Malaysian director Ho Yuhang sat down with Asia in Cinema during the Osaka Asian Film Festival, where he served as a member of the international competition jury, to talk about Mrs. K and his cinematic influences.
The action film is set to be screened at the Taipei Film Festival, the Shanghai International Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival. It’s also set for a theatrical release later this year.
Note: This interview was conducted in Cantonese. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This is your third film with Kara Wai, and you tailor-made this role for her. What is her appeal to you as a filmmaker?
A: After making At the End of Daybreak with her, an idea came to me. She won a lot of awards for that film, so I thought we should make another film together. I told her that since she started out as an action star, it would be a waste if we don’t make an action film together. She agreed to the idea, but she was already turning 50. She was in good shape, but she didn’t know if she could physically handle another [action role]. I spent a lot of time writing the script. During that time, she made [Peter Chan’s] Wuxia, and she was in great shape in that. However, she later told me that it was exhausting for her, and she told me to hurry up, so I couldn’t wait any longer. She could tell that she won’t have the energy to do these films after she’s 55 or 56 [Note: She made Mrs. K at the age of 55]. She loves acting, but she knows that she can’t physically handle the fighting and the injuries – and she really did get injured on this film. So from now on, I think that she’ll just be a non-action actor.
Q: Did she do her own stunts in the film?
A: Kara’s very stubborn. She has the experience, so she knows that it would look better [onscreen] if she did the stunts herself. Even in shots where you don’t see her face, she stepped up and did her own stunts. That’s the kind of serious actor she is. Everything in front of the camera has to look perfect. She’s a stubborn perfectionist.
Q: How long was the shoot?
A: 40-something days. The shoot wasn’t very long because the budget isn’t very high. But we spent a lot of time in pre-production. The actors’ schedules weren’t easy to arrange. We also had Wu Bai and Simon [Yam], so it was hard to make their schedules match. I knew that we couldn’t wait any longer, so we had to stick to a firm schedule.
Q: Since this is your first action film, did Kara help you in any way?
A: She did, but my action choreographer Adam Chan and I also did a lot of planning. We knew what direction we wanted to move in. We showed our plans to Kara and asked her for comments or if she wanted to make any changes. She had a lot of great ideas.
We knew the action had to have impact. We didn’t necessarily wanted to show her martial arts prowess, because we’re not making an kung fu film like Ip Man (葉問). The fights are supposed to look rough and messy, though they were designed by professionals.
Q: That’s something I did pick up on, that the fights very rough and tumble…
A: There isn’t a lot of technique involved.
Q: Right, was that intentional?
A: It was. I wanted the fights to look rough. We didn’t want moves that are done above the waist height. We don’t want people doing moves mid-air. It’s supposed to look a bit like Jason Bourne’s fights. It’s hard and realistic close combat with a bit of MMA.
Q: Adam Chan’s past choreography has a similar style, right?
A: That’s right. I like the impact. They’re very powerful.
Q: The story has been done elsewhere before, so did you do anything to make the script feel more fresh?
A: Maybe more in the way I shot it. I rarely used handheld before, but the camera has to swing left and right in an action film, so that’s something we did. We also thought a lot about the lighting design and the editing style. We also thought about the dialogue style, which isn’t very realistic.
Actually, I wasn’t thinking about martial arts films as my references, but rather spaghetti westerns. I’ve always liked the vibe of those films, the way they use close-ups and the way they capture people. I listened to Morricone and that style of music while writing the script, and I watched a lot of westerns at the time, like Leone and Anthony Mann. So those were my references.
Q: The film doesn’t really feel like it’s set in Malaysia – the family matriarch is played by a Hong Konger, the patriarch is played by a Taiwanese, and the daughter is played by a Malaysian. We’re not told where the film is set.
A: That’s right. We don’t reveal where the film is set. That’s how the westerns were. Spaghetti westerns were shot in Spain instead of the US, and that’s what this film is like. I won’t tell the audiences if it’s set in Kuala Lumpur. But I can tell you that it can’t be set in Hong Kong or Taiwan or China. It’s definitely set in a tropical nation. That’s how I designed it.
Q: So did you think about shooting elsewhere?
A: I did, but it was a budget problem. Still, I didn’t necessarily have to go to Indonesia or anywhere else because I’m not specific about which part of southeast Asia the story takes place in.
Q: So it was better to be in a familiar place.
A: Right. It was fine as long as I could find a house, a beach, etc. I just made sure to not show the Petronas Towers.
Q: Even though I know where the actors are from, that doesn’t mean that’s the nationalities of the characters, right?
A: Right. It’s supposed to be like a jiang hu (an outlaw society), filled with people from all walks of life. Why would Mrs. K fall in love with a Taiwanese? Why not? Macau has a pretty mixed population, too. If her old life was in Macau, it’s plausible for her to meet people from different backgrounds.
Q: Was the Macau heist [which is never seen in the film] in the script?
A: It was. I really did want to shoot it in Macau, but who can play the young Kara Wai? I couldn’t think of anyone with that kind of presence. That kind of command. That kind of cool. So I just gave up on shooting it. It was too expensive, and I’d have to go all the way to Macau.
Q: It could’ve been shot in Malaysia.
A: Sure. But if I really did want to shoot that flashback, there are some locations in Macau, like the casinos, that can’t be recreated in Malaysia. We can’t just shoot that in a random factory. It would just look weird.
Q: The opening scene features cameos by three filmmakers [Fruit Chan, Kirk Wong, and Dain Iskander Said]. How did you find them?
