The adage goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and that is true for Terrorizers, the fourth and latest film from Taiwan-based Malaysian filmmaker Ho Wi Ding. A public slashing incident is at the heart of things, but the characters—more connected than you or themselves can ever comprehend—are the means that have it beating.

Appearing in the film are well-known actors in Taiwanese entertainment: Lin Po-Hung (or Austin Lin, playing the tech-savvy Ming Liang), Moon Lee (as stage actress Yu Fang), J.C. Lin (as chef Xiao Zhang), Annie Chen (as former camgirl Monica), Yao Ai-Ning (as cosplayer Kiki) and Ding Ning (as a masseuse).

JumpCut Online’s Nguyen Le was fortunate enough to interview director and co-writer Ho after Terrorizers had its world premiere at TIFF 2021, who provided a deeper look into the jaw-dropping plotting, the characters and the grey zones of life they will find themselves in.

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How did you settle upon that structure? Was it planned or did you discover it as you go along?

In my last film I played with time structure. Cities of Last Things was reverse chronology storytelling. After that, I was figuring out what to do next. I remember back then, a long time ago, even many, many years ago, when I was younger, I had a treatment also playing with time. Back then, it was like first half, second half flipped. We call it circular structure—Tarantino did that, you know, that you’re going back to the beginning. I had fun playing with audience expectations’ with time, and also I figured only novels and films are two mediums you can actually play with time. Condense the time, expand the time, because this is what films should be.

And I realized that more and more films are getting more and more conservative now. People now only like linear films, linear films with flashbacks, you know? But anytime you jump out of order people get really anxious. really anxious. I mean, they’ll freak out—it’s not what they think. And the more films I made, I kind of get sick of the “Three Acts,” “first five minutes something big has to happen,” a protagonist… I studied at Tisch, this is what I learned, but you know, once you make more films, you realise that this is, “I mean, come on, you know, can you just do something else?” All the films you’re seeing now especially in the streaming culture, everything looks the same now. Everything has a formula, so I thought let’s try to do something not like that. I just get my old treatment, and then I just…

[This cut of Terrorizers] is different from the final product! The script was longer. There were a lot more interactions, especially Xiao Zhang and the massage lady—they are actually neighbors.

Oh!

For some reason, this one I wrote quite quickly. I wrote the draft in three months with the out-of-order scenes already. It’s not linear, it’s already jumping around. And then I start doing casting a year before production. Four talents for the Ming Liang character, Yu Fang, the Lady and Kiki—were all cast the year before.

Basically, because I know the cast already, I kind of also revised my script based on what I know. But, I mean, they even brought something in because during auditions, Lin Bo-Hong—the Ming Liang character—what he did was looking at the camera for one minute without talking to us! I was, like, “Wow, this is powerful!” That’s why I put his spin into the script at the police station. This is some organic thing going on with writing and casting. And then, of course, during the production, you have the [assistant director] telling you, “This film will be 3.5 hours. So please cut out some scenes. The budget is limited. You have 45 days…” The AD and I had to sit down and tighten those things, which ones work, which ones don’t. The AD is also a filmmaker in Taiwan. I also have a co-writer who I constantly go back and forth with. And then after [everything], we have a 3.5-hour rough cut.

Oh, wow.

And we didn’t have the chapter headings in the script. And I’ve always wanted to do the chapter thing. You know, it’s like a lot of words, like a fiction, it’s very nice. I’m sure when you don’t put them, people still can get it. And it’s not like, when you put the chapter of Yu Fang, it has to be Yu Fang. People get really confused, “Oh, you put the chapter ‘Ming Liang,’ how come it’s about other people?” It’s not about [being exact]. I like the way we have chapters, so it gives some kind of poetic reading of the film. [Everything] happened in two years. Not too bad. I mean, for a film that complicated!

Speaking of timing, obviously, your film is out during a very tumultuous time in society. What are your thoughts on releasing a film about social turbulence in a time like this?

You have to get used to it, because things change every week now. Used to be thing change every five years.

Right!

When I wrote this story, it was before COVID, you know? So when we were shooting the film, it’s already COVID time. Luckily, in Taiwan, back then there weren’t a lot of cases, so you can actually do the production. But now, when you look at people on the street, they’re all wearing masks. It’s pretty tricky, because when you want to go guerilla style, trying to grab some shots of the streets, people wear masks. What happens now is a problem. Say when I want to make the next film, am I going to make the film with masks or without masks? Without masks, people are gonna think this is pre-COVID. So it’s really tricky now for us filmmakers.

There are a lot of changes now: I mean, the film festivals suddenly become online, virtual. In my lifetime, I went through three big changes in filmmaking. I was shooting on 35, and one day, it became digital. We were showing the film in theaters, one day it became streaming. It used to be that film festivals are all fun, parties, and now we’re on Zoom!

Right.

