Released in Hong Kong and China in June 2010, Gallants has taken over a year to reach the UK and for the bulk of that time I’ve been raving about the film to anyone who’ll listen.

I was lucky enough to see it at the Fantasia film festival in Montreal in August and the film has been garnering widespread praise since its original domestic release and various festival screening such as this one. It has also picked up a slew of awards, including Best Picture at the 2011 Hong Kong film awards.

When Clement Cheng, one of the film’s two directors (he co-directed with Derek Kwok), recently visited the UK for the film’s UK premiere at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, I grabbed the opportunity to sit down with him and chat about Gallants and a number of other topics.

The first in this two part interview can be found below and focuses on Gallants. Come back tomorrow for more from Clement on the genesis of his follow up feature, Hong Kong filmmaking, his influences and much more.

Congratulations on your recent win at The Hong Film Awards.

Thank-you. I’m not really excited because I can’t take the credit, everyone chipped in. I’m happy because it is ‘Best Picture’ and that’s everyone. In that sense I’m happy. There’s more responsibility now and people are really focusing on my next thing. To me partly it’s luck, it’s always that way with awards. I feel so fortunate that we won.

Gallants and Merry-Go-Round [Clement’s most recent film] are both in very different genres. Do you want to move into other genres as well?

Yes, I seriously want to do a different genre for every film. This is my plan and hopefully it works.

Where did the motivation come from to make Gallants?

Derek Kwok and I came up with the idea of making a music version of Gallants and then we had another idea of bringing in 60s and 70s action stars and 80s and 90s action stars, with good guys playing the bad guys and bad guys playing the good guys. That would be non-stop action and the movie would be about justice, what is right and what is wrong. Those two movies didn’t sell for many years and we stopped trying to sell them to people. Then after, I think ten years, around 2008, we met up with our producer Gordon Lam and he said that he was interested in producing some movies because his boss, Andy Lau, was commanding him to make some movies. We told him a few different stories which he didn’t like and then at the end of the night, right when we were leaving me and Derek thought, lets tell him about those two stories but this time combine them together. And on our way out we told him the story and he thought it was interesting. So we went back and wrote a treatment and he took it back to Mr. Lau and he loved it, for some reason. I had no idea why at the time.

You both write and direct. Is one more of a passion for you than the other?

I hate writing. We both hate writing, it’s such a drag. The process is so painful and it’s so lonely. You feel so helpless in front of a computer. You just sit and think… [exhales]… lets get a bagel [laughs]. It’s just so painful but if I wanted to be a director I didn’t think out of the blue someone was going to hand me an excellent script and want me to do it for them, even though I hadn’t done anything before. It’s excellent training for me though and I believe in the writer/director combination.

Why did you and Derek Kwok decide to co-direct together and how did you share the work?

We’ve been working together ever since 1997 and we trust each other and know what we’re doing. We both came up with the idea and thought this would be something fun to do. Also because it was such a short period of time I don’t think one person would have been able to handle it. We shot in eighteen days. We had two cameras on set and just one set of lenses. We shot simultaneously, doing two separate scenes so we were always fighting over the lenses, for actors, fighting for lights.

You fought with each other?

Oh yeah, of course. Fighting over lenses, stuff like that.

How did you settle on the way the action was shot and what was this most informed by?

When I was growing up most Kung Fu movies I watched you could mimic and when my dad would take me to movies I would just go home and break everything. He so regretted taking me [laughs]. There’s something fun though, you could relate to the action, you’d think it was possible, you could do it. For the past twenty years though you don’t see that anymore. There’s too much CGI and too much wire work. I’m not saying it’s not good but I’m just getting sick and tired of watching those movies because you’re so distant from the movie. This is not from our world, it is so surreal you can’t connect with the movie because the action is so farcical. The priority of this movie is that I want to make something that people can watch and see is real stuff and think I can do this too. It’s something I miss myself.

We wrote down every single punch and move down in the script. Actually on the page. Just references for ourselves because there are different styles and we’re actually telling the story with action. Because we don’t know martial arts though it was just a reference of what we want to show on screen, it’s not the actual action. Just the storyline of it with action and then our action director would modify it and put his own twist on it and it would become the movie.

Our action director [Tak Yuen] is so awesome. He had never done a movie that was this small in his forty year career. We only had five days to shoot all the action! I have the utmost respect for him. He didn’t look down on us because we’re so young or because we don’t know anything about martial arts. He’s just like, “Tell me what is you want”. Then we’d discuss it and it would play out.

The film seems nostalgic about the past and not giving up on old people but also optimistic about the future and young people.

There’s actually a term given to young people in Hong Kong right now, called the post-eighties. The older generation are always moaning and complaining about them being too radical, that they’re too lazy. And I thought, that’s crazy. It’s not what I want to see in the city. The future lies in these young people’s hands. I think criticizing and condemning people is just too easy and by saying someone is no good it makes you feel good. It’s one of the things I wanted to talk about in my movies because no matter how young or old you are you still have your own problems that you have to deal with. Probably your biggest demon is yourself. When you’re in your sixties you still have to deal with things within you, unless you make peace with yourself. And I thought there’s no real difference between the younger and older generation so I thought this is the perfect movie to illustrate this.

And was the title Gallants your choice, I believe it was different in Hong Kong?

It’s only three words [Da lui toi], it means to go into the ring and fight. The Gallants title was also my choice. Gallants is exactly the opposite of the surface of what you see in the movie. These are just old beat up people and they don’t win anything, they don’t get anything and nothing has changed after they fight. But these are the people we should look up to. Objectively they’re losers, nothing has changed at the end of the movie, but subjectively to themselves they did something that they were afraid of for a very long time and that takes courage. Not many people can do that and hence, the name Gallants.

Gallants is released on DVD in the UK on the 25th of July.