Need to Know

Hong Kong Creative Force Josie Ho Plays Many Roles

Whether honing her acting skills under a French Clown Master, scouting projects for her production studio 852 Films, or jamming with her rock n' roll band Josie and The Uni Boys, Ho excels at navigating different worlds.

Josie Ho is a renaissance woman. Actress, producer, singer—the prolific Hong Kong-based talent, and daughter of Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, has her hands in many pots. Since launching her career in 1994, Ho has appeared in more than 30 films and TV shows—winning awards for roles in the slasher-horror Dream Home and erotic-drama In the Room—and worked with leading directors ranging from Steven Soderbergh to Takeshi Mike to Johnny To. 

In 2009, she launched 852 Films with her husband, Conroy Chan, and producer Andrew Ooi. The studio is known for its eclectic eye, notably picking up How To Talk To Girls At Parties, starring Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman, at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. In the new 852 Films documentary Finding Bliss: Fire and Ice, Ho and her rock band, Josie and The Uni Boys, travel to Iceland in search of solace and cultural enrichment. Below, Surface talks to the multi-hyphenate about the documentary, training under a clown master, and her epic hat collection. 

I read that you and your husband started 852 Films in response to the monotonous film culture in Hong Kong. What’s the vision of the studio? 

Most people don’t want to know the original story. Every film we make has the goal of raising awareness in a positive way for the people we highlight or for a group in society. In my film Dream Home, we were trying to show Hong Kong real estate prices are really high. In Full Strike, we  promoted badminton as a sport—tennis, soccer, and American football get televised a lot, but in Hong Kong we love badminton. We tried our best to make it a fun story and make people play more badminton. 

Describe the sound of your band, Josie and The Uni Boys.

We do a little bit of punk, a lot of hard rock. We’re also always exploring different genres of music like EDM and emo—we’ve even explored rockabilly as a sound. We prefer songs we can play with our instruments on stage. 

Josie and the Uni Boys.

Do your acting and singing careers intersect? How are those two creative passions similar and how are they different? 

I love them both. Having a concert every two to three years makes me happy. A new single comes out every six months. I do about one to two films each year. When I changed my music style early in my career from pop to rock, I was jamming with my current band. We were friends and we jammed for six years before ever getting a real band name. Now, we stay creative: two guitarists, one bassist, and I’m the lead vocalist. 

You trained under the French Clown Master Philippe Gaulier. What was that experience like and how did it impact your career?

I was feeling stuck somewhere in my acting skills. My other acting friend, who is a mentor, realized this and brought me to a course with Philippe. I really had no idea if I was funny or not, I just had an open mind. I ended up getting so much good advice from him about acting and life in general. Throughout the acting games and workshops, he really had us play with each other.

The games are not just for actors. I saw a few people in the class who were top-level corporate executives and sales leaders. The games we played for 8-9 hours per day were a life lesson. I learned about positive energy and how to harness it in acting. As an actor, I say I’m “playing the role of” and that’s the main lesson in his classes. We’re playing and it gets very natural. Philippe told me I was funny and I had rhythm but that I should face myself in the mirror more and be silly.

To be a good clown, you have to practice in a heavy costume and get into the role. Lose yourself. Hey told me I’m a silly person but I’m also a good liar—thank god! It means I can act! The games really inspired me. I realized it could help people suffering from depression. It’s about finding your simple pleasures and bringing out the best feelings. Material things don’t make us happy the way a belly laugh can. Try it now…laugh with me. Think of your most embarrassing moment.

Josie Ho on set filming her documentary, Finding Bliss: Fire and Ice.

Finding Bliss is a documentary about you and your bandmates in Hong Kong venturing off to Iceland in search of solitude and deeper meaning. What sparked the idea and what do you hope the audience takes away from the film?

I want to make people happier. I want to encourage people to open their minds. Happiness from my acting coach Jim Chim. He brought the spirit of some of Phillip Gaulier’s classes and modified them to teach us in Iceland. 

In the trailer, there’s a clip of you saying you learned nothing. Does that mean you didn’t find bliss?

I think we found bliss. Iceland is a dream location for Hong Kong people. It’s not convenient or affordable, but I thought bringing everyone there would be memorable. Everyone was a bit reserved at first. Weird because I’ve jammed with all of them, legendary musicians, and suddenly Iceland threw them off! But once we got off the plane everyone was emotional—Hong Kong people love seeing snow. We played with the musicians we met there, and talked and laughed.

Our classes taught us that happiness is a choice you make; being conscious and owning your thoughts, you can choose better thoughts. It’s about realizing how stupid we are because if we don’t, we’ll never realize how smart we can be. Musicians don’t like to be silly, but we have to do that around the people we feel safe with.

