A Career of Trailblazing: Josie Ho, From Hong Kong to the World
Josie Ho stands across from me as an assistant refreshes her makeup. I take this chance to recollect my thoughts, open my reporter’s notebook, and take in the person mere inches away from me — someone many would call a cultural icon. I would find myself in agreement with the epithet. It would be inaccurate to call Josie Ho a jack of all trades, and would really do more justice to call the Hong Kong actress, singer, and director for what she really is: a virtuoso in the art of wearing many, many hats.
Some might remember Ho for her role in Contagion (2011), a medical thriller that chillingly predicted the events of the coronavirus outbreak. Others might recall the actress for her performance in the slasher film Dream Home (2010), where her character Cheng Lai-sheung stopped at nothing (and we really mean nothing) to own her dream home. With a deep-seated desire to take on out-of-the-box characters, Ho quickly found herself unsatisfied with the lack of roles that pushed the envelope in the film ecosystem. Embodying Lai-sheung’s persistence, Ho solved the problem by founding her own film company 852 Films, with a mission statement of uniting the East and the West, to create them herself.
This year’s New York Asian Film Festival featured and paid tribute to Ho, who starred in 852 Films produced Dream Home (2010), Full Strike (2015), and directed the musical documentary Finding Bliss: Fire and Ice – The Director’s Cut (2022), a film which followed Hong Kong creatives as they traveled to Iceland for a quest of self-discovery. We spoke with Josie about her time in Iceland, the importance of self-care, and what creative endeavors she’s pursuing next.
Dream Home been out for over a decade now. When it first came out, you said in an interview that you believed that this film would surprise Hong Kong. What has the reception been like for those who have seen it, a decade later?
We always do things that are a little bit experimental. At the time, when we shot Dream Home, we had this story by director and scriptwriter, Ho-Cheung Pang. I found it to be a very meaningful story that might be able to touch a lot of people’s hearts because there was a real housing problem in Hong Kong. It’s kind of the same as New York, very expensive. I took this idea to a lot of experienced, very famous producers. At that time, Conroy and I were starting our company 852 Films. Many experienced people told us that [the film] might be just a little bit too risky for us because we’re just starting out with a film company, and we don’t want to fail.
Still, I just felt that there was something in this film that could definitely touch people’s hearts, and it’s definitely 100% entertaining because, at that time, there weren’t many slasher films in Hong Kong. In the 80s. there were a lot of slasher indie films, but then after the 90s, there were a lot of love stories, rom-com, and action, men-driven films, and it kind of killed it for us.
The reception was as expected, we thought we would have shocked everybody. And we did. Half didn’t like it, and many young kids loved it. In Hong Kong, there was a mysterious crowd, an audience who goes to the cinema at around 12 noon, and they would take the noon show. Every day on the noontime show, it was a full house. We found somebody to go down to the cinema to check out who those people are, and we found out they were a big bunch of housewives who love to watch this kind of film. It surprised us; we’ve touched their hearts too. We were really fortunate and very proud.
Was it a club?
I think they did have a club. I’m not so sure, but I was really surprised. We were all really surprised. Even the director was surprised when we told him. We have to thank those people.
In your film, Finding Bliss: Fire and Ice, why did you choose Iceland as the primary location of focus?
Because of the stressful world, and because of people in Hong Kong, they were worried about the recent pressures. Lots of people suffered from mental illness. Some even took their own lives. This film was dedicated to those people. Most of the people in Hong Kong, and the world that we’re living in, are in stressful times. In this documentary, we were hoping to find perspective for everyone, to be able to find bliss or sense a bit of happiness again. The main theory of this came from my creative director, Jim Chim. I’m just the one who realized the problem and wanted to make a project about it. I looked for Jim Chim because I went to his performance acting class before. He also teaches clown classes. He’s super funny, I remember when I was in his class, I knew I wanted to make a program that gives people another option to find happiness, but I was trying to find it for myself first. What was my happiest moment? I discovered that when I went to his class. I followed him for quite a few weeks, [and] during his classes from nine to five every day, I was laughing. We had about 40 people in the class and everyone was laughing so hard we were in tears. It’s just simple games he teaches to make people realize the joy and the pleasure of performance. I thought, maybe, by bringing these types of samples and demonstrations, these games to everyone might be able to offer another option for everybody to find happiness.
When did you find yourself laughing the hardest?
In class, every student has to discover their own inner idiot. If we don’t find out how stupid we are, we simply won’t accept how talented we are, so we have to kind of show idiocracy to our classmates. There were games about how to work as a team and the game of major and minor. The person who catches the ball is the major, and the major person needs to lead the minor. When a major finally loses interest, he or she has to throw the ball to the minor person, so the minor person will become a major. Everybody gets a turn and everybody gets to be the idiot.
What differences did you find between Icelandic and Hong Kong culture?
I think for Hong Kong people, it’s because Bjork and Sigur Ros has attracted a lot of musicians and attention. The level of music they can play in Iceland, it’s really too magnificent for us, so to go to Iceland was a very naive thought because it’s like the number one wish list location that all musicians want to go to. It’s so exotic, far away, and not easy to get to.
What would you say is the main lesson from your time in Iceland?
