Inside a makeshift cafe set at Hong Kong’s luxurious Rosewood Hotel, local actor-producer Josie Ho sits across from British actor Julian Sands. Both are giving director Mike Figgis their full attention as he explains the scene that they are going to film.
What was said could not be heard from afar, despite the set being unusually quiet. Dolled up multi-racial extras and other crew members who were busy preparing the next shot whispered to each other. Everyone was patiently waiting for the director’s cue.
“I normally have a very quiet set,” Figgis (director of “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Internal Affairs”) told Variety on location with “Mother Tongue,” an arthouse mystery thriller that is among the latest efforts from 852 Films, a production company co-headed by Ho and husband Conroy Chan. “I asked for silence a lot. My whole technique is based on silence, based on talking quietly and intimately to actors.”
The two-time Academy Award nominee has spent nearly five months in Hong Kong – quietly. Like the city, the project is a cultural hybrid.
With a script penned by the American writer Bruce Wagner (“Maps to the Stars,” “Wild Palms”), “Mother Tongue” follows the journey of an award-winning actress, played by Ho (“Contagion,” “Lucky Day”). The character is involved in a relationship with a younger woman played by Japanese-French actress Minami (“Minamata,” “Battle Royale”) while searching for her long lost daughter behind her partner’s back. Ho also gets to play a bitter twin sister.
“It is pretty surreal,” said the British director. Initially, the film was going to be shot in Los Angeles, where the story is set. But circumstances changed in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 852 Films decided to shoot the project in Hong Kong, where the coronavirus has been better contained and crew was available. Nevertheless, everyone on the set was required to take a daily COVID test.
Hong Kong standing in for Los Angeles posed multiple challenges. Figgis had to avoid details that may betray the real location, and car scenes had to be flipped, as traffic in Hong Kong drives on a different side of the road.
Choosing to work with a local Hong Kong crew — many of whom had worked on the films of auteurs Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To — rather than bringing his own team was an intriguing experience for Figgis.
“I see myself as an actor-director. I would normally control the set with my voice, trying to combine humor and authority,” he said. “And then you are suddenly in a situation that doesn’t apply. You explain something, and then somebody translates it for you. It’s tricky. So you resort to different tactics, and your techniques have to evolve, which is not a bad thing.”
Although Ho carries the producer title — and the film is very much her vision, according to Figgis — she is largely focused on the two characters she’s portraying. That means the main producer duties fall to Chan, who strived to maintain a balance and facilitated communication on the set.
“We had to look hard at the feasibility of shooting in Hong Kong,” Chan said. “Under the current climate, you put out a plan, you run with it and see where it has to be adjusted. For business, it’s uneasy. But we have taken on that mission and we are nearly there.”
The film is expected to be completed in 2022 and will aim to launch at major international film festivals. No sales agent has yet been appointed.
Ho has chosen to closely follow the direction of Figgis, who is very precise about how actors deliver his vision.
“I really have to thank him for teaching me so much,” Ho said on the set. “Mike separated [the filming] of my roles. We finish shooting one role first and then do the other.”
Ho described the film as “very operatic.” “Mike and Bruce described the film as a Greek tragedy. It’s almost like a stage play. I have never done a film like this before,” she said. “It’s a very twisted story, one that shows the truth of humanity.”
“That’s what I’m trying to [take the project to another level],” Figgis said. “It is an interesting challenge, one that has ultimately worked.”