Filmart: HBO Asia Originals Chief Jessica Kam-Engle Talks Mining Local Culture for Broad Appeal (Q&A)

Courtesy of Jessica Kam-Engle
Jessica Kam-Engle

The industry veteran discusses her ambitious plan to bring binge-worthy TV series to the Asian outpost of the U.S. network and simultaneously provide a valuable platform to local talents.

Since joining HBO Asia as senior vice president of HBO Asia Original Productions in 2017, film and TV industry veteran Jessica Kam-Engle has shepherded acclaimed original projects that have a pan-Asian appeal, including the horror anthology series Folklore, the Taiwanese supernatural series The Teenage Psychic and the Western-style period drama Grisse, about an Indonesian rebellion against Dutch colonial rule in the 19th century. Deeply immersed in the filmmaking world in China before her HBO Asia appointment, she has looked after the 700-title Shaw Brothers film library at Celestial Pictures and produced Kungfu Cyborg (2009) and Just Another Pandora’s Box (2010) with Hong Kong director Jeffrey Lau, and documentaries She Objects (2016) and Coffee (2016), the first ever official co-production between China and Italy, following a stint at MTV Asia.

Kam-Engle’s filmmaking experience and personal connections, built through decades, proved an asset for the cable network, as she brings movie-production standards and local talents to the original productions of its Asian outpost. The series produced in her tenure so far have not only been well-received in Asia, but also shown on U.S. screens. On the heels of the network’s announcement of a new slate at Filmart, she reveals to The Hollywood Reporter the rationale behind creating the new anthology series Food Lore and offering a platform to the Asian filmmaking talents facing ferocious competition from Hollywood.

After Folklore, HBO Asia is working again with the Folklore showrunner Eric Khoo to produce the eight-part series Food Lore, this time using the food culture of Asia as the basis. Asian cuisine has a very broad appeal globally, so are you expecting a wider reach for the series?

Food Lore builds on the success of Folklore, which was a six-part series, each with a different director and story, based on the customs and superstitions in six Asian countries. Food Lore is made up of eight dramatic films by eight directors, each one inspired by the countries’ cuisine. It has a great potential to travel. After Folklore, I’ve been frequently asked whether we’d do a second season, and I’d tell them we intend to, but not in the same way. Horror is popular, but it’s also quite niche. Audience either loves horror or they don’t; there is no middle ground. You can’t force someone who doesn’t like horror to watch it. But food, as a theme, is more universal. It is also a subject that plays to Asians’ strength. Asian food is very diverse. Food Lore is still a drama, we’re not doing a travelogue, but the stories are centered on certain dishes. It could be about family, or a romance or a fantasy. The stories from each filmmaker are different, but all interesting and touching. Visually it might also make you drool.

Eric Khoo will be once again our showrunner. We also have directors and stories from Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are quite representative of Asian cuisines. Food Lore has a wider reach than Folklore, with the participation from eight countries. The idea is to showcase Asia, and talents and local stories in Asia, and to give the filmmakers a platform to tell their own stories. Together it’s quite a powerful series.

HBO Asia has announced its first original sci-fi series, the Taiwan-set series Dream Raiders. It is executive produced by Hong Kong director Soi Cheang (The Monkey King franchise). How do you characterize this project?

It is quite an ambitious project in terms of being our first sci-fi series, so it has a bigger budget, plus it involves cast and crew across the Greater China region — China, Taiwan, Hong Kong. The series will be shot in Taiwan, while postproduction and special effects will be done in China. The main cast — Vivian Hsu, David Wang and James Wen — are from Taiwan, and executive producer Soi Cheang is from Hong Kong. The teleplay is by an American writer and the story has a self-contained sci-fi structure, but adapted into Chinese dialogue. So it has the participation of the best in the region.

HBO Asia has in recent years tackled the horror, sci-fi, crime and kung fu genres, for diverse markets including Taiwan, China, Southeast Asia and Japan. What is the upcoming strategy for original productions?

