Filmmaker Ho Wi Ding has best job in the world

The Wong sisters played by (from left) Joey Leong, Ethel Yap, Oon Shu Ann and Michelle Chong sharing a light moment.

The Malaysian director is having the time of his life with a new film, ‘Our Sister Mambo’.

Doors do open after a major award. In 2010, Malaysian filmmaker Ho Wi Ding won Best New Director at the Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, the country where he is based till today. The victory was doubly sweet because of the Herculean effort it took to make his debut feature Pinoy Sunday. But it only really hit home for Ho what a big deal the Golden Horse was in these parts, when his father in Johor described to him over the phone what he was holding in front of him – his son’s photo on the front page of a local Chinese daily.

The exposure surely was good; since he was 16, Ho had wanted to be a filmmaker.

Onwards to the beckoning future, Ho began receiving offers for various projects. And between trying to make his sophomore personal project, a road movie called Lonely Together, and perusing other offers, Ho forged ahead making two TV movies in China and a couple of short films, “to avoid becoming rustic’, he says.

The TV movies, My Elder Brother In Taiwan and The Biggest Toad In The Puddle, went on to the Beijing Film Festival and Shanghai Film Festival. The short film, 100, was part of the multi-director omnibus 10 + 10, while I Wake Up In A Strange Bed, about dementia in old age, won Best Short Film at the 2012 Taipei International Film Festival.

Fast forward to the present, and Ho and I are sitting in a cafe in Singapore, on a cool late afternoon after a downpour. He is in the Lion City to direct another film – Cathay Organisation’s 80th anniversary film, Our Sister Mambo.

At the helm: Malaysian filmmaker Ho Wi Ding made Pinoy Sunday in 2009, and the film is still taking him places, the latest to Singapore to direct Our Sister Mambo.

His latest directorial work is no small feat either. It was the ripple effect from Pinoy Sunday that got him the gig. That 2009 film, a dramedy about a couple of Filipino workers in Taipei trying to transport a couch to their hostel, is still talked about today, and was what got him on the list of recommended directors for Our Sister Mambo. Cathay’s executive director Choo Meileen, who is one of the producers of the film, wanted Ho’s light comedy touch for Our Sister Mambo, after seeing what he did in Pinoy Sunday. So, in a way, Pinoy Sunday is still “travelling” after five years.

“Once, a film festival programmer who had been following my work told me that in years to come, I would regret making Pinoy Sunday and would not want it included in my filmography, because it was a comedy,” says Ho. “He said it wasn’t a festival film. Well, I don’t regret Pinoy Sunday. In fact I’m proud of it because it has brought me a long way.”

Ho is no stranger to Singapore, having grown up in Muar, Johor, and made frequent visits to relatives in the island state. He even worked in Singapore for about a year, after returning from the US and before he settled in Taipei with a career and a family.

“I watched Star Wars in the Cathay cinema in Muar,” Ho, 43, remembers. “The logo is like (sings the theme music). The Cathay building is still there, but is now a shopping mall.”

Our Sister Mambo is loosely based on Cathay’s 1957 classic, Our Sister Hedy. To Ho, it’s not just a tribute to Cathay, but also to Chinese cinema.

Ho directing Cheng aka Xiaxue for her cameo role.

The film stars Moses Lim as the partriarch of the family, while Michelle Chong, Ethel Yap, Oon Shu Ann and Malaysian Joey Leong play his daughters. Cathay’s veteran superstars Datuk Maria Menado and Grace Chang (aka Ge Lan) will have cameo appearances, along with famous Singaporean blogger Wendy Cheng (aka Xiaxue).

The Singapore-Malaysia connection in Cathay’s long history is reflected in the film crew as well, with Malaysian composer Hardesh Singh and art director Soon Yong Chow on board. Soon is best known for his work on the massive hit The Journey, and Hardesh for his work on Yasmin Ahmad’s films.

“I don’t see many films like that anymore,” says Ho of Our Sister Mambo. “Back in the old days, you still had people talking about family values. But nowadays, filmmakers think this is old-fashioned and outdated. One of the reasons I took this job is the family comedy genre in the same vein as (Ang Lee’s) Eat Drink Man Woman, a rarity these days. In fact, Eat Drink Man Woman was also loosely based on Our Sister Hedy. But they made it three daughters and changed the setting.”

Ho says Choo expressly wanted to avoid slapstick comedy, and wanted the comic elements to come out of a situation, and not be forced. Shot in 23 days on a budget of SGD$1.7 mil (RM4.36 mil), Our Sister Mambo will be released on July 15 next year, a date chosen because of its numerals, 150715.

“I got to try a lot of things,” says Ho. “It was quite fun. There was a big dinner scene with seven people. Everyone was just exhausted after that, because we never left the room and just kept shooting. (Laughs)”

The support from Cathay has been great, says Ho. The level of belief placed on him has enabled Ho to do what he thinks is best for the film.

But when he first ventured out of his comfort zone and into China to make the two movies for CCTV, it was like “stepping into the Wild West.” He had to work with a crew of complete strangers.

“It was a tough situation to work in, but it was good training,” says Ho, who first came to prominence with his Cannes-winning short film Respire.

“For me, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care who I work with. If you have a strong vision, it doesn’t matter who you’re working with, as long as you’re driven enough. I don’t like excuses such as ‘I’m a visionary auteur, so I can only work in a certain way.’ For me, it’s like, why don’t I try to work in a different way but still try to maintain my own thing?”

Ho decided to become a director for hire while maintaining the momentum of developing his own projects. He cites Billy Wilder as an example of a director who has made films of different genres, from noir thrillers and comedies to war movies. He relates most to David Fincher, whose studio films are sometimes also his personal projects.

Lonely Together is particularly challenging because of its casting. It’s essentially about two women on the run in Taipei, a young Taiwanese surrogate mother who runs away with the baby, and a woman from China who is also fleeing trouble. It’s a bit like Thelma & Louise, but with “ordinary people in extraordinary situations”.

“It’s really hard trying to pair up two big stars,” says Ho. “A film like this would require a considerable budget. When you need a big budget, then you need to look at the market. And the market will tell you that you need big names because you’d need to recoup the cost of the film. That is why this is taking forever.”

He says after Pinoy Sunday, most people approached him to make comedies, not realising that he had made films about much darker subjects, such as Summer Afternoon, a black-and-white short film about a murder that may or may not have happened; and Respire, a futuristic short film about falling in love in a world devastated by a deadly airborne virus.

Ho (left), and actresses Chong (in black) and Singaporean celebrity blogger Wendy Cheng (in light blue) getting ready for a scene in a restaurant.

But whether it is Taiwan, the US, China, or Singapore, Ho’s experience has taught him that the one constant in the world is that people will always appreciate something good.

“They will appreciate it when they see good work, good people, anywhere in the world,” says Ho. “If you don’t take yourself seriously, people are not going to help you.

“But if you are trying to make something the best you can, people will get it. I’ve worked in New York, China, Taipei. They’re all different, but if you know what you’re doing, you have a clear vision, and you work hard, people will follow you.”

And despite the occasional challenges and obstacles which are part and parcel of the filmmaking life, Ho wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

“I’m having fun,” he says. “What other job lets you travel around the world and do what you like doing? It’s the best job in the world.”

Related stories:

A history of movies in the Cathay world

'Our Sister Mambo' reveals all

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