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Director Desiree Lim talks about her supernatural thriller, THE HOUSE

Rachel Fox

March 11th, 2012

Director Desiree Lim's feature THE HOUSE is a thoughtful take on grief, death, and forgiveness. In the film, ex-Wall Street banker Jean Kaneko (Natalie Skye) hopes to find peace and solitude in a friend's empty mansion after quitting her job in the wake of the financial collapse; what she find instead is a home full of restless (yet highly communicative) spirits. The  film was just featured as part of the Vancouver Women in Film Festival after its premier at the the Vancouver Asian Film Festival,  and is set to screen next at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April and at Toronto's The Female Eye Film Festival in June.

I spoke with Desiree about some of the challenges faced in marketing and promoting a small, independent film that isn't easily pigeonholed. While THE HOUSE is effectively a supernatural thriller, it doesn't adhere to many of the expected conventions (it's more romantic and contemplative than spine-tingly-scary) within the genre; though Lim is a lesbian filmmaker, the main theme and story of THE HOUSE has little to do with sexual politics. As such, the film occupies an unusual space - perhaps neither overtly scary nor obviously gay "enough" to be easily embraced by either genre or queer film festivals.

It makes sense that Lim would write, produce and direct something as unconventional as THE HOUSE. She speaks candidly about her own experience as a second-generation Chinese born in Malaysia, spending her formative years studying and working in Japan before finally moving to Vancouver, BC. Her culturally diverse background and life experience inform the perspective of her storytelling, which takes on its own personalized appearance in the film.

Why do we need womens' film festivals? Is it necessary?

Yes, absolutely. Especially with writing and directing; it’s such a boy’s club, a male world. I think we lack films that are focused on the female audience and the female experience. In the mainstream world, especially, there are so few films made by women. It’s changing, but it’s still way below 50%. There’s a lot of work to be done.

With a female sensibility there will be more diversity out there. As you know, even within the horror and thriller genres, more and more women are making films. Hopefully that will change the landscape and switch things around a bit. It doesn’t have to be horror – horror doesn’t have to be a certain formula, you know? Dramas can be different as well. That’s what I would like to be part of.

How important is it for you to have a female protagonist?

It’s always been very important and I think it will continue to be because that’s what I aspire to do. Not to say that I won’t make films with guys as leads, but if you look at my body of work it’s always been women.

It doesn’t have to reflect my experience personally but it certainly reflects, I would hope, one experience from a woman’s experience.

Do you watch a lot of horror movies? I couldn’t help but think of THE OTHERS when I saw THE HOUSE.

Oh yeah! I’m a total cinephile. I watch a lot of mainstream and art-house classics. I learn from them. THE OTHERS is one of my favorite films, it’s so smart!

It’s [horror] not even my genre; I don’t tend to watch a lot of horror or thriller films. This is the first time I made a film in that genre, but I didn’t want to make a straightforward genre film. I made it a mixed genre film, a supernatural-slash-psychological thriller-slash-horror.

Are you influenced by Asian horror?

I never watch horror, never. Japan is really known for that and I’ve never really watched them. I watch a lot of Asian films, though.

You mentioned that you’ve had three homes and you just made a film called THE HOUSE. Where did this story come from?

Well, yes. It’s been a very spiritual journey for me; life imitates art and art imitates life. The theme is, 'home. Where is ‘home?' I got hit with this idea of a character who is a former Wall Street banker – she’s based on a woman I knew from when I worked at [as a TV producer] NHK Japan, Nomi Prins, who is a former investment banker with Goldmann Sachs. Her story fascinated me.

I’ve always had this idea about spirits trapped in a house and how they interact with the tenant or occupant who’s still alive.

Have you had a personal experience with the supernatural?

I’m Chinese – ghost stories and that folklore  are a part of my upbringing and there are a lot of ghost stories in your life when you grow up Chinese. It’s always been a part of me and I’ve always wanted to make a ghost story. I think I’ll continue to do that, too. The supernatural is something that fascinates me...

As a feature film, this is the first time I’ve deal with the themes of death, afterlife, and grief. I’ll tell you why it’s been so spiritual for me, why it came out of left field… I wanted to write a story like about death, grief, and regret; I was just about to breathe a sigh of relief [from my last production] when I get a call that my father has died – very suddenly. I had to fly home for the funeral.

My father and I had this very distant and strained relationship; it’s been hard for me to find forgiveness for him. In retrospect his death forced me to begin that journey. I had started but it was incomplete, and now I had to complete that journey. I didn’t even think about it that way until a few days ago when I realized that things came full circle.

THE HOUSE is about finding forgiveness. It almost feels like I had this message from somewhere, the ‘other side,' to make this film to prepare myself for this journey.

Tell me about the location you shot the film. Where did you find this house? I can’t imagine finding a better location even if you had endless money to scout and rent. It’s perfect!

It belonged to a friend of mine. This film was made on no money, no budget, and I went to her first for a free location. Initially she told me it had been sold, so I found another one but then that fell through two weeks before shooting. As you know the house is the main location for the film! I scrambled to find something else then went back to my friend and asked her if there was anything I could do to get it, at which point she told me the deal fell through!

It was really meant to be. Everyone who watches the film tells me that the house itself, the location, is a character.

There’s a sense of coldness or even sterility to the visual composition. Lots of straight edges. It affects the overall feel of the film.

I was playing with a lot of spatial concepts. The film is about deceased people who, by self-imposed isolation, are trapped in this space. It’s confined. Even if it’s vast, it’s very claustrophobic. That’s the way I was trying to visually present that. Certain characters are really confined to certain spaces; even though they’re in a vast space they don’t travel anywhere else within the house.

You’ve just spoken about how important personalization is to you and your storytelling. Your protagonist is Asian, and she’s surrounded by a lot of white people in this house. Is that reflective of your own experience or did it just work out that way?

Natalie [Skye, who plays ex-Wall Street banker Jean Kaneko] is a long-time collaborator of mine and a lot of the time I write films for her. And she’s Asian, so that’s one of the reasons. [Laughs]

The other is again to reflect the experience from my community, my culture. The three features that I have done all have Asian leads.

When I came over here [from Japan] to Vancouver, I had just turned 30 and felt a reverse culture shock; I felt like my voice was not represented here. When you turn on the TV or go to the cinemas, you don’t see a lot of Asian people or films from Asia at all, but Vancouver is such an Asian city! I was blown away. It was like, ‘There is something wrong with this picture! My TV is black and white!’ There’s no color. There are some [Asian] newscasters, but there are very few when it comes to telling dramatic stories.

That’s very interesting; there must have been some sort of experience of feeling like, ‘the Other.’ In the real-life culture, Vancouver is a very Asian city but it’s not really represented in the mainstream pop-culture.

I think there’s always going to be some sort of aspect of ‘the Other’ in all my films;  being an outcast, or some sort of experience from the margins of society.

Do you see yourself re-visiting this genre?

Oh, for sure. I actually have two other projects on the slate that are totally in this vein but with a different spin, one is supernatural thriller and one that’s more of a supernatural drama. But next up is something that’s a return to my roots,  more of a conventional romantic drama.


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