One-on-one with Filmmaker Nelson Chak-Hei Ng - Exploring the Asian American experience
Nelson Ng Chak Hei studied film at Emerson College and graduated from Boston University with a degree in International Relations. After returning to Hong Kong, he co-founded Stray Dogs, a production house specializing in advertising, while exploring personal stories to develop outside the commercial sphere.
iFilmFestival: Tell us a bit about your most important film so far.
Ng: "'Magic Kingdom' is set in 1997 against the backdrop of the Hong Kong handover. Kit, a middle-aged single parent, brings his son from Hong Kong to California under the pretense of visiting Disneyland. The son, Chun, realizes the real intention of the trip is for his own adoption.
On the surface, it is a father and son relationship story of their impending separation, for what the father deems as a better future for his son. We wanted to use this story to explore the often misconstrued idea that "the grass is greener on the other side." The concept of Disneyland, or the Magic Kingdom, stands as a symbol of the great American Dream that many immigrants seek. Immigrants leave their homelands, believing they will find better lives in a new place, often short-sighted to the downsides of moving. In often cases, the American dream is like Disneyland, just a mere fantasy for some.
With the recent political uncertainties in Hong Kong and the prevailing debate on race, immigration, and gun control in the US, the present situation makes it a ripe time to explore this story."
iFilmFestival: What were the key challenges making it?
Ng: "A key challenge in making this film was that essentially this is a Cantonese-speaking film but shot in the US. We didn't have the budget to fly actors from Hong Kong, so we had to rely on locally available talents in Los Angeles. Going in, we knew casting someone who spoke fluent Cantonese, who can also act and fit the part would be challenging, especially for the role of the son. However, we had immense help from our casting director Kara Sullivan. We were lucky enough to stumble upon Trevis Zhang, who we thought played the part of Chun immaculately well for someone who has no prior acting experience."
iFilmFestival: What’s one aspect that you’re particularly proud of?
Ng: "As mentioned earlier, I’m more from an advertising background in filmmaking. It is a great way to gain experience, but in the end, your work is to help your clients sell products or build a brand image. I’m proud to step out of that comfort zone and make something that I feel incredibly close to. And for having created something appreciated and seen by other people outside of my own friends and family. Pretty much everyone I worked with on this film was someone I’ve collaborated with for the first time. I’m proud of each of them for their work and involvement in this project, and I hope they feel the same way about the end product."
Trailer: Magic Kingdom (2020)
iFilmFestival: How did you get involved in filmmaking?
Ng: "My first glimpse into the art of filmmaking was around the early age of 12. I had family members working in an advertisement production house. I had the chance to shadow different TVC productions during my summer holidays. My interest in filmmaking only really started to take shape later when I was introduced to a broader range of classic films than in cinema and TV. For this, I have to give my Uncle, one of the directors of the production house I interned at, and my co-writer, Nicholas Shay, for all the great films they've shared over the years."
iFilmFestival: What new projects are you working on or are you hoping to work on in the future?
Ng: "There are a few short and feature-length ideas I hope I can develop into something concrete.
In the short-run, I would like to make something a bit simpler and less capital intensive. I'm currently working on another short film that I hope to shoot in Hong Kong. A surrealistic drama centering around a beleaguered couple who takes a trip to scatter the cremated ashes of their recently passed away child. Throughout this journey, they confront the ever-present void staining their lives, as well as wrestle with the haunting memories of their child. It's a story that shows how someone can persevere and find hope in the face of a tragic event.
In terms of long-term projects, I would like to follow the steps I made with Magic Kingdom and continue to explore more on the Asian American experience. Going back even further to the first wave of Chinese migration to the United States during the California gold rush. When we think about films set in that particular time and setting, we think of the western genre with cowboys and Native Americans. We are rarely told about the significance Chinese immigrants have. I think this is something under-explored from the research I've done, and I think I can bring something new and truthful about their experience. Given that this is a period and a feature film, it might be further down the line of what I can possibly make at this time."
iFilmFestival: What role do film festivals play?
Ng: "There's a vast role film festivals play for a beginner independent filmmaker like me. First off, it's a great way to expose the work to an audience. Secondly, it's a great place to network and find people with similar mindsets and explore films that you may not have stumbled upon by yourself."
iFilmFestival: What is your advice to filmmakers tackling the festival circuit?
Ng: "I’m no expert in this matter. This is the first serious film that I’ve invested time and energy in submitting to different festivals. I think having a festival strategy is essential. Understand what type of audience your film associates with most and target those film festivals. From there on, you can diversify a bit more and submit to festivals outside that target audience to see how your film may be received."
iFilmFestival: How do you see the future of film?
Ng: "This is a topic that I've debated continuously with friends over the past couple of years. The rise of Netflix and other streaming platforms, in a way, has made it more accessible for audiences to pick and choose what and when they see certain movies. But at the same time, I feel like there are downsides to this as films slowly move from the cinema to home screens. Films are gradually devalued and turning into what people might describe as "content."
I, for one, am not quite entirely sure what the future of film will be. However, I can say one thing for sure. That there remains a sizable audience who still view films as an art form. There are still people willing to go out of their way to find hidden gems instead of relying on recommendations from streaming platforms' algorithms."
iFilmFestival: Which filmmaker do you admire and why?
Ng: "This is a hard question, since there are just too many filmmakers I admire for different reasons. To name one would do injustice for the others!"
iFilmFestival: What film have you recently seen that you have admired in one way or another?
Ng: "I've recently seen 'Nomadland' and thought it must have been one of the best films I've seen in the past year. It's simultaneously depressing and beautiful, which I believe to be so hard to do. It's also rare that the films that make you question how you philosophically look at life and how you choose to live it. Upon finishing the film, I further looked into the film's background and found it even more impressive. A genuine film that uses genuine people as actors, exploring a subject matter that is as neglected as the characters in the film itself. I also admire how the director herself could make a film this honestly despite being set in an environment so far removed from the director's upbringing. I felt like the passion and dedication in making this film from all the people involved can be seen from the very start to the film's very end."
Thank you Nelson for answering our questions!
Interview by iFilmFestival on 19 February 2021