Q&A: Ho Yuhang


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Malaysia's Ho Yuhang is very much the man about town, at just about all this autumn's major festivals. Having been to Locarno and Toronto with his latest film "At the End of Daybreak," which screens this weekend in the Window On Asian Cinema section, he is also in Pusan as one of 15 directors of the "15Malaysia" project. Plus, he is working with young film students as mentor at Pusan's Asian Film Academy. That's before tripping off to Japan next week where he will pitch his next film at the Tokyo Project Gathering.

A director who might never have been -- he taught himself movie history in the U.S. midwest and learned his film craft making commercials – Ho is nevertheless one of the most cine-literate directors. Critics have sniped at some of his past movies for being too clever, but with "Daybreak," a tale of teen love that goes terribly wrong, he has reached a more assured maturity with story that is (almost) linear. He talks to THR Asia editor Patrick Frater.

The Hollywood Reporter:
Where did "Daybreak" come from?

Ho Yuhang: I saw a piece of news about the death of two girls. The police solved the case very quickly and arrested a boy and his mother. The mother appeared at first to be implicated but they later released her. What interested me was that this seemed such a clear cut case, yet it was also so murky. What was the motivation? Was he really guilty? Was the mother in it too? What was the role of the girl's parents? I realized that everyone had blood on their hands.

THR: This film is faster-paced and more straight-forward narratively than your previous ones. What happened?

Ho: The editor on my last film was Liao Ching-Sung, Hou Hsiao-hsien's regular editor. He said to me that I should try to deliver something faster and more direct, though not to go as far as Tony Scott. I was surprised coming from him as Hou is known for his slow camera movements and languor, but Liao said that he had a problem with people being vague. This was a real challenge to me. So I started watching older films again.

THR: How so?

Ho: I trained as an engineer, not as a film student. I watched a lot of 1930s-1950s Hollywood films and went back to watching silent films and films noir. I realized that many of the directors of these films were facing budget problems, but that they managed to say many things despite the limitations. They had a simple direct style and were edited lean. I tried working a lot with rhythm and deliberately stopped being so arty – slow and ponderous, with master shots and not many close-ups. Now I joke with [Thai director] Pen-ek Ratanaruang that we're moving in opposite directions. He has gone from a fast, fun commercial style to something darker and slower, while maybe I'll be Tony Scott for my next movie.

THR: What is your next project?

Ho: What I'm pitching at Tokyo is a black comedy that is called "Dirty Verdict" though I may change that to "Women And Children First." It is about a murder that is about to happen and a housewife who was a thief and whose past is catching up with her. I'm also working on a melodrama that will be more for the Malaysian market about a middle-aged gambler who has a Lolita-like obsession, a bit like Renoir's "La Chienne" which Fritz Lang remade as "Scarlet Street."

THR: That's very different from the omnibus film "15Malaysia" you also have in the festival.

Ho: This was the idea of Pete Teo, the prominent musician and actor, who convinced a prominent wireless and broadband company that instead of making a very expensive advertising campaign, they should instead fund this. It is essentially a collection of 15 shorts with socio-political themes each of three-to-five minutes. And indeed it has become a pop-culture phenomenon. At its peak, the project's YouTube channel was the 10th most watched channel of its kind in the world as people watched the release of the films staggered over 30 days.

THR: Speaking of commercials, you do some of them, too.

Ho: Yes, I direct a few, but I'm known for turning down their scripts and being difficult. Actually, I'm better known for being 'in' commercials. I appeared in a mortgage company commercial about eight years ago and am still stopped in the street by people who recognize me from that. I also did one for our national car brand, the Proton, which proved very popular and generated lots of spinoffs. You know buy one, get one free. Scorsese also appears in a lot of his own commercials believe, for American Express and a phone company.

THR: OK, this film literacy. Where did that come from?

Ho: I was educated as an engineer at Iowa State University and stuck it for two years before I switched it for filmmaking and a life with no guarantees. Honestly, I was a geek and had no expectation of success. I went through Leonard Maltin's video guide. It took me two months to read the 800 pages. I went through every entry. So I learned film in a long-winded way remembering the names of the people who got lots of stars and sure that I could not watch their films in Malaysia. I started with commercials, struggled for information and learned lots each time. I'm an outsider and I kept moving around from company to company, next as a freelance line producer, then as an AD. Then I got a simple story to do for TV. And so it went.

THR: Now you have your own production company, Paperheart.

Ho: Yes I'm sometimes involved as I'm genuinely interested in production. But the finance side I leave entirely to my business partner Lorna Tee. I get bored and have nothing to say in this department. For instance, it was her who put "Daybreak" together as the first Malaysian-Korean co-production. But I'm here in Pusan, too, with the first film by Charlotte Lim, a Malaysian filmmaker I'd like to help get off the ground.

THR: Malaysian filmmakers have been gaining attention on the international festival circuit, but there is also a growing mainstream sector, too. Where do you fit in?

Ho: People like us are not making the usual money grabbing blockbusters. Those are mostly horror or romances and strictly for the local market. We make very low-budget films.

THR: Is there a middle way.

Ho: Probably not. One of our best directors and one of the ones who was trying to bridge that gap was Yasmin Ahmad, who died earlier this year.