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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, can you begin by telling us what prompted you to direct your own screenplay?

I did it because of this script [Claustrophobia]. I didn’t actually have a plan to be the director. The story of Claustrophobia emerged as a result of a brief from Johnnie To [director of Sparrow (2008), Mad Detective (2007), Election (2005), among others]. He summoned me into his office one day and said, “I want you to write me a love story.” And I said, “What kind of love story?” And he replied, “I don’t know, but the film would have to have a storm scene. A taxi’s engine would break down in the flood and the driver and passenger would be trapped. And there should be another scene in which a woman would be waiting for her boyfriend at a pier but the boyfriend wouldn’t show up. The woman would then stay in a cheap motel and then return to the pier the next day.” I figured it would be a detective story [one of To’s specialties]. The boyfriend must be a drug peddler, a fugitive. But To said, “Don’t go there.” He didn’t tell me exactly what he wanted. I spent a few months coming up with the first draft. Since he didn’t tell me what exactly he wanted, I did it my way. So the whole idea emerged from the taxi. I thought of Hollywood road movies, Wim Wenders...but it’s not possible to do a road movie in Hong Kong! There’s no wild west. Cars have to stop every block for the traffic. But is it really impossible? Well, here I am. Claustrophobia is some kind of a Hong Kong road movie.

So he commissioned you to write the screenplay. How did you end up directing it?

I wrote the script. He paid me some money. But then when I found supporters, I returned the money [chuckles].

But was he interested in directing the film?

He shelved the script for a year. I realized then that he was not going to make it. I read in the newspapers that he had many projects going on. I realized this film was not something he would do in the next five years. Nobody else would make the film. I spent more efforts on this script [than usual]. I wanted it to be born. So I became a director at the age of over 50!  I was given a small budget. So I thought I wasn’t doing anyone any harm. And I thought if this failed, I could just go back to writing.

You had assembled some kind of a dream team to make this film. The cast is made up of some of the most popular actors in Hong Kong. The cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing has worked with some of the biggest directors such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Wong Kar Wai, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Your production designer/producer Yee Chung Man was the costume designer for Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower [2006], which earned him an Academy Award nomination. How did you put this team together as a first-time director?

I didn’t know Mark Lee beforehand. The other producer [of Claustrophobia] Cary Cheng worked with Mark on After This Our Exile [Patrick Tam, 2006]. He talked to Mark. Our budget was low and we could only afford to shoot for 16 days. 16 days didn’t take too much of his time and he agreed to do this. Yee Chung Man is a good friend of mine. We first met making Comrades, Almost a Love Story [Peter Chan, 1996]. I wrote scripts for Yee [to direct] twice. First was Anna Magdalena [1998]. The second was And I Hate You So [2000]. We became very good friends. For my film, he didn't get paid. I was very lucky. Both Karena Lam and Ekin Cheng [actors] agreed to take a huge pay cut to do this for me. Otherwise, this would not have happened. In Hong Kong, if you say this is your baby, you can always get people to help you. But you need to repay them somehow.

Next: "For me, suspense and romance are not mutually exclusive."