There are so many things going on. I just don’t know what to do anymore! (laughs) It’s crazy. I mean, I’m at the age that before cell phones and after cell phones, also! I was using pagers when I was making a student film. This is the thing that for human beings to adapt. I mean, that’s insane. I don’t know. The good thing is, I’m glad I made a film in COVID time—people get scared, people couldn’t do it, couldn’t find money. Only some of them can actually bring the film to the festival as usual. You know, be “business as usual,” so that you can show the film. Our film will be released in Taiwan in November, let’s hope that nothing big is coming up. Every day is praying, you know? Not just about praying for your health, but also [everything else].

In this film, I noticed that most of our characters are young, perhaps you can say that they are different aspects of the Taiwanese or Asian Youth in general. Was that demographic intentional?

We do have five young kids—so you want to cover the spectrum of things. Even their looks have to be different. When you do the casting, you can’t have people look alike—you’re going for individual characterizations. And then, of course, you start to focus on where did they come from. But character-wise, you got to make sure they are different so there’s tension. You have the very rich guy, Ming Liang, the bad guy, and then Yu Fang, whose father is kind of struggling—the house isn’t that expensive. Then you have Monica, who’s living by herself—she must have been from out of town and is struggling. And then you have Kiki who’s just a high-school student. Then there’s Xiao Zhang, who just came back, and he’s a very traditional person, the old-school type.

I intentionally put the two [male] leads,—one is old-school, one is obsessed with technology. You have the stage actresses—one who can act, and one doesn’t know how to act. Kiki, of course, she’s very young. Maybe 18 and then 20 something, late 20s. They’re all probably around their 20s. Xiao Zhang, though, wants to have a family, so he’s probably the oldest. That was intentional. Trying to make it as unique as possible.

That has me thinking… why is the title Terrorizers? There’s only one among the cast who is scary.

Ming Liang is the product of society, basically. So the terrorizers are video games, media… Maybe the repressed sex education? You know, maybe the parents’ expectations. I think it’s very easy to say, “This is the bad guy,” but the thing is, when you look at this film, you realise that, “OK, pornography, I mean, did he create pornography? Somebody created it and then brought it in front of those youths.” It’s the same thing with video games. But I can’t just say video games are bad for kids. I’m not saying video games cause people to become killers. It’s not that black and white.

Not that simple!

Even urbanisation, people building houses, construction, pollution, noise. You couldn’t sleep at night, you think too much. That’s why there’s more than one. Also, to be honest, because I like the sound of “Terrorizers” because I got this title from Edward Yang’s films, a Taiwanese filmmaker—very famous. I like him, because his films are all about urban youths, people in the city, lonely people in a city. And I like his films, and I like the title, so I thought it fits! People tend to think terrorists, but for me, terrorists is so connected with organizations—for me, it’s a bit too heavy.

Edward Yang: Are you basing your style on him? Are you continuing his trademarks?

There are three big filmmakers in Taiwan: Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Yang made stories in the cities. I like to make movies about people in the cities. I don’t know how to make what the other two filmmakers are making. So it’s easy for me to emulate him, you know? And also Terrorizers have three interacting stories. When I wrote the treatment a long time ago, I wasn’t doing the remake or copying him—it’s just that I like the structure. And then I played with it, I realise that it’s a good way to pay homage to a great filmmaker with the title, similar themes and structure.

I got my career in Taiwan, even though I’m not Taiwanese—I’m from Malaysia. But I really, you know, say thanks to Taiwanese cinema. This is a good way to make a homage to that.

Would you say that it’s OK if a viewer reads the film in a pessimistic light? Or mostly pessimistic? The conflicts in this film can be heavy!

There’s always hope! At first you may not see it. I don’t think that you can always try to portray a world that everything is [perfect.] Come on, you got to face the world now. There are problems. As a filmmaker, you could easily make a Marvel film and escape into that world. But sometimes you just have to kind of point the people to a direction and tell them, “Look, there’s something going on!”

The video-gaming thing is really big, but lot of people don’t talk about it. Also the pornography, it’s been like this for a long time. This is the culture. So, now you have all these things… Are they the problem? Or the person who is watching it, and then interpreted them the wrong way? Who has a problem? You cannot always blame game and pornography—not everyone turns out like Ming Liang. You know, it’s got to be something else. But this something else got to do with the personality of a person. So this person—look at their background. Their upbringing. If you don’t look after your kids, if you don’t worry about your kids, when they turn into the bad guy… Or if you over-spoiled kids, and they turn into the bad guy. Are you going to blame… the internet? I’m simply showing you something’s wrong with this society.

I mean, for me, it’s not that bad. I’m not saying this is the end of the world. Things go on, you know? I mean, we have Xiao Zhang and Yu Fang. You still have the old-fashioned guy who’s like, “I believe in love. I believe in flowers.”

Yes!

Or Yu Fang, “I believe in writing letters,” you know? Also, I think the characters in my film, they’re very brave. Their bravery sometimes is a bit too extreme, but it’s brave, you know, because the Chinese title has something to do with youth. The energy of youth, the spirit of youth. When you’re younger, even you know that something is not too right, but you can just want to do it. Like Monica. That’s part of the spirit. It’s not about “bad guy, good guy,” it’s about you’re making “good choices, wrong choices.” And when you’re younger, in your 20s, you make bad choices all the time. It’s not the end of the world.