That’s how we all connect. Our jam sessions were full of amazing energy after this, so much passion came out. Sik is a drummer we brought to Iceland who never really shows himself to his bandmates of 40 years. He opened up during the session and his wife even commented that he was a different person coming home. The effect of the trip was that everyone “got” the meaning of the classes. I think it was a mix of the jamming, and the playful times; it was seeing our classmates open up. Yvonne was a student we brought to Iceland to see if we could get her to open up. She was very shy at first but by the end, she was jamming with me and the other band members. She came and initiated a free-flow rap song! If I had not seen this, I would never have believed it. 

Josie and The Uni Boys in Iceland.
Josie Ho.

What surprised you most about Iceland that you weren’t expecting?

We went to Iceland during Chinese New Year and we knew there was a crazy storm happening. By the time we arrived at the hotel, right across the street there was a giant street lamp that was bent because of the storm—imagine a metal lamp bent into the shape of an L. The storm was so intense. We asked our Icelandic co-production crew about the storm and they shrugged it off as “normal.” 

That was a surprise. Imagine all of us in a 24-seater van; we still felt it shaking with the storm. We thought it was going to blow off rooftops.

In the finale, the band does a jam session with musicians from Iceland. As someone who has lived in Canada and China, and starred in international films, what’s it like straddling eastern and western cultures? 

Music unites people. In our class, we had some interactions before the jam session with the Icelandic musicians. In Iceland, there are more than 65 music schools. Every person in the country can play an instrument or sing well.

We sent them a famous Chinese song from a kung fu movie by Wong Fei-hung and they picked it up so easily. We also did an Icelandic folk song. It was like a cross-over between a Chinese folk song and an Icelandic folk song. As we were jamming, we saw how similar we are as people. We played each band’s music and we really clicked the minute the session started. It seemed like everyone found so much joy in hearing the other cultures’ folk songs.

Once we blended the Icelandic song with the Chinese song, it felt so powerful. All of us felt it. It was one for the books. We did something very cool together. I felt that was the best performance I’ve given anything.

Fashion seems like a big interest. What are your style inspirations and how would you describe your style overall?

I watch the trends, I watch the fashion shows. I like to know about shapes and colors coming up. I like to see what era fashion is trying to imitate. We’re always going back (’60s, ’70s). Once I realize those things, I put my outfits together. I blend vintage designer with new pieces. I love a good coat. I like blending high-end with H&M and vintage. I’m a big fan of Saint Laurent—that’s a no-brainer, rock-in-roll look for me. 

What’s the story behind your incredible hat collection? 

I treat them more like art. There are a few that I always wear. I think I have about 100 hats; 45 of those are vintage. Some of the modern ones I wear; the vintage and antique hats I see as art. I love them and I admire them every day. I collect them from all around the world. I love this shop in L.A., The Way We Wore, where I’ve found some awesome pieces. I’ve also received some from Maison Michel as gifts that I love.

What’s your dream project and why?  

I have too many! I want it all. My dream project is an epic period piece, telling the story of the ’20s and ’30s. That’s my favorite time. It seems like people lived simpler and better. I’d love to play a troubled woman in that time period.

Reading your past interviews, it seems like you complicated feelings about Hong Kong. What has your experience living there been like? What are the advantages and disadvantages? What do you hope for Hong Kong in the future given all the disruption in recent years?

I pray for fewer quarantines in Hong Kong. Covid has really hurt the mental health and there are some unhappy people. Since I started filming Dream Home, I wanted to offer some relief to the general sadness. I thought I saw the state of people improving in Hong Kong because we don’t seem to have enough fantasy or cult films. That all stopped in the ’90s. I think creative arts help people escape. I’m trying to contribute.

In recent years, I’ve heard about a lot of suicides. Young people feel hopeless and cannot manage the high stress of education. I made Finding Bliss to spread the message of choice—buying a house is not the maker of all things happy. Education in Hong Kong is very competitive. Kids get a lot of pressure to succeed and they feel the stress of exams as life-ending. The pressure is too much. This film was about bliss through being silly, through play.

What question am I not asking you that I should ask you? And what is the answer to that question?

I love talking about my band. I want to tour with my band. Often I get sent somewhere for a film and now I want to take the band with me to more destinations. Find the good food, the good gigs. We love talking to locals about where to go. That’s so fun. Boots on the ground. Cool stranger conversations.

What’s next?

There are a few films that we managed to film during Covid. Those films are waiting to come out. My hope is the film festival route. I hope you all get to see Edge of The World. At the Udine Film Festival, we met a lot of festival organizers who have invited Edge of The World to open their film festival, so I’m hoping more films go this way. We love seeing our films get distribution and hearing feedback from fans. I have a Japanese horror film coming out also. I’ve been busy. We’re trying to finish a few films including another one called Mother Tongue.

Musically, I’m doing a concert The Uni Boys and some special highlight musicians who are coming to jam with us, plus a super theatre director Mathias Woo. That’s happening in September 2023. Come jam with us.

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