“A Cautionary Tale, Born of My Own Fears of Making an Impossible Choice…”: Kristi Hoi on Her Student Short Film Showcase Short, No Law, No Heaven
Poignant and with astonishing visual style, No Law, No Heaven is a decades-spanning drama about love and regret set within Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City by University of California, Los Angeles graduate film student Kristi Hoi. It’s one of five winners of the 2020-21 Student Short Film Showcase, a collaborative program from The Gotham, Focus Features, Jet Blue and the Westridge Foundation, currently available for viewing via Focus Features’s YouTube channel as well as in the air, on Jet Blue’s in-flight entertainment system.
Consisting of three sequences, No Law, No Heaven features the same character as he ages from being a young boy growing up in the City; a young man working in his family’s restaurant and who falls in love with an itinerant Western photographer; and an older man mulling life choices, relationships, his sublimation of his homosexual identity. The short is an intimately and swooningly melancholy character study enriched by Hoi’s masterful use of camera and production design to convey both political history and the emotional weight of decades passed. Hoi, who has worked also a comic illustrator and storyboard artist, attended Savannah College of Art and Design undergraduate, school in Australia, and UCLA Film for graduate school. Here, she answers questions via email about the short’s inspirations, the visual language she worked out for the three sections, and the advice she’d give to future film students.
Filmmaker: First, what inspired the short? Is the lead character based on anyone in particular?
Hoi: When developing and writing No Law, No Heaven, I was really taken by two concepts: The first, being the Kowloon Walled City and its history. This pretty impossible place that is beloved by Hong Kong pop culture, a shameful black mark for the British, Hong Kong, and Chinese governments, and a source of fascination for the rest of the world. It’s a place whose reputation precedes it and is, unfortunately, very misunderstood as a result. The Walled City was famously known as a hotbed for crime, drugs, and sex work but at heart, it was simply a home for immigrants and those struggling to make ends meet.
The second concept that inspired this film is, very broadly, my family. I come from a family of immigrants who have gone through so much in search of a better life. My grandparents on my father’s side were refugees from China coming up from poverty with factory jobs and a small noodle shop, famous for my grandfather’s fishballs, in Burma (now Myanmar). They immigrated to Hong kong, Macau, and then the United States. On my mother’s side, my grandparents were immigrants from China to Hong Kong, physically paving roads to new areas of the island and smuggling new clothes across the border to extended family back in China. Half the family immigrated to Canada, then the United States. Because of generational, cultural and language barriers between my grandparents and I, there were many blanks in my family’s oral history and, in an attempt to fill these blanks, I began to ask myself, “What did my grandparents, and even my parents, give up for the sake of family? What were their secret dreams, abandoned and traded for a better life, that shaped the trajectory of several generations to come?” And No Law, No Heaven was born of a marriage of an incredible place and timeline, and filling in those blanks.
While there are pieces of myself in Ming and many pieces of my family scattered throughout Ming’s life, he is not so much based on any one person, but is the everychild ruled by filial piety. No Law, No Heaven is, really, a cautionary tale, born of my own fears of making an impossible choice: family, duty, and tradition, or choosing to care for yourself and to live and love authentically and without restraint.
Filmmaker: Yours is an uncommonly ambitious short, with its three different time periods. In terms of capturing aging and the passage of time in manageable ways, what were the strategies you employed and baked into the project?
Hoi: As a student film, using anthology style storytelling was definitely one of our greatest challenges and something that I was very adamant about from the beginning. It was important to me to maintain a very tight visual language in each of the chapters of the film, and I think the level of control we were able to accomplish is attributed to the intense level of collaboration between myself, my director of photography, Xiang He, and my production designer, Hakan Yörük, who were involved very early from the script phase.
In the film, there are many recurring locations in Ming’s life that you see shift and evolve from chapter to chapter. It was incredibly important to me even from the script phase of the film to have scenes set in shared spaces between time periods and to see the evolution of the space. The film was designed to take place in only a handful of locations because I wanted to create a feeling of uncanny familiarity since the spaces may look and feel different over time but the structures remain unchanged. I wanted to create a sense of a perpetuated cycle with all the complexities of memory, nostalgia, and trauma.
