When queer female filmmaker Desiree Lim makes her international premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival tonight, it may be a surprise for ardent fans of her work. After all, the acclaimed director of the award-winning Floored by Love and Sugar Sweet (the first lesbian commercial feature made by a queer filmmaker in Japan) took a departure with her newest film. The House, starring Natalie Skye, is a psychological ghost story, a sort of atmospheric and moody think piece about life and death and the choices we all make or don’t make (and, like all her works, there’s a queer bent).
The film has already garnered Lim the best screenwriting award and best performance award for Skye at the 2012 Vancouver Women in Film Festival. We caught up with Lim to chat about her film, which premiers tonight, 8:30 p.m. in Newport Beach, Calif.
Why set a story around dead characters that continue to punish each other in the afterlife?
As a filmmaker, I have always been fascinated by the mystery of afterlife. This is my attempt to engage in a dialogue between the living and the dead about love, loss, dreams, and regrets, in the context of our current human condition.
This is a change for you.
Yes, this film marks my first venture into the darker realms of the human experience, and the theme of mortality. For this script, I revisited an old concept that I had years ago for an intimate drama where the lead character is still alive and is trapped in a house with other characters that are deceased. I wanted to explore the theme of a group of souls who are trapped in limbo and not able to move forward in their lives. For Jean, who’s still alive but has lived like the walking dead and for the ghosts, who have passed on but unable to move on in their afterlife — both the living and the dead are spiritually and physically stuck in a point in time. The House is not a conventional ghost story but a psychological study on the lives of characters that come from different social and cultural backgrounds, each having varying worldviews and separated by self-imposed isolation.
Is there some part of the film’s central thesis, about not being able to move on with your life, that you related to?
That’s a really good question. This film actually came about because of another film that I was supposed to make with Natalie Skye was shelved because of financial reasons at the eleventh hour. It was the first time for me as a filmmaker to have had to postpone a film project because of financial difficulties. So I was kind of in a limbo myself, trying to figure out what to do next in the meantime. As a way to keep my creative juices and momentum going, I came up with the idea of making an ultra low budget film that would still creatively and artistically challenge me. Hence the birth of The House, a mixed genre supernatural psycho-thriller that is a part horror, part thriller, part love story type of film that also takes a run at Wall Street. There were a lot of challenges making a film on a shoestring budget, but it gave me the chance to go back to my roots of indie filmmaking by just picking up the camera with a small crew and just shoot the film, instead of having to wait around for investors to show up to fund it. It was a very gratifying experience to be able to do that. And I am grateful to my dedicated team who helped me accomplish the impossible despite the limited resources we had.
Because The House is darker than your other acclaimed films. Will this surprise fans of your work?
Yes, this film is a departure from my past films like Floored By Love and Sugar Sweet, which are more confections of comedy with lots of heart. I guess I wanted to explore the darker side of my own psyche and ended up with a story about death and grief, which are still very much subjects of taboo in today’s society and can be somewhat like the elephant in the room as many people in general are not comfortable talking about it because it triggers lots of hurt and fear. That holds something in common with issues around homophobia that is still prevalent on different levels, and homosexuality is still a taboo subject in many parts of the world. So even though I am entering the foray of different styles, genres and themes with this film, the central thesis has a lot in common. I hope my fans would be able to appreciate that creative growth in my work, evolving toward more complex themes that are not necessarily specifically gay-oriented, but still provoke and challenge the viewer to re-examine their values in life and their place in the world today.
You’ve worked with your lead, Natalie Skye, a few times before, right? What draws you to her?
Natalie Skye has been my creative collaborator for the past decade. We have a very open and trusting relationship and have thrived on bringing out the best of each other’s strengths and creativity as an actor-director team. I admire the raw and honest quality in the emotions she is able to bring to the strong female characters I create for my films. She is the kind of actor who goes fearlessly to places she needs to go to bring the character to life on screen with nothing but authenticity. And that is what I strive to offer through my films – stories about real people and emotional truth. My latest film with Natalie features an uptight, strong-willed former Wall Street Banker struggling to find her inner voice and her place in today’s world. The story explores the complexities of human relationships, social values and moral conflicts. And I chose to cast Natalie to challenge her as an actor to play a role that is very different from who she is as a person, and she was able to breathe life into the character and made it her own. My next feature film is also with Natalie, in a romantic drama with award-winning actress Joan Chen — about an older woman, Chen, falling for her stepdaughter, Natalie Skye.
Do you think being a lesbian filmmaker gives you a different take on the archetype of ghost story?
That’s an interesting question! I have yet to come across a “lesbian ghost” in my life yet myself. I think lesbian horror/thriller films should be a new genre to tap into. Anyone? Well, as a lesbian filmmaker, I would definitely make casting sexy-but-diverse female actors to play the ghosts a top priority!