First-time director makes a spirited debut with ghost film
After years in the business Maggie To takes her directing bow with a ghostly tale, writes Yvonne Teh
The roots of Maggie To Yuk-ching's first film as director go back to her days as a university undergraduate.
Twilight Online is a supernatural drama based on a real-life incident: the 2003 Tuen Mun Road traffic accident that claimed 21 lives and was the most serious road accident in Hong Kong history. From that tragic event came an urban legend about a ghost in a red dress who returned to the school where she had been a teacher.
To, who also wrote the screenplay, first learned of these stories from a friend from her time at Lingnan College (now University) in the 1990s: "horror DJ" Edmond Poon Siu-chung. "Edmond is a well known 'ghost show' host," To says. "I got his permission to use the title of his online show as the film title, and then invited him to perform in my film."
To's love of cinema was cultivated at university and her involvement in the film industry began soon after she graduated in 1993. Hired by United Filmmakers Organisation (UFO) as an assistant production manager, she considers the seven years she spent with the company behind a number of 1990s hit movies as "the best of my life". She had the opportunity to work with many famous directors, such as Peter Chan Ho-sun, Lee Chi-ngai, Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting and Sylvia Chang Ai-chia. "I learned a lot from them," she says.
Although she dreamt of becoming a director at university, To now considers it a blessing in disguise that she didn't become one immediately after graduation. "If I had had a chance to be a director at that time, I might not be a good one because I didn't have that much experience yet in human relations," she says.
But after serving as production manager on award-winning films such as Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story (1996) and Chang's Tempting Heart (1999), To decided to study directing at New York University. Already experienced in the organisational and business aspects of cinema - "controlling budgets, arranging schedules, negotiating prices, all the admin things" - she wanted to move on to the creative side.
Unfortunately, after returning from the US, family matters forced her to put her directing dream on hold for a few more years; when she returned to work, it was again in production management.
"But then, about five years ago, I finally thought I should really try hard to become a director," she says. "So I quit work and locked myself up in a room to write a script." She wound up writing four, including what became Twilight Online.
The movie's title had name recognition thanks to Poon, who allowed her to use his programme's title for a nominal HK$1 fee.
"I think the other scripts I wrote would be more difficult to shoot and would need bigger budgets. So I chose this one first," says To.
Even though Twilight Online has a small budget of HK$7.8 million, it doesn't look like a shoestring production. To credits this to her crew, especially director of photography Cheng Siu-keung. "He is a very nice man and he helps me a lot - not only in cinematography but also in scriptwriting, production and distribution," she says.
The man she calls "Keung Gor" also had a hand in the casting, recommending that she look at Babyjohn Choi Hon-yik who the cinematographer worked with on Adam Wong Sau-ping's The Way We Dance last year. Choi landed the role of a young cop called Bee in Twilight Online.
To play the anchor role of Inspector Gu, the police detective tasked with investigating strange goings on at Tuen Mun's Yau Oi Estate, To turned to screen veteran Eddie Cheung Siu-fai. "Eddie was my first and only choice [but] because it's a low budget film, we could not pay him the market rate. He acted in this film because he liked the script, I believe."
Twilight Online isn't a straight horror work. One of its plot threads plays out as a suspense-mystery while another has a love story at its heart, both genres To likes.
She's not entirely sold on ghosts, however. "When I was young, I liked to listen to ghost stories but I was always sceptical. But once I grew up, I saw that the world is full of special, strange things [and] if it has a god, or gods, it also may have ghosts," she says.
"In this film, I just want the audience to consider if there are ghosts in the world. As for the ghost in the red dress, I have no way to prove if it is real."
And although a line in the movie describes Tuen Mun as "clearly the most cursed of the 18 districts", To insists she has no such feeling about the district. "I'm just making a commercial suspense film. I have no intention of scaring the people who live in Tuen Mun," she says.
"Actually, I think Tuen Mun is very peaceful, a delightful place for people to live."
Twilight Online opens on Thursday