Interview#27 Michael Wong #director #writer #artdirector

My fascination with the horror genre probably started when I read my first Stephen King book (IT) and then onto my first horror movie, The Exorcist and therefore followed many more, The Omen, The Blair Witch project, I could go on and on and on… not forgetting my all-time favourite, Halloween – Michael Myers, the slow walking, mask-wearing , boiler-suited slasher. (I was delighted last year when I met Nick Castle and had a selfie with him.)

I’d rather watch a horror over a rom-com any day, why? Not because I am some kind of weirdo (well the jury is out on that one), but because the exploration of your killer can hold no bounds. It’s a perfect environment for a writer to explore that characters depths while raising the audience pulse rate, and when it’s done well, its impression will never leave you.

Director Michael Wong kindly sent me the links to both his short films, The Story of 90 Coins and The Tattooist, his latest movie, a horror, which I just had to review below.

The logline and synopsis are already intriguing,

‘Behind the acclaimed work of a renowned tattoo studio lurks an unimaginable evil.’

‘The Tattooist’ follows the dark obsessions of a tattooist whose studio is acclaimed for its exceptional and intricately crafted tattoos. Those who receive his prized masterpiece are drugged, imprisoned, and then forced to fight their fears in a race against the clock to escape. Can they escape or will they become victims of The Tattooist?

Upon watching this movie, I was immediately impressed by the walk-through to the fabulous tattoo parlour. It looked like someone’s lounge from years gone by – the over-the-top flowery Grandma wallpaper to the old style TV on a 70’s style cabinet plus the crass pink neon sign ‘The Tattooist’. The camera work here was effective, the way it moved and paused around the beautiful lady laid out on the table, oblivious under the buzz of the man himself. It set it up as a kind of cool, hip yet intimidating place. I like the way the light played off her skirt and traveled up her body – to the gruesome scenes of his real enjoyment. This is where I was taken into the world similar to the movie Hostel or The Human Centipede.  Also, and most rewarding, the baddie has a signature move, a dance (loved this dance by the way), over his now unconscious victim, only your own mind can wonder what he has in store for her. Add to that the feel good music at the end, which added a chilling touch.


The Tattooist from Michael Wong on Vimeo.

This film made me want more from this story as it sprung a series of questions;

  • What’s the backstory of The Tattooist?
  • Is he living in the past?
  • Does he keep the tattooed skin as a memento?
  • Is this latest victim the one who escapes?
  • Are there any more survivors who will help her?
  • If Michael extended this story, how would he set it apart from the Hostel, or from other horrors?

I was lucky enough to ask Michael some Q’s on this movie, as well as a few about his experience as a Malaysian Independent film-maker based out of Beijing.

Vikki: Michael, what’s your experience as a Director, and why Beijing?

Michael: I started off in the advertising industry back in 1994 as a visualizer, then moving up the ladder as an Art Director and then a Creative Director, having worked in various multinational advertising agencies in Malaysia and China.

My first break into the film-making scene was as a writer/film director gig on a commercial work for Lenovo; a viral video campaign that was to be used in such markets as India, Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey, South Africa, South East Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Finally, I’ve taken a leap of faith and work as a film director on the receiving end, concentrating on the film crafting and artistic expression.

My second milestone in film-making was the directorial debut short film ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ which has won about 60+ accolades from international film festivals; which includes the Best Direction & Best Cinematography at Malta Int’l Short Film Festival, Best Foreign Short & Best Actress at Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards, Best Drama & Best Cinematography at Los Angeles Film Awards, Best Foreign Short Film at Ukrainian International Short Film Festival, Rising Star Awards at Canada International Film Festival, an Official Finalist at London Film Awards, among others.

What I’ve learned and valued most from my previous career is the ability to derive a good idea from a concept. That’s a fundamental part for me, in storytelling. When I was in the previous career, I get to choose and hire good film directors and world-renowned print photographers, so I get to absorb stuff from those experiences. Also, my learning comes from [observing] other director’s work and from my own failure. Naturally, my learning path takes a longer route since I did not graduate from any film school. It’s a painful process but so far [it’s been] giving me a fulfilling career.

I’ve tried living in Shanghai as well but prefer Beijing. It’s the capital for film making in China and I love the spaciousness of the sprawling city compared to the more cosmopolitan yet claustrophobic Shanghai.

Vikki: Do short films offer you the chance to expand your ideas or will they stay as ‘shorts’?

Michael: What you need is just a good idea, really! A micro short (as in The Tattooist) can be a short film or it can be expanded into a feature film. In fact, for ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ we have enough script to transform it into a feature. The story began from the courtship of the protagonist’s during their university days and extended beyond their working life, which spanned approximately 9 years.

Vikki: Do you mostly write in one genre or across genre?

Michael: I’ve done narrative romance such as ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ and then there’s ‘The Tattooist’ which is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Having trained in the advertising industry before where we work on multiple brands across different products, I think it’s not too difficult to work across genres.

