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Director Ivy Ho: 'I Will Always Be a Writer'

Karena Lam in Claustrophobia (dir. Ivy Ho, 2008). (Mega Profit Creation Limited)

Karena Lam in Claustrophobia (dir. Ivy Ho, 2008). (Mega Profit Creation Limited)

Claustrophobia is a story told in reverse order. Can you talk about this structure?

I am trying to see things from the perspectives of the female character. The end of the first scene shows the relationship has gone down. She regrets what has happened. She keeps looking back and thinks, “I was wrong. I should have quit a year ago.” This is a very natural process. When a person regrets something, she would look backward to detect what went wrong. The mind rewinds backward.

I actually find it very powerful that you used this reverse storytelling structure. When we finish watching the end of the first scene, we believe something dramatic must have happened between these two people. Then the film goes back to one week ago, two weeks ago, and so on. It’s very suspenseful. But by the end of the film, we realize almost nothing ever happened between them. It’s almost like playing a game with audience expectations. The film is drama, but it turns out to be also anti-drama.

That’s how it actually drew a lot of criticisms. The drama builds up and people expect to see the couple go to bed together, or have a fight but that expectation is not fulfilled. But in the beginning of any love affairs, there’s not much to show. It’s always serene, peaceful and friendly. As a writer, I am always interested in anything that happens before two people declare “I love you.” Everything that comes afterwards tends to be quite mundane. The mystery is over. So I try to lengthen the moment before the declaration. Average romantic stories are usually quite boring. They always jump to that moment of declaration. There’s nothing much to talk about after that. You can’t stay in that romantic mood forever. The relationship has to move on. It has nothing to do with romance any more.

And I feel that if I tell this story in a straightforward, linear way, people would think it’s really boring. By reversing the construction, perhaps I could inject a sense of suspense. For me, suspense and romance are not mutually exclusive.

You talked about how memories work, how people tend to think backwards. But when you made the film, did you shoot in chronological or reverse order?

We did it in neither way due to the time constraint. We had to finish shooting in 16 days. We had to shoot all scenes with the same settings together to save time. For instance, all car scenes were shot together.

I’d like you to comment on the title, or rather titles, of the film. In English, it’s Claustrophobia. The Chinese title actually means Intimacy.

Intimacy and claustrophobia, to me, can be the same thing. If you ask how love comes about, most people cannot explain. You can’t really pinpoint the moment when feelings come about. A lot of relationships happen in office spaces. Those office feelings and affairs come and go quickly. Nobody checks but people want to gossip, because most of the time, working in an office is a boring thing. You spend the longest time in your life going to work. You are caught in the four walls of the office. You spend more time with your colleagues than your actual family. It’s easy to fall in love, and it’s easy to gossip.

Nowadays, people fall in love on the Internet. But most likely, people fall in love in the office, in the church, in the classroom, on a crowded tram, subway, taxi cab. Love happens all the time. That’s why I put intimacy and claustrophobia together. It’s where love breeds. Do people have free will? Yes. But if you ask me, “What kind of person would you fall in love with?” I can’t tell you. I know it when I see him. But how do I see him? In the subway, perhaps. I’ll see love when it’s there.

Other screenplays you have written usually feature much more complicated storylines with lots of twists and turns. Claustrophobia is very simple. It is 100 minutes long, with only eight scenes. How did you come up with such a simple structure?

It has to do with Johnnie To’s request. He said, “Come up with something that can be done with a low budget, preferably in five scenes.” I made it eight, which is more than I was asked. Some people compare Claustrophobia to a stage play. If a stage play can do everything in three scenes, why can’t that be done on camera? When I wrote Comrades, it had 70 scenes. It could not have been done with a low budget. Comrades’ budget was at least ten times more.

Next: "I argue with male directors a lot."