raging punk rocker!


The Drummer


Kenneth Bi & Rosa Li



Mighty Ganesha:  I’m fascinated by the unusual subject matter of The Drummer. When I first read the title I thought it was going to be some light comedy about Jaycee Chan learning to play the drums. I’ve only seen Jaycee Chan in sort of teenybop movies and this is definitely not a teen idol movie.

KB:  I don’t watch those things, perhaps because I’m not seventeen anymore, so I don’t make those things. I started with an impulse, like when you’re walking down the street and something happens to you, this feeling that I have, I might make it into a movie. Or it’s like when you’re listening to some music, or it brings you back to when you were sixteen or seventeen, wow, that’s eerie and haunting and it’s a different world, but how do I make that into a film? But I always start from something like that. That’s what happened with U-Theatre.


MG: How did you first see U-Theatre?

KB: Actually, Rosa {Li, producer} said, “Well, there’s a drumming group in town, we’re going to go see them.” And I thought exactly the same thing as you thought, you know, drumming, you know? Okay, be-bop. I’m going to watch some drumming, boom-boom- boom-boom. I had no idea it was going to be so deep and so existential.


MG: There’s a lot going on with the spiritual aspect of what U-Theatre does and I thought you did a good job of conveying it without bogging down the narrative.

KB:  I don’t want to talk about it in the film, cos in the film you’re really interested in the narrative. I could hint at it, but throughout the writing and the making of it, I thought if I actually explained it, it’s a little … {heavy/convoluted}. My compromise was near the end, when he shaves his hair off and you see the whole transformation and there’s a long music montage, his father’s going to jail, he’s changing and we hear the voice of the master and he says, “We train in martial arts, not to fight other people, but to fight our own selves. To fight our impatience, our lack of focus, our anger,” so many of those things. It wasn’t about drumming. You see, I never actually said anything philosophical about drumming, it was all facts, the voiceover is all facts, but that alluded to the drumming, the martial arts.


MG: Which came first for you, the idea for the story of the angry son or the desire to put the Zen drumming into a film?

KB:  It was always the drumming first, because it’s about somebody changing. I had to know the character, where he comes from and what he changes into and where he goes after he changes. That’s why I developed a character. Actually talking to the drummers, they have a lot of young people that have similar backgrounds. Not necessarily gangsters’ kids, but young people who say they want to join the group for the drumming. Then they have to carry the lumber up the mountain to build those pavilions and they throw down the lumber, they say “What the hell am I doing here? I’m here to drum; I’m not here to help you build buildings.” And actually, some of the drummers you saw in the film, they were like that, wantonly living their lives until they found this group. I asked one of them, “What is the one thing that you think has changed in you since you’ve been drumming for 15 years?” And he said, “I don’t know whether its age, or the drumming, or the training, but I think about sex a lot less now.”  It’s kind of like that martial arts thing that I’m talking about, if you come back in your own animal, that’s why the whole film has this animal theme because we don’t know what we are. We are sometimes animal, but our instincts are normally animalistic. But it’s through this training that we - not suppress our animal - somehow the animal becomes more graceful rather than just getting what the animal wants.


MG: That analogy is interesting because you’ve got Josie Ho’s character, Sina, who is a veterinarian who goes out and rescues stray animals, while her brother, Sid, looks like a wild beast with his wild hair and the way he dresses and runs through the streets.

KB: And that’s a good point because the sister is the most clear-minded person - because she’s a girl, basically! I was just doing my first film and then just my life experience, you know, Rosa, I kind of concluded women are smarter, more clear–minded, stronger in general.


MG: So how did you actually approach U-Theatre about appearing in the film and telling their stories?

KB: After that performance I felt like in the film, when I was watching the drumming my whole life flashed in front of me. I felt like this is more than just drumming, so what is it? So I was very taken. I thought about everything that happened in my own life. How did those people on stage become like that? They were not born like that. A long time ago they must’ve been just like me, so something must’ve changed, and in the end it’s time, time and work. So I called some people who knew them and they let me talk to the boss, Lan Jie, and they took us up to the mountain where they were all practicing and it was very serious, I didn’t want to disturb them. Afterwards they sat down with us and said, “Well what are you doing here?” I said, “I had this huge reaction to your performance,” they said it’s quite common, that a lot of people come up to them tell them exactly the same thing, that they have this earth shattering revelation while they watch their performance.


MG: Where is it you filmed in Taiwan? Was that U-Theatre’s actual practice location?