The visual language of the film shifts from chapter to chapter and evolves as we move through Ming’s life. I really wanted each chapter to evoke its own unique feeling and be a reflection of Ming’s experience at that given time, giving us three very distinct methods of capturing this film. Working closely with Xiang, my DoP, we approached camera operating and framing differently in each chapter. Chapter One, there’s a lot of fluid motion, framed in 1.85, our largest aspect ratio of the film, where we’re really there with Little Ming as he explores this wide world, seemingly full of wonder and seeing many harsh realities he is yet to understand. In Chapter Two, Ming is a young man who begins to explore his sexuality and has formed his own dreams and ambitions but is met with a wall he can’t overcome. We wanted to capture that whirlwind of youthful hope and nostalgia with the beautifully raw and frenetic style of handheld camera operating framed in 2.35 aspect ratio. In Chapter Three, we employed extremely static operating and a 4:3 aspect ratio, our narrowest of the film. At this point, Ming has reached old age and is being forced out of his life-long home. He’s been a prisoner of a life-long duty to family and tradition to the point that it’s all he’s known until this point. I wanted to highlight the stagnation and the routine of a life he couldn’t fight his way out of by creating a frame that’s very boxed in and narrow.
Filmmaker: As a follow-up, tell us about how you conceived the central interior locations of the short. Were they shot on location or a stage, and what were the most important production design elements of these spaces? And tell us about the Kowloon Walled City, and why you chose this as the setting for the short?
Hoi: The Kowloon Walled City was a largely ungoverned, squatters’ settlement that existed from 1945 to 1993. Located between Hong Kong Island and mainland China, this six-acre plot of land was home to over 50,000 people who lived in a maze of illegally built apartment buildings and businesses. It was a place that fell under neither British or Chinese rule, making the Walled City a welcome home for criminal activity like gambling, prostitution, drug trafficking, and triad activity. Locals dubbed it the “City of Darkness,” and it was a place feared by many. While the Walled City was most known for its seedy underbelly, most of its inhabitants were average people and businesses taking advantage of the cheap rent and freedom from persecution. Surviving multiple attempts at getting rid of the Walled City, it was officially and finally doomed to be demolished with the handover of Hong Kong back to China, tying up a source of shame for Hong Kong’s reputation as an international hub for finance and business. The Walled City was demolished in 1993 and has since been converted into a park, featuring traditional Chinese architecture, water features, and a small exhibit that honors the history of the Kowloon Walled City. And although nothing remains of the Walled City itself save for photographs and memories, it seems to continue to survive through people like myself who hold a fascination with it. The City of Darkness has been inspiration for many fictional locations in Western media including “The Narrows” in Batman Begins and as the playable map “Kowloon” in Call of Duty: Black Ops. There has even been an arcade in Japan that recently shut down, that was built and theme’d to recreate areas of the Walled City. Time and time again, the Walled City has inspired and been template for dystopic orientalist cyberpunk locales created by Western media and I wanted to reclaim a part of Hong Kong history by writing and directing a film where I could shine a spotlight onto one single life of a man which could be entirely contained within the Walled City.
In developing this film, I did a lot of research on the Kowloon Walled City. I read as many books and articles as I could on the place to understand what it was like, why it came to be the way it was and what exactly went on within. I fell in love with a compendium of photographs and interviews with people who lived in the Walled City in the late 1980s, called “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City” by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot. This book was hugely influential and a bible of sorts for myself and my team in production. I based my location decisions on what could have really existed in the Walled City as well as what I personally felt a connection with.
We shot on location as well as on a stage in Hong Kong. Exteriors and stairwell scenes were shot on location and all other interior scenes were shot on a stage, including the market and noodle shop. My brilliant production designer, Hakan Yörük, designed and executed the build of a set that was tailored to the needs of the story and yet could also evolve and transform with each chapter. I wanted the space to be able to tell a story of its own because this is a film as much about the Kowloon Walled City as it is about the protagonist, Ming. As a director, having the ability to execute visions of the film that I had in writing the script was truly a dream come true, creatively, and took an intense amount of meticulous planning between Hakan and myself.
Similarly to my DoP and I’s approach with cinematography that I spoke about earlier, Hakan and I worked very closely to hone in the visual language of each chapter. Not only was our focus to create an accurate yet fictional representation of the Kowloon Walled City in three different time periods, but also to build a world that enhances Ming’s story. Each chapter employed a very specific color and texture palette. In Chapter One, the colors are very rich, vibrant, and warm with textures being more natural and fibrous. Wood, metal, and woven baskets are featured heavily in this chapter. Chapter two, there are more man-made synthetic materials and textures being introduced, like nylon or plastic, with a more muted and neutral color palette that begins to highlight more cool tones. It’s a more grown up and subdued version of Ming who is figuring out life as a young adult and the world around him reflects that and evokes a sense of beauty and nostalgia. Chapter Three features an analogous, cool-toned, desaturated color palette and physical clutter and accumulation of stuff. Ming, now old, is stuck. What we see of his life is confined to his home and his fishball business. We wanted it to feel very lonely, stagnant, very much a reflection of Ming’s state.
