Co-directors Ho Yuhang and Quek Shio Chuan, and stars Angeline Tan, Jordan Voon and Susan Leong talk about the challenges in making Netflix horror series The Ghost Bride
IMAGINE being married to a dead person. Some Chinese families still cling to this ancient custom, the origins of which are largely unknown.
Believed to be a way of appeasing the souls of individuals who died young, ghost marriages are rare today but occasional reports of this practice can still be found in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Ghost marriages have become subjects for novelists, including Malaysian Yangsze Choo, who came up with a horror story titled The Ghost Bride in 2013.
This novel, set in British-era Melaka City, tells of a young woman who is ghost-married to a rich couple’s recently-deceased son to save her father from debt.
She soon learns the shocking truth behind the death of her “husband” and is forced to confront sinister creatures from the netherworld.
Now in the hands of co-directors Ho Yuhang and Quek Shio Chuan, The Ghost Bride has been adapted into Netflix’s first wholly Malaysian horror series.
Both Ho and Quek read the best-selling novel a few years ago and were fascinated with its subject matter.
Ho, who is popular for his feature films such as Rain Dogs, At The End Of Daybreak and Mrs K, described it as a “melancholic” story, and so chose to add more “colour and hope” to its Netflix adaptation.
“Instead of British-era Melaka, we’ve set the story in the present day. However, it has ample flashbacks to that era,” he said at a recent interview in The Chow Kit Hotel, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur.
Quek, best known for his award-winning movie Guang (2018) which recently won Best Feature Film at the 59th Asia Pacific Film Festival in Macau, said that setting the story in the present day “brought it close” to young viewers.
“Not many Malaysians are familiar with ghost marriages. But ghost stories are very popular with viewers,” he said.
Ho said that The Ghost Bride was 90 per cent similar to the novel, with the only major difference being that the characters lived in modern Malaysia.
“We’ve added a little comedy to it to brighten things up. On the whole, it stays true to Choo’s book.”
The Ghost Bride is the first horror story for both directors, and they filmed it in George Town, Taiping and Iskandar Puteri’s Pinewood Studios early last year,
Ho said: “The biggest challenge we faced was putting together the cast, comprising Malaysians, Taiwanese and a sole Canadian actor, within a short time.
“It wasn’t easy getting them to familiarise themselves with local culture but we did it.”
The main Malaysian cast comprises Angeline Tan, Jordan Voon and Susan Leong.
It is their first time working with Ho and Quek.
Ho said: “They are very committed and passionate. We spent hours discussing the development of their respective characters.”
Quek added: “Reading the script was a blast for all of us. I am most honoured to work with Angeline since I really enjoyed her acting in the drama series My Sinseh Nyonya last year.”
Tan, who is best known as girl-next-door Lucy in the popular sitcom Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang Tu, said: “None of the cast has read the novel. As a result, though we were figuratively in the deep end of the swimming pool, furtunately, we all knew how to swim!”
Voon has earned many accolades in his three-decade acting career including Best Actor at the 2017 Malaysia Golden Awards and Best Actor In A Supporting Role at the Asian Television Awards 2011. He plays Mr Pan, heroine Li Lan’s father who is a spice trader.
“The once robust Mr Pan is now a shadow of his former self because of the tragic death of his wife. His grief indirectly impacts his relationship with Li Lan. His business has also suffered and the family is no longer well off.”
Leong’s character is known as Amah. The actress, who has been involved in more than 100 Malaysian productions since 1991, said: “Since the death of Li Lan’s mother, Amah has been Li Lan’s mother figure.
“She has been working in the Pan household as a domestic helper since before Li Lan was born and has seen Li Lan grow up to be the woman she is.”
Tan is the matriarch of the Lim family. “Madam Lim is widely respected in Melaka City. She deeply mourns the death of her son Tian Ching and still keeps serving him by burning luxurious offerings for him.
“Eerily, this also includes passing Tian Ching’s marriage proposal to Li Lan,” said Tan who is fluent in Mandarin, English, Bahasa Malaysia, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka.
Some of the challenges faced by the stars included making contrasting facial expressions within a single scene. Filming some tricky scenes was also dangerous.
“There was this scene where my spirit came out of my body. I had to be lifted by cables from one floor to another, then quickly lowered as if I was falling. Ouch!” exclaimed Voon.
Leong said one scene involving a knife gave her sleepless nights. “It was the scariest scene of my life. It involved my biggest phobia, a flying cleaver.
“The crew swung the knife tied to a rope towards me. It missed but before I could take a deep breath, they swung it at me a second time. This time, it hit me but luckily, I was wearing some protection and wasn’t hurt.”
For Tan, her scary moment came when a tea cup that she was holding began to shake and eventually shattered.
“It was staged but we were all worried that pieces of the cup would fly at our faces and hurt us,” she said.
While Voon, Tan and Leong did not get to know all of the foreign actors and actresses, they got along great with Taiwanese actress Pei Jia, who played Li Lan, as well as Taiwanese actor Kang Ren and Chinese-Canadian actor Ludi Lin of Power Rangers fame.
Tan said: “Pei Jia, Kang Ren and Ludi didn’t know much about Malaysian actors and actresses, and were curious to know more about our film industry.”
And how was it like working with the directors?
“Quek and Ho are just like The Odd Couple. They are nice guys at heart. With Quek around, you have to sculpt your own character as guidance was minimal. And with Ho, you must follow all of his specific instructions to the smallest detail,” said Leong.
She added that Quek was often reserved while Ho was talkative.
A deadly marriage proposal
THE Ghost Bride tells the story of Li Lan, a young Peranakan Chinese woman who gets a marriage proposal from the wealthy Lim family to become the “ghost bride” to their recently-deceased son.
The offer will save her family from a lifetime of debt but she will spend the rest of her life being haunted by her “husband”.
Desperate to get out of this ghastly arrangement, she soon finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery and other-worldly affairs.
The Ghost Bride, which has six hour-long episodes, will debut on Jan 23.
Co-directed by Quek Shio Chuan and Ho Yuhang, it is written by Kai Wu and produced by Zainir Aminullah of Revolution Studios.
It stars Angeline Tan, Jordan Voon, Susan Leong, Pei Jia, Kang Ren and Ludi Lin.