A: We wanted to get actors, actually, but then I thought, let’s kill some directors. [laughs] We had a lot of directors in mind, but many of them were busy. We’d thought of Bong Joon-ho, but he was too busy. I know Fruit Chan, so I called him and he was nice enough to agree to come. I’ve met Kirk a few times, and I really like his cop films, though he hasn’t made a film in a long time. He’s been in Beijing, where his production company is based. Many people were surprised by his cameo. He had a lot of fun, too, because I asked him to fine-tune his dialogue if it didn’t seem natural. So he actually had a hand in the dialogue you see him speak in the film. As for Dain, I used to work for him as his assistant director.
Q: So this film has the biggest budget you’ve ever worked with. What was it like to have a large company like Emperor Motion Pictures backing you?
A: They gave me a lot of support. Once we had agreed on a direction and they knew what kind of a movie I was making, they were okay. This is the first time I’ve worked with so many big stars like Kara, Simon, and Wu Bai. Wu Bai actually said yes right away, even though he hasn’t made a film in many years. I told him that this is kind of a B-movie, and he thought that sounded fun. He’s a big film buff, so we got along very well. He was worried about acting opposite Kara since she’s such a good actress. But later I realized that no matter what role he was playing, people would see him as Wu Bai anyway, so it was fine. I told him that he didn’t have to worry about not measuring up to Kara.
I used to have a bit more flexibility since I was shooting in an indie style. I could spend more time in certain locations. But this time, the actors didn’t have much time. They’d have to leave even if I couldn’t finish shooting in time. I had to do a lot of research, especially in the action department, and that meant Adam and I began discussions even before pre-production. Fortunately, I did a lot of research beforehand. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film.
Q: Did you do any improv like on Hong Kong film sets?
A: No, people always complain that I’m too slow, but that’s the way I am. I’m not big on improvisation. Of course, the action scenes were tough, but another really difficult scene was the meeting scene between Kara and Simon. It’s not a very long scene, but it took a long time to shoot because I didn’t want to shoot in the traditional style, with a master shot and a few other angles. I really did shoot it a few lines at a time. Simon and Kara don’t have a lot of screen time together, so it was a pivotal scene. It looked like a scene I could do in two hours, but it took a lot longer. It’s similar to the opening of Inglorious Basterds. That scene took a long time to shoot, too, even though it looks simple. These conversations are very difficult to shoot, even though the actors are just sitting.
Q: So I was a little disappointed that Wu Bai didn’t do any action like he did in Time and Tide.
A: He’s too old for that now. He can’t hop around anymore. He had a concert tour, so we couldn’t take that risk. He takes great care of his hands because he’s a guitarist. During the two-month shoot, he would fly off to perform then come back to the set. I had to make sure that we don’t mess up his hands. [laughs]
Q: Did the filming go smoothly?
A: It did, though we couldn’t be flexible with our schedule. It was tough to shoot in the rainy season, but we didn’t go over our budget. We had a lot of night scenes, and we’d have to stop for the rain. Then we would have to tilt the camera higher because we couldn’t show the wet ground for continuity. Those were the kind of troubles we faced. Still, the shoot went okay in general.
Q: What is the filming environment like in Malaysia?
A: It’s not bad, for now. Because people are very curious about it. They think that making a movie is fun, even though it’s not. We couldn’t borrow homes that were actually inhabited by people, so we just rented a house for a few months. It’s not difficult to apply for road closures and things like that. That’s why Dante Lam likes to shoot in Malaysia. He could close an entire road as long as he has the budget.
Q: A lot of film critics wrote that you were influenced by Tarantino on this film. What do you think about that?
A: It wasn’t what I was going for, but that’s OK. There are some Tarantino influences, but he’s also influenced by westerns. We both like the same kind of films, including the old Japanese gangster films with the strong, tough male characters. But we’re not trying to do Kill Bill. That was like a superhero film, and that wasn’t what we were trying to do. We’re not that crazy. We were trying to do something a bit more down-to-Earth.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your love for Hong Kong cinema?
A: That’s something I can’t get away from. I grew up on Hong Kong films, TV shows, and music. If you were growing up in Chinese community of Kuala Lumpur in the 70s and 80s, then your life is dominated by Hong Kong culture. We all listened to Sam Hui’s songs, then it was Jacky Cheung, Leslie Cheung, and Anita Mui. Same for the television shows. When Hong Kong cinema hit peak popularity in the 80s, we could recite the films line for line.
Q: Do you have a few favorites that you wish you can make?
A: There are too many. There are some films that are impossible to recreate or remake. I mean, you can’t remake Days of Being of Wild (阿飛正傳). The same goes for John Woo’s films and Security Unlimited (摩登保鑣). Those films are forever in my blood, but I can’t copy those films. How do you remake Final Victory (最後勝利)?
Q: Patrick Tam lives in Malaysia, right?
A: Yes! I know him. He’s taught me a lot. I used to go see him when I was just starting out. He would show me films. Also, screenwriter Joyce Chan is in Malaysia. We’re good friends [Note: Yuhang showed me that he was reading a novel by Chan after our interview]. They influenced me a lot. When I write something, I try to imagine what they would think about it, worried that they would hate it. That keeps me motivated to do well.
Q: Does Mrs. K mark a new stage in your career? Will you try other genres?
A: I will. I’m writing a horror film now. It’s rooted in a very specific region, so it can’t be shot in Singapore or Indonesia. It’s a story set in northern Malaysia, near the Thai border.
Q: Will you shoot a film in Hong Kong?
A: I’d like to. I had thought about a ghost story that could only be set in Hong Kong for the tight spaces, but I haven’t written it yet. I’d like to do that film someday.