When I joined HBO Asia about two years ago, it was focusing more on Southeast Asia, because that’s where our Asia headquarters is. So we worked more on projects there, and took on genres popular there such as horror. After I joined the company, I wanted to proactively develop in three directions: firstly, to geographically expand our production bases. That is, in addition to Southeast Asia, I’d also like to develop in North Asia, to achieve a better balance. This year, we have production bases and are shooting in 10 countries in Asia, and I hope the number will continue to rise. As we are expanding our production bases, we also hope to forge closer relationships with crews and talents in those countries. If we don’t go there, we won’t know the people there. For example, when I went to Vietnam, the industry people will pitch to me, and they’d show me stories that I didn’t know would be popular in Vietnam.

Secondly, we’d also like to expand in genres, particularly the genres that Asian is good at doing, such as horror, action, kung fu and crime. These are not only the forte of Asian content producers, but also genres that are popular and easy to travel. We started with these genres, and to me, they are sort of low-hanging fruits. Then we went on to diversify, and tried to take on more challenging and ambitious genres. I would categorize sci-fi as a more ambitious genre, as it requires a bigger investment — if the financial input is too small then it wouldn’t look good onscreen with the special effects. Also it is not a genre with a proven track record in Asia, unlike horror, in which we can find directors who are very good at doing it in, say, Japan or Thailand. But there is only a limited pool of directors who are experienced and good at doing sci-fi in Asia. So the challenge is to do a quality sci-fi production of a certain scale with experienced directors. I think HBO has the capacity to take chances, but we are not without rhyme or reason, so we look for talents who have experience doing it elsewhere. So I think, if anybody is going to do that, we should.

Thirdly, we’d also like to increase the quantity. When HBO Asia Originals first started, we used to do one to two projects a year, and that was plenty. But now we’ve ramped up the output volume to around half a dozen a year. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. We have to work with partners.

What is the criteria for HBO Asia Originals to choose the people they work with?

It all depends on the story. If I’m in Hong Kong, or Singapore, it’d be hard for me to write a Thai or Filipino story with local flavors and reflects the culture there. No matter how brilliant the screenwriter is, they can’t accurately portray the local culture. The best stories come locally. It’s not something a Hollywood writer can come over and write about. They’d have to come from the root. So I very much respect the source of the stories. If a local director comes to me with a good story, he might also have a crew he’s been working with. And it makes sense. But at the same time it might not be enough to make a quality HBO series, which is in itself something else. So at that stage I’d help them. We’d use our expertise to help them to shape and develop the story into a series, and create a solid script. It’s only then we’d greenlight the project. We’d get the best people and practices across the region. Our function at HBO is to bring the best practices from different parts of the region to make the production better.

HBO Asia launched its first documentary, The Talwars, in 2017, a few months after you had been appointed. Since then it has also produced The World Behind the Teenage Psychic. Will you continue to produce documentaries?

We are working on documentaries. Since we have two seasons of the drama series The Teenage Psychic — the first season debuted two years ago, and the second season has just been announced and won’t be released until the end of 2019 — there is a two-year gap between the seasons, so we’d like to keep the market warm and keep the audience remembering you with the documentary. The other thing is to expand the audience base. The name “The Teenage Psychic” might lead people to think it’s only for teenagers, while the actual audience for it is pretty wide, including older male viewers. So we made the documentary, which looked at the customs, traditional practices and superstitions in everyday life in Taiwan. People would go to consult psychics if they get ill, or ask whether they should get married or have kids. So I think audience within or outside of Taiwan would be curious about these practices, and it helps us to expand our audience base. Documentary is another one of the directions we will pursue, though not in large quantity.

Many of the HBO Asia Originals productions have been broadcast in the U.S. Is the U.S. market a consideration when deciding what subject matter to choose?

