This Filmmaker Wants to Haunt You

“I’m so excited. The nervous and the proud kinds of excited,” begins author, screenwriter and director Tse Ka-kei, otherwise known as Nate Ki. It’s a Friday afternoon in his producer mm2’s Kowloon Bay office, and the studio is busy with casting a new film. Later, Ki will be attending a screening of his just-released Back Home, partially funded by mm2’s Movie Maker Awards programme (and through Udine Far East Film Festival’s Focus Asia project market). 

He’s been down this road before. The film made its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival in July, then tested the waters at home at the Summer International Film Festival in August, but this time it’s a general audience. “So far everyone I’ve encountered coming out of the theatre has had a different take on what the film’s about,” says Ki. “Everyone has their own perspective… but a lot of people have connected with [main character] Wing’s struggle with whether or not he’s truly home. Is this his home?”

Home, and what constitutes it, is one of the many ideas Ki explores in Back Home, which stars Mirror’s Anson Kong Ip-sang as a Hongkonger able to see ghosts, who comes home when his mother, played by the inimitable Bai Ling, is hospitalised following a suicide attempt.

Dressed in trendy Japanese-style trousers and sporting bleached gold-orange hair, Ki is keen to debate Back Home’s meanings and messages. He is no newcomer to the creative industries. A filmmaking autodidact, he finished high school and went to work almost immediately across the production spectrum, starting as an editor on music videos, which led to work in commercial advertising and in corporate video. He was already working in industry when he started attending filmmaking courses, mostly to fill in the blanks he missed on the job. More than anything, writing taught him the fundamentals of storytelling. “Writing is my first love. Before web publishing became a viable option I tried getting published – and failed. Then when I published online and found an audience the publishers came back.”

As an author, Ki writes as Central Tarantino and Bizarre Homestay, and produces short videos for YouTube. Like the film, his video work is rooted in Hong Kong’s local ghost lore and urban legends: the braided girl on the KCR tracks at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; the haunted Tat Tak school in the New Territories; and Bride’s Pool in Plover Cove Country Park among others. Of Ki’s eight published books, four come from a series focused on oral stories. Back Home started its life as literature.

“I wanted to practise with books because I really wanted to make horror films,” he says. “I’ve always liked horror and I feel ghost stories are a form of education. They play on our superstitions, and legends and beliefs. Everyone has them and they’re a great way to deliver meaning.”

Ki’s first success came with his short film Once Upon a Time in… Sai Wan (2019, and it’s on Ki’s YouTube channel), which found a place at festivals in Glasgow, Paris, and Fukuoka, and then co-writing Mark Lee’s 2020 comedy Running Ghost. In between books and with inspiration from those urban legends, Back Home took shape. Ki literally turned to people who claimed they had a third eye — a yin yang eye — and could see the dead.

“When I asked them what they did when they saw a ghost, 90 percent told me the same thing: they ignored it,” he says. “They pretended not to see it. If they ignored it, it wouldn’t hurt them. That stayed with me. Because these days, when we see something unfair, or unjust, we act like we have a third eye. We ignore the problem, the people and the questions. We don’t want whatever it is touching us. That was the starting point for Back Home.”

Genre fare has long been a haven for commentary in fraught political environments, and as Hong Kong directors navigate a changing socio-political space, genre filmmaking is spiking. Ki refers to himself as a dyed-in-the-wool horror buff, citing slow-burning horror of the 1960s and ’70s (Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now), Japanese horror and the recent wave of so-called elevated horror, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, or Jordan Peele’s Nope, as influences that helped complete his film education. “I actually studied by watching films. I don’t want to copy anything, but that stuff’s in my blood now,” he says.

Back Home tracks Heung Wing’s (Kong) slowly deteriorating sanity following his return to the housing estate of his childhood after years living in Canada. Taken away by an uncle years before to protect him from his mother Lan’s (Bai) perceived abuse, as a child he was an outcast; the kid with a weird mother and a yin yang eye. Wing moves into their home, which is as haunted as it ever was, and Lan isn’t the only resident of the apartment block to try and take their own life in recent weeks, as Wing finds out his first night back. Helping Wing reintegrate into Hong Kong life are paper offering maker Uncle Chung and his wife (Suk Suk’s Tai Bo and Helen Tam Yuk-ying).

That’s the simple foundation upon which Ki builds a multi-functional allegory for issues from Hong Kong’s changing social and political environment and disregard of mental health, to displacement anxiety and how the past haunts us. The parts are woven together inside a moody package that gets more oppressive with each passing hallucination – and which reveals more details and nuance in its shifting timelines and blurry boundary between the living and the dead (a second viewing is justified). Back Home slots very nicely into the art horror category alongside Ki’s influences as well aside Hong Kong’s own metaphorical horror traditions, traceable from Stanley Kwan (Rouge is as much a ghost story as it is romantic drama) up to Juno Mak’s Rigor Mortis.

Space is often crucial in Hong Kong horror, and aside from the fact that housing estates’ concrete corridors and towering outer shells provide stellar visuals for terror, they exemplified Ki’s core story about rising urban indifference, and the structures themselves are singular to the city.

“This kind of estate housing is very iconic of Hong Kong and I wanted that recognisability,” Ki says. “But I also wanted an estate because they rely on a sense of neighbourhood. There’s a weirdness to this friendliness. I grew up in one. It’s not unheard of for someone to just wander into your home and, I don’t know, grab some water and walk off. When Wing comes back to it, it’s suddenly strange. He feels alienated in his hometown. I needed this kind of building to create that feeling.”

Ki credits art directors Ceci Fok Pui-sze (It Remains) and Cheung Bing, as well as cinematographer Rick Lau Tsz-kin (Ten Years, Hand Rolled Cigarette) with making the most of the old industrial building used as a set; only the exteriors are real locations. Wing’s densely shaded flat, the creepy corridors and the netherworld of the enigmatic seventh floor are all sets constructed during the 19-day shoot. “We shot, broke the set, built the next one and did it all again. There was no turning back and no redos,” says Ki with a nervous laugh, as if he can’t believe they pulled it off. “If I missed the shot, ‘Sorry lah. Too bad.’ We had a tiny budget.”

But it’s the cast that ultimately makes the film work. Kong — AK as Ki calls him — the marquee attraction, auditioned like every other actor and won the part for what Ki refers to as an ability to telegraph Wing’s downward spiral wordlessly. On top of that, Kong was thrilled to get away from glamorous boy band imaging and vanish into a role. Bai (Fruit Chan’s Dumplings) was Ki’s first choice for her unpredictable persona, and the resulting empathy she would imbue on a love-hate character. It was a collaborative set; Ki doesn’t see himself as a director who expects everyone to follow orders. He’s thankful Bai was both a collaborator and a professional.

“On the first day of shooting, [Ling] was under all this Cantonese opera make-up, in a heavy costume. Because the set was so hot, and there was no air conditioning, and she was under it for eight or nine hours, she wound up in the hospital,” Ki recalls with an exasperated chuckle. “After the make-up came off her skin was red and burning. I sent a Hollywood star to the hospital on my first day. I thought my career was over before it started.”

Despite that glitch Ki is sticking to horror for the foreseeable future and is currently working on his next script, set in the world of Cantonese opera where traditional conservatism intersects with threatening modernity. It makes him a little like Hong Kong’s own Aster. And like Aster’s films, Back Home is better on reflection the next day, and better again a week later. Ki smiles at the thought. “I’m glad,” he finishes. “I want people to feel a bit haunted in their daily lives.”

Back Home is in cinemas now. 

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