WHEN DEPRESSION hit director Joe Ma Wai-ho last year he dealt with it the only way he knew how - he went out and made a film. The outcome is Embrace Your Shadow, starring Fiona Sit Hoi-kei and Dylan Kwok Bun-chiu. Unlike Ma's previous work, it's a heavy drama, about a tragic love affair between a gangster (Kwok) and a poor girl (Sit).
Although Ma may be known for his big-budget, light-hearted comedies, this time around he had the relative constraints of $4 million to spend on a film that will be looking for a more alternative audience. There's certainly no comic turn from Miriam Yeung Chin-wah as in previous Ma productions.
For Ma, the experience was like undergoing therapy. While the 41-year-old was making the movie, he was able to relieve the sorrow he was feeling - something he found impossible to do in front of friends and co-workers.
'People in the film cry easily,' he says. 'It's because I want to cry. Every character has a tragedy. It's about losing something and what you learn after the loss.'
Ma says Three of a Kind (starting Yeung and Michael Hui Koon-man) might have been one of the triggers for his depression. 'I shot too many movies and experimented with many genres,' he says. 'I was very tired. And Three wasn't that well-received. I felt like I tried my best, but I was defeated by time constraints.'
In October, Ma's mother suffered a stroke, but he continued to put on a brave face. 'Most of the time, I was in a state where I wanted to protect my image and couldn't cry,' he says. 'I envied those who could cry.'
While his mother was recovering in hospital, Ma says he started to focus on the sadder things in life. 'My films always have happy endings,' he says. 'I've always presented a colourful world. But when you look at life closely, when you've reached a certain age, there's black, grey and white. Embrace is about our dark side.'
Embrace Your Shadow may well never have been made if Ma hadn't seen a story in a newspaper about a physically handicapped teenage girl who'd take 45 minutes to make a journey to school that took others five minutes.
'I asked a reporter friend to help me locate this girl and I talked to her family,' Ma says. 'It was her mother who inspired me because she had to give up working to look after her daughter.' She became the basis for Fiona in the movie who is out of work because of the time she spends looking after her paralysed brother.
Shooting Embrace Your Shadow also gave Ma time to reflect on life. He says he took longer to make it than any of his previous films. 'In the past, I've rushed around,' Ma says. 'The atmosphere has been like we're throwing a party. This time, I shot for a while, stopped and reflected. Even the actors were all talking rather slowly. This is also a kind of new experiment for me in storytelling.'
Ma has long been known for discovering new talent. In Embrace Taiwanese actor Kwok makes his debut, and it's Sit's second movie. 'I hired Kwok because he's very macho and I don't think many young local actors have this kind of quality,' Ma says. And Sit is more than just a fresh face. 'Her song Keanu Reeves' Reply Letters was so big and even I liked it a lot. I think she has an appeal for the mass audience,' he says.
Between directing, producing and writing, Ma has notched up more than 60 films. He wrote his first movie script, for Happy Ghost, two decades ago, when he was 18. Soon after finishing a degree in history at the University of Hong Kong, he wrote scripts for directors such as Johnnie To Kei-fung (The Eighth Happiness) and producer-director Peter Chan Ho-sun (The Days of Being Dumb).
Four years after his directorial debut, Rich Man (1992), he hit commercial pay dirt with the romantic comedy Feel 100% in 1996.
And he's credited with being the first to have used Yeung as a comedian, when he cast her four years ago in the box office Dummy Mommy Without a Baby.
But his impressive output had taken its toll.
'Last year and in 2003, I did a lot - I was just too demanding of myself,' says Ma. 'There was no more [creative] input. It was like the engine might stop any time because there was only 5 per cent fuel left.'
What Ma has learnt from the experience is that a slower pace of life suits him. He says that from now on he'll concentrate on directing, and not worry so much about putting together big hits.
'I won't worry too much about the box office,' he says. 'With a film like this, I know it won't be very high because the market is different now. The important thing for me is I really don't want to get depressed again,'
Embrace Your Shadow opens today