Sisterhood follows the trials and tribulations of a group of massage parlor workers in Macau. Photo: One Cool Film Productions/IFFAM
Sisterhood follows the trials and tribulations of a group of massage parlor workers in Macau. Photo: One Cool Film Productions/IFFAM

For Tracy Choi, massage parlor workers were the ideal people to represent the Macau of the past.

Her first feature film Sisterhood, starring veteran Hong Kong actress Gigi Leung, premiered to a standing ovation at the Macau International Film Festival in December last year. Some members of the audience wept at the end of the film that follows the trials and tribulations of a close-knit group of former masseuses.

“The aunties that I know in real life, who like the characters in the movie worked as masseuses in the ’90s, are very forthright and generous of spirit,” said Choi.

“They represent the Macau that I know best.”

Leung plays lead character Sei, a former masseuse or guuk mui (the film’s Cantonese title) who was raised in Macau but now living in Taiwan. Sei revisits her hometown on news of the demise of former best friend, only to be confronted with a Macau that she no longer recognises.

Much like Sei, Choi found a different Macau when she returned from studying film at Shih Hsin University in Taiwan in 2010.

“I could feel the atmosphere had changed and the whole environment was different,” said Choi.

Sisterhood director Tracy Choi. Photo: One Cool Film Productions/IFFAM

“It’s not just about the new buildings, but also the changes to relationships among people. In the past, you would know the aunties or uncles running the si dor [mom and pop stores]. But now they have all been replaced by 7-Elevens where different people work at different times,” said Choi.

She attributes many of those changes to the opening up of the gambling industry in 2002 and later the Sands Macau’s opening in 2004. The boom in the casino industry has altered jobs and lifestyles, she added.

“I found a lot of my friends working in jobs related to the casinos, not necessarily as croupiers, but other roles such as marketing or doing promotional videos for the casinos. Some of them were doing shift work in casinos, which has an impact on when they can see their friends and family,” she said.

Strong bonds

Like the characters in Sisterhood, Choi shares a strong bond with the cinematographer of her film, Simmy Cheong.

They have been close since Choi was 15 when she and Cheong worked together on a video project for a school assignment.

Jennifer Yu (L) and Fish Liew (R) stars in Sisterhood, a film about the friendship of a group of masseuses. Photo: One Cool Film Productions/ IFFAM

“I was the director and I had to find actors for a video assignment. She answered the call,” said Cheong, who is older than Choi by two years.

“Now she is the director,” Cheong said with a laugh.

Like Choi, Cheong also studied film in Taiwan where she chose cinematography over directing.

“I’m very quiet and a director needs to speak a lot,” said Cheong. “As a cinematographer I can focus more on how the film looks without having to deal with different departments.”

Stars of the film Sisterhood (from left) Jennifer Yu, Gigi Leung and Fish Liew. Photo: IFFAM

Their frequent collaborations meant that Cheong, who was also working on a feature film for the first time, could communicate with Choi by eye contact on set.

“We have worked together on a lot of short films and other projects. Someone on the set of Sisterhood actually asked why we did not need to speak to each other,” said Cheong

The future of filmmaking in Macau

Cheong and Choi represent the next generation of professionals as Macau attempts to boost the nascent film scene.

The film was shot on a budget of HK$6 million (US$770,000), with a grant of 1.5 million Macau patacas (US$190,000) from the Macau government’s feature-length film grant.

The grant made it easier for Choi to secure funding from film companies.

Gigi Leung in Sisterhood. Photo: One Cool Film Productions/IFFAM

“Investors are more willing to fork out money once they see you have a pre-existing amount of money on hand,” said Choi.

Choi paid tribute to veteran producer Ding Yuin Shan, who encouraged her to “knock on the doors” of film companies for funding. Ding was a teacher of Choi’s when she studied for her masters in film production at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2012.

Even with a grant in place, there were still “significant obstacles” to negotiate.

“I’m very lucky to have Mr Ding helping me. Even with a grant, if you don’t know the right people it can be hard [to get more funding],” she said.

“There’s also distribution and marketing to take care of, and it can be tough [for a first-time filmmaker],” said Choi, adding that she is grateful to One Cool Film Productions for assisting with distribution.

A still from Sisterhood. Photo: IFFAM

Choi has already decided on her next film project, which returns to the subject of Macau and the role of women in the city.

“A lot of films have been made in Macau, but not many about Macau. I want to do more films about Macau – especially about the lives of people here now that so much has changed,” she said.

Read more on the Asia Times report on the first Macau International Film Festival