Sitting in a decidedly Hong Kong-flavoured café in Prince Edward, Leung Ming-kai and Kate Reilly present as an old married couple, even if they’ve only been bound in matrimony for seven years. They talk over each other, fill in blanks, and speak in a shorthand unique to them – so you can see how they might function as a directing unit. Of course, Leung’s tolerance of Reilly’s crush on another man helps.

“You were also thinking about the hottest guy in the industry,” says Leung with a wry grin, when asked what brought the pair to Hong Kong.

“Sammo Hung?” Reilly replies with a nod. “I do, I think he’s kinda hot!”

The exchange demonstrates the easy back-and-forth of long-term partners – professional and personal. Leung is dry and understated. Reilly is animated and verbose. The rapport likely brought balance to the shooting locations in their first feature as directing partners, Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down.

The two connected “a million years ago” when Hong Kong-born Leung was studying filmmaking at Columbia University, in New York, and Minnesota native Reilly was a budding actor, working with the Polybe + Seats and the Peoples Improv theatres. The notoriously cranky Village Voice called her “a pleasure to watch.” Leung shot a film for a classmate that Reilly starred in and the rest, as they say, is history. She was essentially commuting to Hong Kong when Leung returned after grad school in 2008 to kick off a career as a cinematographer (Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk, Sylvia Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts) until they got married in 2013 and made the move back to Hong Kong permanent five years ago. To which many would ask: Why?

Leong Cheok-mei and Mia Mungil in Forbidden City.

Making a film in the United States, where they could both work, is a matter of either too many artists jockeying for the same Hollywood resources or navigating a sprawling, disconnected indie scene.

“Even in independent film the scale is twice of a first feature here,” explains Leung of the decision to remain in admittedly challenged, but action-based Hong Kong. In Leung’s experience, indie Hong Kong directors have more creative control and are less likely to succumb to what he calls “the mercy of actors.” Decisions take a lot longer to happen, he adds. “I think the stories we come up with are more connected to Hong Kong, too.”

Neither is convinced that Hong Kong filmmaking is on the verge of collapsing due to the need for distribution in mainland China, or being constricted by the National Security Law, in part thanks to a re-energized independent sector that has been buoyed by the success of films produced under CreateHK’s First Feature Film Initiative (starting with Wong Chun’s Mad World in 2016). Reilly sees the challenges as a force that has galvanized and unified artists.

“It’s important for me to be part of an intimate community,” she says. “We all support each other—in my experience—and it’s nice that so many filmmakers with very different aesthetics and goals still pitch in, because we need each other. And I find it exciting to be part of a new nascent community.”

Leung Ming-kai - Kate Reilly

Leung Ming-kai - Kate Reilly

Memories is the kind of scrappy, all-hands-on-deck indie pioneered by maverick American filmmaker John Cassavetes in the 1960s, so Leung and Reilly could be setting up shop as the Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands (his wife) of Hong Kong – if Rowlands had ever co-directed with Cassavetes. Both are steeped in the cinema they discovered as teenagers, and those influences can be seen in Memories. Reilly cites Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes and Mabel Cheung’s An Autumns Tale as early eye-openers for her, as examples of women making films in the 1980s – and long before she met Leung.

“These two women from Hong Kong were the reasons I started thinking about making films,” she recalls. “They made me think there was a place for me in filmmaking.”

In Leung’s case, the humanity of director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films, including the Three Colours trilogy, made a lasting impression.

“He’s got great technical skill,” he says. “He can be realistic, he can be stylized, but he’s always about the human aspect.” But there are more prosaic influences as well. Reilly admits to Eddie Murphy’s reversal of fortune comedies like Trading Places as a major factor in her work for their pithy jabs at society. “If I have something heavy to say I want to make it as light as possible. I think that’s how you reach people.”

Leung agrees, pointing out Hong Kong comedies of the era also had satire and social observation in them, like Tsui Hark’s Working Class and Clifton Ko’s Chicken and Duck Talk.

“I think indie cinema, because its survival relies on a local audience, takes a more serious path,” he says. “We know things can be hard. We knew the stories had the potential to be serious, but we thought, ‘Let’s make it humorous. Let’s make it light.’”