We wanted to find out why Icelandic people feel so free, and why they’re so open. We wanted to find out why 95% of the population can play an instrument and sing. The answer was because of their fluctuating weather. When we arrived in Iceland, I remember we went during Chinese New Year’s. Chinese New Year’s is always at the beginning of the year, and there was this tropical storm. Hong Kong people would call it a typhoon. But it was just a very serious storm for them.
Our production manager Gigi, at the end of the gig, invited us to her house for dinner. She collects a lot of ornaments, little nice things, and we had too many people in our crew. I was trying to remind everyone not to knock down her things. Gigi told us that it’s okay, everything can be knocked down, you can throw my cutlery away, I don’t care about my plates. When we arrived in Iceland, her rooftop was blown away. Things like that always happen. She was just glad that she was alive, her cat was alive, and her horse is alive. They let them run free and when you call the name of the horse, they will come home. Their mentality is really different from a lot of people in the world and I think that’s something for us to learn from.
You have a singing background and wanted to venture into rock and the punk scene. Did the music scene in Iceland change your creative process?
I’m way behind in my attitude in life. I’m all about discipline but I don’t have a wide selection. For people in Hong Kong, I’m already a person who can accept a lot of different cultures and am open-minded, but compared to Icelandic people, I’m elementary. There was one class we did with them, a shocking jamming session. Halfway through our class, I brought my bandmates to do this course with our teacher, Jim Chim. Most of my cast are my bandmates and are really reserved and conservative people. I’ve known them for many years, and I’ve never seen them really laugh. It’s not that they’re not happy. They’re just really introverted. We just started opening them up in our classes and I think we went for like ten days. And on the fifth day, the director and producer decided to invite a bunch of Icelandic people to come in to play with us. Throughout that day, we had done a lot of cultural exchange, it was so much fun, and we felt that Icelandic people can be open to anything really quickly and they can have fun. When they’re open to everything, they can find a way to have fun so much faster than we do. We’re still like, what’s going on? They’re already laughing. So there’s quite a lot to learn.
How do you choose your projects with the limited time that you have? What makes something worthwhile to you?
I try to do everything that is new for myself. Everything that I find fun, I will take that job. Sometimes artist management will think about marketing and stretching my career in different countries, and I do admit, sometimes I do take on some projects that I get to have fun in but for the bigger picture, it might not be so much fun. I’m just really direct. I pick playful and fun roles. Interesting roles, roles with a lot of challenges and a direct opposite to the role that I did last time. Something with shock value.
Have there been moments where you think, Oh, I’m doing too much, I should slow down and take a break?
I really want to, especially this year.
What are your plans? What does self-care look like?
I don’t want to travel. I want to sit in front of my TV and just veg out. In New York, in hotels, I love to watch comedies and soaps. The last show I watched was Seinfeld. And South Park.
In past interviews, you’ve spoken about the exploitative side of the entertainment industry. Can you tell me about your personal experience with that?
I listened directly to people who told me that I had no style, that I was chubby, and couldn’t fit into outfits. I turned to the option of taking pills. I was 128 pounds before I graduated high school and had an athletic career…I was 92 pounds after losing weight. I struggled with singing after the weight loss, my voice was too dry all the time. My singing teacher of thirty years, who’s basically my god mom, asked me what I like. It was acting, not singing, not caring about the way I looked. My boss had said stuff like Eurasians don’t succeed, and I got really upset. I started out liking the songs that I sang. Songs like the Macarena, which were already popular, my management wanted me to sing them in a “Chinese” way. We stopped working together after the contract ended. They also didn’t want to support or back me. They didn’t want to spend money on a CD cover, they took a photoshoot and had it blown up for a CD cover.
But I love acting. I’m happy to have a job. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to bring to films all these sides of myself.
What is your favorite role that you’ve played?
It’s not successful, and a huge try on an English-speaking role, my character Queenie for a movie called Habit. Everyone was so talented, including the director of photography and actors, it was a challenging role for me. I ended up begging for more lines and got them. Six pages of lines, and a monologue every time I came on screen. There were not many roles back then, so I’m happy about the state of film for all Asians, with opportunities worldwide. To be very honest, I want to participate.
What’s your favorite Asian film?
If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?
Stay calm. Keep looking for opportunities. There were times where I was desperate, and always wishful thinking for roles that I thought I would be good for. Now, decades later, I know these roles would’ve screwed up my career. When I was younger I was angry about why people didn’t look to me for roles. But I ended up fine.
What projects are you working on, any future plans?
Mother Tongue. It’s directed by Mike Figgis and written by Bruce Wagner. The plot is based in Los Angeles, but it’s shot in Hong Kong, in an 8,000-square-foot house. From it, you can see the Hong Kong beachfront, and the sea view, and it gives you the feeling of being in LA.
This interview was conducted in-person by writer Nancy Jiang at the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival.
Header photo is a still taken from Finding Bliss: Fire and Ice – The Director’s Cut (2022).
A New York City native, Nancy Jiang is a budding journalist covering music, arts and entertainment, and politics. One day she hopes to interview Frank Ocean, but for now, she’s bumping Endless and spending all her money on vinyl and concerts.