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)

NEW YORK, July 25, 2009 – Ivy Ho, director of Claustrophobia, which opened the Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF’09) presented by Asian Cinevision, talked to La Frances Hui, Senior Program Officer of Cultural Programs and Performing Arts of Asia Society, in front of a live audience about her new film, her career as a screenwriter, and reflected on the state of Hong Kong’s film industry. The one-on-one interview event was part of AAIFF’09.

Ivy Ho, one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated film writers, makes her directorial debut with Claustrophobia (2008). Born in Hong Kong, Ho began writing scripts for television at the age of 19. Her work has covered a wide range of genres, from romantic love stories to suspenseful crime thrillers. Her most memorable screenplays include Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996) directed by Peter Chan, July Rhapsody (2001) directed by Ann Hui, and Divergence (2005) directed by Benny Chan. Claustrophobia is her screenplay.

Watch the Claustrophobia trailer below and click on the next page link to start Asia Society's interview with Ivy Ho.

Claustrophobia trailer (1 min., 41 sec.)

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Next: "In Hong Kong, if you say this is your baby, you can always get people to help you."


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."

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."

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!