Interview with Barbara Wong, Director of Girls vs Gangsters

Barbara Wong talks about taking her hit film Girls on the road with its Vietnam-set sequel

Barbara Wong’s 2014 movie Girls followed the joys and sorrows of three best friends. But when the time came to make a sequel, the director decided to take her hit film in an entirely new direction. Wong spoke to Discovery about her latest comedy.

Why did you decide to make a road comedy?

Every time I make a film, I try to look for a breakthrough. Since there aren’t many female directors in the industry, I always try to further expand the kind of films that female directors can do. It seems like road movies tend to be led by male characters. Look at Lost in Thailand or Lost in Hong Kong, for example. As far as I can remember, there’s almost no female-led road comedy in Asian cinema. That’s why I wanted to give it a try.

Girls vs Gangsters, movie, Barbara Wong

Why did you choose Vietnam?

It was chosen from a poll. I have about 100 employees in my company, and I decided to let them vote on where they would go for a bachelorette trip. The choices were: India, Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia. In the end, Vietnam got the most votes because audiences have already seen plenty of Indian films recently. Also, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia are probably too safe for a road adventure film. They felt that these girls would probably get lost or get themselves into trouble in a place like Vietnam.

Had you been to Vietnam before?

Yes, I’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and other places. I have a good Vietnamese friend who acts as my tour guide. That was just a trip for fun. For the film, I spent a total of four and a half months there so I could understand the country.

Girls vs Gangsters, movie, Barbara Wong

What was it like making a film outside a Chinese-speaking region?

The overall experience was good, but there were some issues as well. Film crews in Vietnam work at a different pace to Hong Kong and China – generally more relaxed and laid-back, while Hong Kong crewmembers are always in a rush.

Once Vietnamese actors sign on to work on a film for months, they don’t take on other jobs. They’re focused on that single project. They work a lot more methodically. That’s why the local crewmembers believe that if they can’t do a scene today, then they can just do it the next day or the day after. The actors are already there standing by, so there’s no scheduling conflict. That was something that we had to work out over the first two weeks of the shoot.

What was it like filming on the streets of Vietnam?

We had to do a chase scene at a very busy roundabout. I wanted the lead characters to be stuck there while they’re being chased by the gangsters. The problem was that we couldn’t shut the roundabout down because it would inconvenience too many people. We arrived in the middle of the night to plan and set up, so we could shoot early in the morning when there aren’t too many cars. Little did we know that the roundabout was already jammed by 5am!

Some people didn’t know we were making a film, and had no idea that we couldn’t move our cars because the crew was waiting for me to call ‘action’. We did go through the proper procedures with the local government, but that didn’t do much good because the people didn’t know what we were up to. We ended up spending several days at that roundabout.

Barbara Wong

Seeing Mike Tyson in the film was a pleasant surprise. How did that come about?

Since the film is set in Vietnam, I thought it would be fun to have a foreign actor in it as well. One night, I was having dinner with Raymond Wong, who used to be my boss and someone I admire greatly. He invested in Ip Man 3, which had a supporting role played by Mike Tyson. I asked him if Tyson was easy to work with and whether I should get him for this role. I told Raymond that I wanted Tyson to do romantic scenes instead of action. Raymond thought that it was a great idea and helped put me in touch with Tyson’s manager.

In the film, there’s a scene where the three female leads run around the beach without any clothes on, and that’s where they meet Tyson’s character. After sending the script, I received an e-mail from Tyson’s wife that had only one question: how would I shoot the scene in which the girls run around with no clothes on? I told her that the girls won’t be naked; that different objects would cover them. Then she said OK and asked me to send a contract.

And how was it, working with Tyson?

Tyson is actually a really talented actor. His comic timing and emotions were all on point, and he really came prepared. He’s really professional. Tyson lives in Las Vegas, so it took him nearly 20 hours on the plane to get to Vietnam. But since his salary was so high, we put him to work the day after he arrived. He must’ve been exhausted from the jet lag, but he still acted like a professional.

While we’re setting up lights for scenes, he would go to his assistant or his manager to rehearse his lines. We had no idea that a boxing champion like him would be such a sweet guy in real life.

Girls vs Gangsters, movie, Barbara Wong

Many directors say comedy is the most difficult genre to pull off. What do you think is the key to a successful comedy?

There are several obstacles to making a good comedy. One of them is the difference in regional humour. For example, Asian audiences may not find a European comedy funny. Even local Hong Kong comedies don’t necessarily work in the Chinese mainland. So comedy is often hampered by differences between cultures. I think comedies that travel well tend to have more physical humour than verbal humour, which is what I think Girls Vs Gangster has done.

You haven’t made a film in Hong Kong since 2010. Do you have any plans to make a film in Hong Kong again?

Of course. It wasn’t my plan to make films only in Taiwan or the Chinese mainland. It always depends on the stories and finding a suitable location. I’m happy to see Hong Kong cinema doing well, and I’ve never eliminated the possibility of making a film back in Hong Kong. I definitely plan to come back. I miss the crazy rhythm of making a film in Hong Kong, and it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken Cantonese on a film set.

What would be your ideal bachelorette trip?

I’d like to go to India. I love Bollywood films and I find the people in them really interesting. I love to watch them dance, and I know that Indian people love dancing in real life, too. I’m interested in the country’s culture as well. The next time that one of my friends gets married, I’ll try to get them to take a bachelorette trip to India.

I’ve always dreamt of making a film in Bollywood. I love how they break into song and dance in the middle of a scene. It’d be lot of fun.

Find Girls Vs Gangster on the inflight entertainment system this month. 

Girls vs Gangsters, movie, Barbara Wong
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