H.P. Mendoza’s musicals were too gay for Asians and too Asian for gays. So he made a horror film
The tragedy of the film industry is that once you are known for one thing, it’s difficult to get people to see you in a different light. That’s certainly been an issue for H.P. Mendoza.
Ever since 2006’s Colma: The Musical, Mendoza — who wrote, composed and co-starred in the film — has been known as “the musical guy.” While he preferred that to “people seeing me as either the gay filmmaker or the Asian filmmaker,” he says, the resistance he has encountered trying to break out of the pigeonholes people set for him has been frustrating.
“After Colma, I had straight, Asian friends say to me, ‘Have you thought about making films where people weren’t such outliers of society?’ What they meant was ‘queer.’ But at every gay film festival, someone would come up to me and say, ‘You need less lotus blossom/chinky people.’ I was shocked! I even had one Hollywood producer — who is gay! — say to me, ‘Oh, H.P., you’re a good writer, but Asian faces don’t sell and will never sell.’” (The producer later apologized.)
Almost in defiance of the haters, Mendoza’s follow-up to Colma (which he also got to direct) was another musical, Fruit Fly … which he made even more gay and more Asian than Colma. It worked — Fruit Fly won best film at Fort Worth’s Q Cinema in 2009. (“I was really flattered by that,” he says.)
But ever the contrarian, Mendoza has gone in an entirely different direction with I Am a Ghost, which plays at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas this week. Basically a two-character period film about murder and the occult, it seems to have nothing in common with the musical genre for which he became famous.
“No, it definitely does not,” he says. “I found this Venn diagram online where one circle was ‘People who love musicals’ and the other was ‘People who love horror films;’ where they met was ‘Serial killers.’”
Mendoza hasn’t killed anyone — yet … though he’s probably been tempted to. (Remember his encounter with the gay producer?) But he also sees more in common than at first appears.
“Colma does not have a happy ending and Fruit Fly is about how perkiness disappears. I’ve had friends tell me I should make a non-cynical musical, but I don’t think my musicals are cynical. It’s just that we all have our good times and bad times; the typical musical is nothing but good followed by a moment of sadness. That’s not reality,” Mendoza says.
Still, there are some moments of levity in his musicals; I Am a Ghost is unrelentingly dark.
“With I Am a Ghost I decided not only am I gonna do a horror film, but make it very experimental and tribute the haunted house films of the 1960s and ‘70s,” he says.
The premise is that a ghost named Emily, apparently murdered in her home a century ago, spends the entire film communicating with a present-day clairvoyant, who is trying to exorcise her and free her from her house.
Even this film, though, was a reaction against what people expected of him.
“There’s a reason I called it I Am a Ghost. I was tired of how, after The Sixth Sense, there were a lot of knockoffs where the twist was the character was dead. I decided, we’ll know from the first frame that she’s dead and talking to a medium.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t twists; it just means Mendoza is more concerned with pushing boundaries.
With initials like “H.P.” (short for Henry Patrick), you might think Mendoza was destined to make horror movies; one of the pioneers of the horror story was the writer H.P. Lovecraft.
“It’s just coincidental,” Mendoza insists, “although I love horror films. I never thought about what people might think when they see a horror movie by a guy named H.P. I love Call of Cthulhu and Danse Macabre, but I think most people don’t even know who H.P. Lovecraft is; when I say my name, I usually add, ‘As in Hewlett Packard.’ Most people do get that, sadly.”
Interestingly, although Asian (his heritage is Filipino), Mendoza was not inspired by Hong Kong or Korean films in making I am a Ghost.
“I love Asian horror films — how slow they are and deliberately creepy, as opposed to jumping out an scaring you. But when I was writing it and shooting [this film], I was thinking most about [the Australian drama] Picnic at Hanging Rock. I wanted everyone to see it as a haunted horror film by way of Bergman or Kubrick.”
That may have been the plan, but once he choose a specifically anachronistic hairstyle for his leading actress, it transformed the look.
“With that ‘70s wig on, because she is Japanese, she looks kind of like a character from Ringu or The Grudge; that’s just a happy accident,” he says.
Mendoza is also pleased that I am a Ghost has been a hit not only in Asian and fright fests, but also among gay festivals.
“I submitted it to a queer festival in Mexico and just heard it won an award,” he says. “I was scared people would walk out since there is no out queer content, but they all thought it was really queer. There’s a lot to be said about a gay sensibility. I’d say most gay men between ages 35 and 45 will guess it was written by a gay man — I can’t hide it. It comes out in subtle ways.” (There are gender identity questions in the film but that’s also where the spoilers lie.)
Mendoza may not be moving away from the horror genre and back to musicals just yet.
“I was talking to a producer who was asking if I have any other horror movies in me,” he says. “I’d love to tell The Exorcist from the perspective of the demon.”
The producer didn’t seem to think it would work. That might be exactly why Mendoza will try it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 13, 2012.