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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)

Ivy, you have worked with many directors. We don’t usually hear the perspectives of screenwriters. What is it like to have your labor of love executed by someone else?

It’s a very mixed experience. Writers don’t usually have control over the end product. But then, it’s very complicated to be a movie director. For instance, I had to know all technical aspects. It requires a lot of hands-on experience. It’s a very physically challenging exercise. If you ask me to review Claustrophobia, there are a lot of things I would want to improve. And if I have to judge it as the writer, I would also say this or that was not well executed. So for me, it’s a good exercise. Now I know why a scene sometimes might not come out the way I expected. But sometimes it’s also just an excuse for failing to do a job properly. Now I can tell better. For example, it’s very hard to direct a person to act. I was lucky that the acting came out well [in Claustrophobia]. Sometimes, you have to work around actors’ egos. They are movie stars. They are very delicate. This is something I couldn’t tell if I was just a writer.

Do you think that directing helps you become a better screenwriter?

Yes, definitely. I keep saying: I direct because I want to continue to write. There are plateaus in all sorts of business. For a writer, up to a certain point, her pay would have reached a certain level or she would have written many stories. What more can she write about? In order to continue to write, you have to take a break, or make an excursion. So this was my excursion. I will always be a writer.

You have written many different screenplays. There are love stories. There are crime stories. Are there things in common among them? Are there certain themes, subjects, characters you are particularly interested in?

Every one of them is linked by the wish to explore how the human mind works. I spend a lot of time reading newspapers because they tell you stories that are actually happening which can be so bizarre that you can’t even find them in fiction. When I read, I try to figure out what goes on in these people’s minds. When they kill the entire family, when they buy in to Lehman Brothers’ mini-bonds, those are interesting things, much more so than fiction. Don’t think they are silly, because some day you might make the same mistake. I always read the newspapers because they tell fascinating stories. My job is to explore why people do what they do.

You have worked with both male and female directors. Do you find their interpretations of your screenplays very different?

I have only worked with one female director [Ann Hui]. Women are always outnumbered by men. Writers are always not welcome on the sets because they impose a threat to the directors. Ann Hui is a very nice person. She gives me a lot of room to create stories. She doesn’t change my writing much. Ann is a great team player. I argue with male directors a lot. I enjoy working with Ann a lot.

I don’t know why but Ann never asked me to write sappy scenarios. Almost all male directors I have worked with asked me to come up with something sappy, touching. I don’t know what goes on with these men. Some of them are very masculine. They make action films. But then they come to me and say, “Ivy, I want you to come up with a few very touching scenes.” There’s a tendency for them to think they are the gatekeepers. They think their films need to have the right kind of balance [between action and touching scenes] so that they would not be accused of teaching the young the wrong ways. Women are more relaxed.

Can you comment on the state of the Hong Kong industry?

It’s in a sorry state!

It has changed a lot since 1997 [the year Hong Kong was returned to China at the end of British colonial rule]. Now the industry is characterized by big budget co-productions made with companies in mainland China. Is there any room for films like Claustrophobia, or younger filmmakers?

The change took place even before 1997. I believe Cantonese films made in the Cantonese dialect will be gone in a matter of years. My most optimistic speculation is within the next 20 years. By then there will be one language for all Chinese movies, which is Putonghua [Mandarin]. Hong Kong people are used to making their own Cantonese movies, and I feel sorry to see it go. Many Hong Kong filmmakers are going to China or staying in China for jobs because there aren’t enough jobs in Hong Kong. When we have projects, sometimes we can’t find enough people to work on them.

But this is natural. People go where the pasture is greener. For Hong Kong as a center of filmmaking, the heyday is over. During the heyday, we made over 300 films a year. Last year, we were down to 80. But if you look at Japan, during the heyday, they had people like Kurosawa, Ozu. They had world masters. But look at Japanese cinema today. If that could happen to Japan, why couldn’t it happen to us? Hong Kong is just a city. But we are trying our best to continue making movies in Hong Kong. I am not really optimistic but I am trying my best. I am never an optimist. I have been a pessimist all my life so that I don’t get disappointed.

Actually, you are trying your best. You just finished shooting your second feature. Can you tell us about it?

I can’t tell you a lot [chuckles] but if you have seen Lust, Caution [2007], the film Ang Lee directed, you would remember Tang Wei. Tang Wei is in my next movie. She is very cute. You are going to see a very different Tang Wei. Jacky Cheung, who plays the school teacher in July Rhapsody [Ho’s screenplay directed by Ann Hui, 2002], is also in the film. It’s a romantic comedy. Part of it is in Mandarin, but 90% is in Cantonese.

What is your plan for the future? Are you going to migrate more to directing?

I will always write. I always say this: I won’t regret it if Crossing Hennessy [Ho’s second feature] will be my last movie as a director. I won’t mind, but I will mind if I stop writing. Writing is always the thing I do best.

Do you foresee yourself directing someone else’s screenplay?

Never. I am absolutely sure. I can’t explain to you why. I didn’t direct [Claustrophobia] to become a director. Just never!