Filmmaker: You attended SCAD undergraduate and UCLA graduate. What informed your choice to go from SCAD to UCLA, where you received an MFA in directing? Now that you have graduated, what are your retrospective thoughts on your film school education and how has it prepared you for the current work environment?
Hoi: My choice to pursue directing at the graduate level at UCLA was a part of my one educational plan from fairly early on in my time at SCAD. I had two great passions in college: one was comic books and the other was movies. And I now realize that it’s really the craft of storytelling that I love and have studied at great lengths. At SCAD I really wanted to pursue both Sequential Art and Film but both of these fields are incredibly time consuming. It takes more than 12 hours to pencil a page of comic art, and it takes 12 hours to complete a single shooting day. There’s only 24 hours in a day and it would have been pretty impossible to graduate in four years if I had pursued both of these arts in my time at SCAD. It made much more sense to focus on my major in Sequential Art and my minor in Sound Design in undergraduate school and dedicate the time that film really deserved in graduate school. In 2015, shortly after graduating with my BFA in Sequential Art, I worked as the key storyboard artist on a live-action feature film in China and in that year, I applied to UCLA and was very lucky to be accepted into their extremely competitive and world-renowned film program. I have now since graduated class of 2020 with an MFA in Production- Directing.
While I don’t think film school is for everyone, I definitely think my time at UCLA’s graduate film program not only provided me with the platform and structure with which to explore my voice as a filmmaker and storyteller but also learn the technical skills, protocol, and accumulate the experience needed to execute a film like No Law, No Heaven. Film school gave me the opportunity to learn everything that I needed to know about the ins and outs of production in a structured educational environment. As someone who had never even seen a professional film camera or even knew that there was an actual person whose job it was to keep the lens in focus before film school, this was huge for me. Before film school, I felt confident in my storytelling capabilities in writing and drawing, but I had no idea how to go about bringing my drawings to life with actors in front of a camera. Personally, film school really felt like I had found a missing piece to my own puzzle as an artist and I am so grateful for the education I received from UCLA. Coming out of film school, I feel very confident entering the industry, whether it’s on set, in the production office, or in post-production. I’ve had to do everything myself while in school and have award-winning short films to show for it.
Filmmaker: Finally, how do you feel your shorts have shaped your interests and abilities as a director, and what advice would you offer to filmmakers — in film school or not — who are engaging with the format right now?
Hoi: For me, shorts have been an incredible platform in which to experiment and hone my craft as a director. It’s a very unforgiving medium because you have to be very precise since you don’t have the luxury of a lot of time with which to tell your story. But the beauty of the short is that creativity becomes the product of limitation. Having produced, written, and directed four shorts, I’ve found myself exploring the boundaries of my own craft and style as a director. I’ve combined unlikely genres, like action and coming of age drama in GIRL FIGHT! I’ve explored various structures and visual styles in my shorts and have been able to create opportunities for myself to direct children, adults, older actors, and ensemble casts. Over the years, my films have expanded in form to tell longer, more complex and conceptually richer stories, and I feel a feature-length film or episodic mini-series is the next step that I’m ready to pursue. I’m currently developing two live-action feature-length screenplays, one of which is an ensemble period drama set in the Kowloon Walled City in the early 1960s and features Ming and Liam from No Law, No Heaven, and the other is a crime drama following a Chinese-American crime family set within the livestock industry of Dallas, Texas.
Advice that I would offer to filmmakers of any background who are creating shorts is this: create with your heart. I know that sounds kind of cheesy but making a film (short or not) is so hard. It’s never easy, and it’s never pain free. As an independent filmmaker or student filmmaker, no one is going to care about your film more than you do, and, at the end of the day, it will be up to you to carry your film through to an audience. Be authentic to yourself and what you feel passionate about because something that resonates deeply with you is, more likely than not, going to resonate with others. And don’t be afraid to take chances with your short. No Law, No Heaven was full of chances that were risky in many of my classmates and instructor’s eyes, and it was sometimes very painful to be misunderstood, but I had to follow my instincts and trust that my film’s audience would understand what I was trying to do. I certainly think that trusting my own craft as a storyteller and director has proved its worth with the industry recognition No Law, No Heaven has received so far.