KB: They train in Taipei, in northern Taiwan, but it’s too polluted, so we chose the southern part of Taiwan. We found a mountain that was kind of like theirs, but bigger, and we built it {the training compound} just like theirs. Everything you saw in the film was from their training, there was more, but we couldn’t put everything in.


MG: There is so much focus on spirituality, when people want to join U-Theatre; is it like joining a religious sect? Is one expected to give their lives over to this group?

KB: No. The short answer is they are a performance group, but they are unlike any other performance group, which is you do have to surrender your ego. They will run in the forest and they do all kinds of strange exercises that you can’t question. “Why am I doing it? I’m here to drum. You want me to be pumped up; I can go to the gym. Why do I have to do it through all these strange exercises?” It’s because the leader, she was a theatre person and she studied with a very famous Polish director called Grotowski in the US and they’d do these very strenuous exercises to train as performers, not as actors, per se, but as performers. So that’s why you saw those things.


MG: So it’s devotion not to a religion, but to their drumming.

KB: To art! That’s exactly it. They are loyal only to their art. Their religion is art.


MG: Was it easy to convince U-Theatre to be in the film?

Rosa Li:  They didn’t say yes right away, but we persisted! They didn’t say no right away, either.


MG: And convincing the other actors?

KB: Well, with Jaycee, I thought of him at the beginning. He didn’t know what type of film it was going to be. It’s like, “The Drummer,” he thought it was a musical about gangsters, so he wasn’t too sure. He didn’t know what it was, so he didn’t say yes at the beginning. Only when I found the money to actually make the film, I went back to him and I told him what the film was going to be, I showed him footage. And Tony Leung {Kai-Fai}, also at first he wasn’t too keen. We wanted a play a drummer! He didn’t want to play a gangster again; he wanted to play the master. I told him, “You can’t play the master because there is a master and he is the master in real life.” I would have had Tony Leung in my film but I would still have to find a father, because it wasn’t just about a gangster, it was about the father. It was not just a gangster. But when I got the money again, the schedule worked, a lot of the timing depended on the schedule. I didn’t have to convince him that hard, cos he was familiar with the drummers, so he knew what they were about. He was very eager to learn how to drum. That’s why at the end of the film, you saw a scene of him drumming with his son, because he wanted that cleansing as an actor, to cleanse all this evil and to play something spiritual, so I designed that scene just for him, so he can have it and he trained for the drumming.


MG: The other films Jaycee Chan has been in portray him in this very soft and sweet teen idol image. In The Drummer, Sid is running wild and we see him having sex and acting crazy. What was it you saw in him that convinced you he could play Sid?

KB:  I’m not sure I saw it right away. I had to like slowly bring it out. I mean every young person has that to them, but more and more young people in Hong Kong, they’re not as rebellious. They’re more docile now for some reason. They’re not even fighting the system; they’ve been mind-controlled by video games. If they want to go out and have a revolution or to play on their Playstation, they would choose Playstation.

I did some test at the beginning, some “anger tests” to draw the anger from him. Anger is the easiest thing to play as an actor, but it wasn’t for him for some reason, so I just had to keep drawing it out. I did rehearsals with him and Tony Leung; I think that helped a lot to have the father to play against. I did all these different improvisations and games just to get them going cos they only have one scene in the film. I didn’t want to do a typical father and son drama where they’re going to have to argue about, “You should go to do this,”  “No, I don’t wanna do this, you don’t understand me, dad! Why don’t you understand me?” So I wanted to do a father and son relationship where you don’t see them together, but you can feel their conflict and you can feel their love, but they’re never together. In the end, when they could come together, they come together spiritually at the prison. So I didn’t want to explain all this stuff to Jaycee, I think most actors don’t want to hear too much, cos it’s hard to grasp. You can talk ‘til your face is blue, but in the end they have to go out and do it, so they look at you like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, right. I have to do it. All this talk doesn’t help me that much.’ So what I did was I put them in these situations where they have to deal with each other, that’s not in the film. And then when they’re actually on the set, you don’t have to explain anything, they know what they’re doing.


MG: Now I have to ask about Leung Kai-Fai, because he’s hysterical in this, besides the scary gangster scenes he’s throwing kittens around and acting like a madman.

KB: Have you seen Election?


MG: Yes.

KB: I feel this is better performance than Election.


MG: Well, he won the Golden Horse for The Drummer, didn’t he?

KB: Yeah, he did.


