I recently had the opportunity to interview an amazing filmmaker, Karen Lam. Her new film, The Curse of Willow Song, has received praise from critics and fans alike. She recently won the Best BC Film award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. She also won Best Director of a motion picture, Best Cinematography at the Leo Awards 2020.
Synopsis for The Curse of Willow Song
Having served her time for arson, Willow Song (Valerie Tian) is now fending for herself on the unforgiving streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. There, she’s asked to contend with the squalid condition of her SRO, a sketchy bestie (Ingrid Nilson), her ongoing struggle to stay clean, constant harassment in her workplace, and festering resentment towards Asian-Canadians. With the fates seemingly conspiring against her, she’s thrown a lifeline by a figure from her past (Elfina Luk). As Willow holes up in an abandoned warehouse, her latent psychokinetic abilities manifest and an uncanny transformation commences.
PopHorror – Hi Karen, it’s great to talk with you! What inspired you to get into filmmaking and directing?
Karen Lam – Thanks, Tori! I started off in the industry as a lawyer and a producer — I actually had no plans to be a filmmaker, writer, or director but there was one special year when every one of the projects I was developing as a producer imploded. I was in full panic mode, trying to decide if I should go back into law. I was really into Asian horror and had an idea for a short film that would embody what I was looking to produce. So I ended up turning it into a short script, and my producer Karen Wong and I applied to the National Screen Institute Drama Prize and we ended up getting picked as one of the five projects across Canada.
PopHorror – That’s amazing! Do you remember your first film project and if so how did that impact your career and love for filmmaking?
Karen Lam – The first film that I wrote and directed was The Cabinet, which was the short film we made under the NSI-Drama Prize program. It was my first training as a writer and director, but I think I was still kicking and screaming about being a producer who was just moonlighting into the creatives. That film changed the entire course of my career. I did continue to produce after that, but that short film got programmed into horror festivals worldwide and I ended up meeting Heidi Honeycutt from Etheria Film Fest when she reviewed it for her website “Pretty Scary”. The Cabinet connected me with female horror filmmakers around the world. And I realized I finally found my tribe.
PopHorror – I know how that feels! Your new film The Curse of Willow Song is being praised by critics and fans alike. How does that feel?
Karen Lam – It’s a little surreal, to be honest. As a horror filmmaker, I’m used to only appealing to a select audience and having most mainstream viewers telling me how much they actually hate horror, no offense. So in this case, it’s such a different experience to have received awards from non-genre film festivals and critics, and to receive nods from an audience that aren’t genre fans….it’s a bit overwhelming. I’m thrilled with the response, but also still processing what this means going forward.
PopHorror – You deserve it! What inspired you to create this film?
Karen Lam – I do a ton of research for every project and a lot of ideas germinate for years without me doing anything about it. The Curse of Willow Song is the unholy mash-up of Lovecraft, watching The Dead Files as marathon viewing, Japanese ghost stories, and Butoh dance, interviewing female inmates at a firefighting program in Portland, Oregon, and a lot of personal experiences. But when I actually sit down to write something, I tend to try to forget all the research and just write in a stream-of-conscious way. Things fall into place as the story goes on…
PopHorror – You have a wonderful, diverse cast. Was representation important to you in this film?
Karen Lam – I think the moment that I decided Willow would be Chinese and in an Asian gang family, everything stemmed from there. I wasn’t thinking representation, to be honest, but to write from a cultural and political place that I had never explored before, which was my own cultural heritage. I create a character on the page, rather than through casting, and Willow was actually written with Valerie Tien (Willow Song) in mind. I had worked with her on a web series and had always wanted to make a film that highlighted her abilities.
PopHorror – It was a great choice! This film is in black and white. I’m curious to as why you chose to do that instead of color? Either way, I love it and for me, it delivers a more dramatic, dark, and gritty atmosphere.
Karen Lam – The film is an homage to those old Japanese horror films from the 1960s like Onibaba and Kuroneko, as well as a 1920s experimental film A Page of Madness so it was always written with black and white in mind. In fact, I think that’s the first line in the script: “The film is shot in black and white…” I wanted to play with frame and lightning, getting rid of the colour palette. I also wanted to make it seem like Willow was always incarcerated, no matter where she went.
PopHorror – Do you have any favorite scenes? Or any scenes that you found challenging?
Karen Lam – I think one of my favourite scenes was also the most challenging, and it’s a long shot of her in the coma, with everyone arguing around her. It’s a long scene that’s full of information and I had always wanted to film it in one shot but from Willow’s POV. So we spent ages blocking it with Elfina Luk, Simon Chin, and Dejan Loyola: how to make their movements seem natural and dynamic given that Willow’s POV would be locked off? But when we went to get the coverage and Willow’s reaction, Val’s performance was so riveting there was no way I was going to cut into it. So it’s still a one-shot but not the one I intended.
PopHorror – That’s awesome. I can feel your passion for his film just by your answers alone! What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
Karen Lam – I always hope for dialogue. There’s a lot to unpack, whether it’s cultural, social, or paranormal, I’m happy if it makes people talk and think about the ideas.
PopHorror – Any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
Karen Lam – Not at the moment. The pandemic has literally left my brain creatively fried and I keep starting and stopping projects. At this point, I’m going to try to dive back into the novel-writing in November and see what I come up with, but that’s all I can guarantee.