Interview with Yuhang Ho: We wanted the fights to be realistic and nothing too flashy

Yuhang Ho was trained as an engineer but went into film-making due to his love for vintage films. He began his career by shooting commercials in the mid 1990’s. In 2000, he co-directed a Malaysian documentary “Semangat Insan: Masters of Tradition” highlighting the need to preserve Malaysia’s traditional art forms. He then made his feature film directorial debut in the 2003 film “Min”.He went to receive international recognition for his film “Rain Dogs”, won the New Talent Award at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival 2006 and also named best director at the Festival of the Three Continents in 2006.

His 2009 revenge drama “At The End of Daybreak” revived the career of the veteran actress Kara Hui, who was an action star of the Shaw Brothers era. “Daybreak” earned her seven best actress awards. She has since gone on to star in “Wu Xia,” “Rigor Mortis,” and “The Midnight After.”

On the occasion of the screening of his film “Mrs K” in Art Film Fest Kosice,, we speak with him about the film, Kara Hui, and many other topics

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It has become common knowledge that you have “resurrected” Kara Hui’s career, with your film “At the End of Daybreak”. Can you tell us of how this cooperation came to be?

I couldn’t really find the right actor for the mother role in DAYBREAK and then I saw Kara in INFERNAL AFFAIRS 2, playing Francis Ng’s sister. Something clicked. She looked great and I wondered where has she been over the years? I got her contact from Ann Hui the director and called her and went to Hong Kong to meet her. People had looked at her as an action star but not so much as an actor. She wasn’t getting a lot of jobs then. She was depressed and smoked a lot. There was this great hard knock quality about her and she’s perfect as the mother role I had written. She said: “This woman in your story, I know her inside out.”

Why did you decide to shoot a martial arts film starring a protagonist that is over 50? How difficult was this task and how did you manage the action scenes? How did she respond in those scenes?

After working with her on DAYBREAK I thought, I’d regret it if I didn’t shoot an actioner with her. So it’s more like I wanted to work with Kara again. She was 50 when I told her the idea. She said better be soon or her body might not be able to take it anymore. When the project finally took off, she was already 55! And she realized this would really be her last action outing, a real swan song to her illustrious action career. She would continue to act but no more action films. The shoot was emotionally and physically challenging for her. She took the role very seriously and insisted in doing most of the action scenes without body doubles! For some shots that we don’t see her face she would still do it because her movements were better than the stunt people. Once, she got kicked and felt unusually painful and we panicked. Luckily, it wasn’t a cracked bone but just a muscle problem. We were always very careful and she survived beautifully.

The fights close to the ending of the film are the most impressive ones in the movie. Can you elaborate on the way you shot these scenes?

We wanted the fights to be realistic and nothing too flashy. We had a way of saying it – nothing above the waist – meaning, no Van Damme flying kick type of stunts. So it’s a mix of rough street fighting and punchy strokes, definitely not bar brawls. We worked everything out beforehand, tweaking the movements to my liking. It’s almost like working out a dance routine. I wondered about storyboarding all those complicated moves. But the choreographer had phenomenal memory of everything he conceived so we didn’t need to draw anything.

“Mrs K” features a number of other HK action legends, including Simon Yam and Wu Bai. Can you tell us a bit about the casting process? How about the presence of Fruit Chan, Kirk Wong and Dain Iskandar Said. How did this came to be?

Simon I had met a few times and we wanted to work with each other. He also found the role interesting. It’s a little tricky to cast someone to play Mrs K’s husband. Any good actor would be able to do it, but that would be rather ordinary no matter what. So I thought of a rock star. That combination would have been a bit oddball but more interesting. I’ve always liked the songs of Wu Bai and he has a rather unique presence. He really wasn’t into acting but we started talking about the pleasures of B-movies and I told him the film is a bit like that. He was intrigued by the idea.

We wanted to get some good actors to cameo, for example, someone like Gordon Liu would have been great as he and Kara were part of the Lau Kar-Leung family. But he suffered a stroke and is wheelchair bound these days. Then my producer had this idea of getting famous directors, whose work I admire and who don’t mind coming over for a few days of fun. I know Fruit Chan could act and he was free. I’m a big fan of Kirk Wong’s films and wish he is more active these days. I was Dain Said’s assistant director many years ago and learned a lot from him. He killed me in his last film so I must kill him in my film as well.

The film seems to share some elements with Kill Bill. Can you elaborate on that?

I guess they both feature women who fight to the last when their vindictive men come after them. Kara exudes that sort of strong-willed quality and it was great to write for her. In this story, Mrs K is not a killer like Kiddo so we didn’t go the massacre route. We didn’t know what would become of her if we did that, and that might also be a pale shadow of Kiddo and probably less likeable.

To the contrary to most martial arts film, “Mrs K is characterized by a sense of realism, particularly regarding the limitations of its protagonists. Why did you choose this approach?

We didn’t go the superhero mode with mountains of body count and all that. Kara didn’t think that she should be mowing down everything in sight. It doesn’t seem like that kind of film and even if it was, I wonder if I could handle it well too. So instead we opted for a more hardboiled approach with “cooler” overtones and occasional spikes.

What is your opinion of Malaysian cinema at the moment?

Exciting works are far and few between. We don’t have that many good genre films.

Which are your favourite filmmakers/movies?

Tourneur, Keaton, King Hu, Kiarostami, Deren, Naruse, Scott (Tony), Leone, Melville, Marker, Ray (Nicholas and Satyajit), the creators of Looney Tunes..

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to continue cooperating with Kara Hui?

I am planing a horror film. It’s possible that I may work with her again.