Many foreign-language films about the World War II centre on Europe and the US, but the battles in Hong Kong have been neglected. Chung Chi College presented the screening of Christmas at the Royal Hotel directed by an American director Craig McCourry. The story focuses on a Canadian soldier, a female journalist and a janitor at the Royal Hotel before the Japanese occupation, with an attempt to fill the missing piece in film history.
Prof. Grace Mak of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature is the film’s producer. She hopes to reveal what the war brought to society and families through the stories of the ordinary, and to pay tribute to the foreign soldiers. ‘More than 1,600 foreign soldiers died confronting the Japanese troops. It broke the hearts of their family members back home.’
Why does the story put the spotlight on the Canadian soldier? McCourry said, ‘The Canadian soldiers were sent to Hong Kong three months before the war broke out. Barely into their early twenties, they died in a city they didn’t know well.’ I still remember the Canadian soldier’s death scene: He reaches the hotel janitor with his field phone and learns of his wife’s pregnancy. Then he requests the janitor to play Christmas songs on broadcast to accompany his last moment.
The scene was in the director’s mind on Christmas Eve 2016. He attended a Christmas service with his wife Professor Mak. While singing a hymn, he was gripped with a mixed feeling: Thousands of families were torn apart at Christmas in 1941, which was supposed to be a festival for family reunions. The paradox then crystalized into the script outline and characters. As the then Hong Kong governor Sir Mark Aitchison Young (1886–1974) surrendered to the Japanese at the Peninsula Hotel, the script also centres on the happenings at the Royal Hotel.
Producing a historical film is costly. It was even more challenging to film historical shots in Hong Kong within a limited budget. For this reason, McCourry recruited local actors on facebook and filmed locally at Fort Davis and a stone house. The filming only took more than 20 days. More than 200 props are antiques purchased on eBay, which cost him almost a million dollars.
Learning from history, we can tell right from wrong. Isn’t it inspiring to know how the two filmmakers dedicated to restoring the historical images of Hong Kong?
This article was originally published in No. 545, Newsletter in Oct 2019.