MG:  You can see the difference between this and Election because in both film he’s playing a crazy gangster, but here he’s playing a crazy gangster with a soul and a family and responsibilities. Did you draw any of his character, Kwan from what he did in Election?

KB:   No, no, no. I never draw from other movies. I will borrow from other plays and movies to help with whatever I’m doing. I don’t research from those things, and I researched from some real life gangsters that I knew and their relationship with their kids.


MG: Were they open about that?

KB:  No, I talked to the kids. {Laughs}


MG: Okay, I can’t imagine a Triad member discussing his personal life with his kids for a movie.

KB: Yeah, and so that character was based on a couple of these people that I knew, and Tony Leung knew those people, too. Tony knew a little bit what I wanted to do and those people, and he goes, “Ahh, oh yeah,” and so he knew what they were about.


MG: Well since you mentioned doing research on real gangsters, I wondered what the deal is with cutting off the hands? Sid’s punishment for messing with the Triad leader’s mistress is getting a hand chopped off and allegedly Edison Chen has a price on his hands, too, because of his real-life scandal.

KB: Yeah, they wanted his hands. That was a coincidence; I don’t know how that happened. Well, you know the Japanese cut off the pinkies, so the Chinese like to cut off the hands.


MG: Speaking of Edison Chen, you mentioned in the Q&A after the film’s screening that you were limited in your casting ideas because you wanted a good guy and so many of the young actors in China now cultivate a bad boy image. Why is that type so popular and why aren’t there more Jaycees, the sweet type?

KB:  There are, there are. There’s one in Hong Kong, Alex Fong, very sweet and very non-threatening and all the girls like to watch him. But you know, those guys don’t make the high-profile Infernal Affairs-type of films, those guys are very “niche.” Little girls like those kind of stars. There are those, but I guess they’re not as profiled.


MG:  Was there any hesitation on Jaycee’s part to play Sid? Those opening scenes are pretty shocking for him.

KB:  I don’t think so, no.

RL:  He hesitated about getting his hair cut!


MG: That long hair was his?

RL:  Originally, it was. It started out with his own hair.


MG: So, we’re actually seeing him being shaved?

KB: Yeah, that’s him.


MG: Well, you can see the worry on his face in that scene!

KB: Yeah, it took a long time to convince him to.


MG: Which performance was more difficult to bring forth from Jaycee, crazy Sid or calm, Zen Sid?

KB:  Actually both were very good, but I would have actually liked to see him go further as an angry young actor. But its okay, he’s okay. If you ask him, he really enjoys those badass moments. {Laughs}


MG: He doesn’t get the opportunity too often.

KB:  He doesn’t get that opportunity too often in life, or in film. It’s my fantasy to be able to say what I want and to be able to scream at a big, powerful person if you wanted to and I think that was a thrill for him.


MG: And with Tony, which was more challenging?  He’s great when he’s the crazy gangster, but the scenes of him being the responsible parent go so much deeper.

KB:  He got it, he got the story. He got at the beginning we had to see the animal, and then later we see the soul inside the animal and it’s like Anthony Quinn in La Strada. Anthony Quinn in the whole of La Strada, he was an animal and it’s only toward the end that he falls in love with the girl and when the girl dies, that’s when he finds his soul, he looks up at the sky and sees a star and he sees beauty and then he’s no longer just an animal. That’s exactly the same journey that Tony Leung goes through. As soon as he understood that, the work is done for you.


MG: Here in the US, there seems to be a lot more attention on Asian films and films featuring Asian talent and I wondered if as a filmmaker you were aware of that increased interest?

KB:  I have, yeah!


MG: Where do you think that interest comes from?

KB:  It comes from China. It comes from China being the rising dragon. That’s it. I think film is tied to the economics of the culture that place. If you’re interested in that culture and usually it’s a powerful culture, like America. That’s why the whole world watches American films, it’s not that they’re more entertaining, it’s because they’re watching a slice of America and the same with China. And China is rising and people are interested in Chinese history, Chinese language, Chinese films, Chinese faces. There was a time in Korea; the economy was booming a few years ago, {there was} all this interest in Korean films. As soon as the economy goes down, the luster of those films, they don’t have that shine anymore. They’re less interested.


~ Mighty Ganesha

July 20th, 2008


Special Blessings to Kenneth and Rosa for being so generous with their time.


Click here for our Movie Review of The Drummer.



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Exclusive photos by LMD

Film stills courtesy of KenBiRoli Films






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