I’d make a preliminary calculation in my head, but my primary focus is definitely the Asian audience and to serve them. I wouldn’t want to appeal to the U.S. audience at the expense of that in Asia. Whether a series can travel depends on the characteristics of a particular genre. Take The Teenage Psychic as an example. From day one I knew it’s something the Asian audience would appreciate, but I’m not that sure whether the American audience would also. I know it certainly can’t get into China, because it’s about psychics. So geographically I had a pretty clear picture of where this project would work. So I dedicated my resources and budget accordingly. But The Teenage Psychic has been released in the U.S. It traveled much farther than we expected, honestly. That’s a good thing. It helped us to learn about American tastes. As for Folklore, from the beginning I knew it wouldn’t just be for Asia, it could travel very far. So as soon as we finished it we presented it to the big film festivals, including Toronto and fantasy film festivals. It’s taken part in at least a dozen festivals around the world. I’m pretty pleased that all the projects that I’ve worked on since I joined have been chosen by the U.S. HBO for broadcast also.

HBO Asia has been collaborating with China’s CCTV6 on a number of TV movies about kung fu masters. Will this partnership carry on?

Yes, it will. The kung fu series is about the “Ten Tigers of Canton,” and we’ve made TV movies about four of them now. We have a good relationship with CCTV, and we’re planning to make the rest of them. If any genre from China that can travel abroad, kung fu is on the top of the list. For us, it’s another one of the low-hanging fruits.

Do you have any other plans for the China market?

We will actively develop more partnerships in China. On the distribution side, we are already partnering with Tencent, so many of the HBO series such as Game of Thrones and Westworld are shown in China on the Tencent platform, as well as upcoming HBO Asia Originals productions including the newly announced The World Between Us.

What is your view on the current pool of talent in Asia?

There is a lot of content being made right now, but quality content is not that abundant. What is important is to encourage the production in each country. I’ve worked in China for 10 years before joining HBO, and all the Hong Kong filmmakers have gone to China, because they could no longer make a living in Hong Kong. There are so few productions a year here, but there are 800 productions every year in China. If you only give 10 percent of that to Hong Kong directors, it’d be quite a lot. So the industry is flourishing in China. As long as you have quantity, there’d be some good ones out of them. And practice creates good ideas and more talents. In the old golden days, Hong Kong used to make 400 films a year. When that happened, talents such as Andy Lau or Stephen Chow could emerge. But if the environment is barren, which, at this time, apart from China, the whole region is not particularly thriving. Most of the film industries in Asia are going through a tough time. On one hand, the impact of Hollywood is enormous. You can’t compete with something like Marvel. When you have a Marvel movie, all screens in the multiplexes will only show that. No one dares to go head-to-head with them. So it’s very difficult for filmmakers. In Singapore or Malaysia, or even Japan, even for a very talented filmmaker, they find it hard to get a few millions in investment. But in China, a web series can get a few million for an episode. Film industries in many Asian countries are suffering. So for us at HBO, for example when we made Folklore, the directors were all thrilled. Not only could they make the films they want to make, but they also didn’t have to rely on big stars. We tried to give them a platform to tell their stories, but they didn’t have to worry a lot about the commercial side of things — marketing, P&A, star power or availability. Also, six horror films collectively can make its presence felt. A lot of talents are being overlooked, so we’re happy to work with local talents.

What is your opinion about the strong star power in the series produced by Fox Networks Group in recent years, such as The Trading Floor, which was produced by Andy Lau?

Our approach at HBO is we don’t necessarily have to use big names to drive the series, but instead to use the series to make stars. If you look at Game of Thrones, at the beginning of the series the actors were not big stars, but now they are huge because of the series. We’d rather get good actors who can convincingly move the story forward. When I was making films in China, it depended very much on stars — once you get a star, you can make the film. So sometimes we had to wait years just for a star. It’s very unhealthy. And if it’s for theatrical release, you’d have to appeal to the audience to make them willing to pay the price of admission, so the most obvious selling point is to use star power.

Personally, you have a wealth of experience in the Chinese film industry. How have you been leveraging that to create original programming for HBO Asia?

I bring my filmmaking experience and personal connections to HBO Asia. What HBO is known for around the world are the quality series — Game of Thrones, Westworld. They are of movie standard in structure and expertise. So I try to bring my experience and relationships with filmmakers to make series that are of movie standard. I hope my filmmaking expertise can raise the level and quality of the series.