Vikki: What sets apart the China movie industry from others?

Michael: Not too sure about the movie industry elsewhere but there are quite a lot of restrictions (absurd to the Western standard) over here in China. For example, scripts that propagating cults and superstition is prohibited, hence no cult, ghost and horror elements! There is a certain formula to circumvent this; whereby scripts are modified so that the ‘ghost’ is depicted as some sort of a psychological delusion towards the end. Scripts with obscenity, gambling or violence, or abetting to commit crimes is also a no-no. Films which are based on crime or violence (even for a righteous reason!) will have to depict the antagonist ended up under the punitive of law. Already, censors have banned cleavage, time travel and one-night stands from Chinese TV shows.

Vikki: What do you look for in actor’s, in terms of their interpretation of characters you have written?

Michael: It’s a blessing to have some really natural actor/ actress and in both ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ and ‘The Tattooist, I was fortunate enough to worked with two first-time performers.

Zhuang Zhiqi, who played the female protagonist in ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ was a first-time actress. Initially, my producer presented to me stacks of casting cards and videos; and somewhat all of them looked rather similar with a ­chiseled chin and plastic surgery nose. I wanted a fresh innocent face for the female role and to really depict the ignorance and innocence of a young adult as she graduated and step into the working life. Zhiqi Zhuang was a friend of friend of the male protagonist and since she was in Hong Kong at the time and was unable to come in for casting, she recorded a short casting video of herself (she was only given a one-line role depiction) and I immediately fell in love with her! Her ability to cry in front of the camera melted my heart! Partnering with Zhiqi Zhuang is Dongjun Han, the heartthrob from Chinese drama series ‘Wuxin: The Monster Killer’.

For the tattooist character, I’ve opted Yanhu Wang who is a tattoo artist in real life and it was his first time acting in front of a camera. There is some sort of a goofiness and clumsiness in him that makes him such a charm!

Vikki: I have drawn a comparison to Hostel in my review, was this the intention or does the Tattooist offer something different?

Michael: It was never an intention to relate ‘The Tattooist’ with Eli Roth’s Hostel. Perhaps viewers will subconsciously associate the tattooist with the various psycho killers (clients) in Hostel as well as the level of gore. ‘The Tattooist’ follows the dark obsessions of a tattooist whose studio is acclaimed for its exceptional and intricately crafted tattoos. Those who receive his prized masterpiece are drugged, imprisoned, and then forced to fight their fears in a race against the clock to escape.

Vikki: The cinematography is exceptional in this film, does this style suit shorts particularly?

Michael: First of all, we filmed ‘The Tattooist’ in an escape room establishment in Beijing, called Scream Zone. I was involved in the art direction and design of their interior, hence I’ve precise idea on what I expect and want for the film. Lighting wise was mostly using the ambient lighting with a little fill-in lights that that the team brought in. I love the aesthetic feel on how Neon and Xenon signage bathed the tattooist’s workplace with seductive hues. The other chambers were dingy and one scene has a darkroom type of safe-light which I find it very interesting to film in.

All this atmospheric lighting enhanced the cinematography of the film. In the prologue, I opted for a really fluid smooth camerawork that glided around our tattooist to establish the character and the setting. When the viewers felt comfortable with the soothing opening and settled in, we then whacked them with a sledgehammer, so to speak. The film abruptly cuts into various ‘in your face’ vignettes! For most of those scenes, I went for close-up wider lens so that the viewers can relate to the psychological trauma of the subjects. The emotions were further amplified with some POV shots from the tattooist.

Though it was merely an 80 seconds adventure for viewers, I wanted it to be a roller coaster ride from hell!

Vikki: Your baddie has a brilliant dance move, what other delights can we expect from this character if you re-visit him?

Michael: Talking about his brilliant dance move, I’ve got a story of the tattooist (Yanhu Wang) to share. Prior to the filming day, I did not share with him any script or shooting board. When I showed him the shooting board and explained to him the dance scene, he was rather perturbed with it. “I’ve never dance before in my whole life.” he uttered. I calmly and confidently told him that he will know how to dance after this! Very reassuring! Basically, I did a few dance demonstrations for him and then I left him to do his stuffs in front of the camera. We did 2 long takes of him dancing.

Just check out the ‘behind the scene’ video on how I directed his dance move.

Well, I’m sure there will be a lot of pleasant surprises if we were to re-visit him again for the role. After all, he just needs to be himself again as a tattooist.

Vikki: What have been your major influences in your work?

Michael: I would say David Fincher. Love all his stuff! He started off doing commercial advertisements before moving into feature films.

Michael (front right) with the cast

Vikki: What’s coming up for you next?

Michael: Apart from working on the regular commercial advertisements, I’ll probably be working on a short film this coming May. A discussion is on-going for a possible feature film end of the year and I’ll keep my fingers crossed.


The Tattooist on Facebook

The Tattooist on IMDb

Michael Wong IMDb

Michael Wong Films on Facebook

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