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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Ill Omens and Serial Killers

(The Jars Murderer produced by Miditech Pvt Ltd premiered on the Crime & Investigation network in August 2010. Some scribbles on how superstitions almost killed the film)

No one wanted to talk about it. It was taboo among the local Chinese in Hong Kong. They said it was ill omen. A macabre relic that’s best forgotten! If you’ve ever been there, you’d know that in Hong Kong, people take their superstitions very seriously. And here we were, a team from India, trying to make a documentary about the one-who-must-not-be-named.


He was Hong Kong’s first serial killer, the Jars Murderer – a night shift taxi driver who killed women and then preserved their private parts in jars of formaldehyde. When the Police raided his house, they had found a horrifying collection of pickled jars, photographs of female body parts and hours of video starring him dissecting his victims. No one wanted to talk about the case. Period.


If there was one thing that could change minds, it was Money. Money could buy superstition.We didn’t have any. This was a small budget film. In any case, we docu film-makers are a bit superstitious about these things – we try not to buy bytes. Some of us believe it’s unethical. At the most, we’re willing to compensate with a MacD dinner for the productive time lost in filming with us


John throwing the packet with
dismembered limbs into the Shin Mun River
So around this time, last year we were in Hong Kong, trying to make a film on the man who-must-not-be-named. My team included a very enthusiastic and experienced DOP – Gurwinder Singh or Guri who truly believes that everything is possible and is usually proved right; John, a sound recordist who has almost every country’s stamp on his passport, and yours truly – just happy to do my first true crime. My first attempt at film noir! I was so excited, that I didn’t really care a damn about ill omens and poor budgets and deadly timelines.

Martyn Richmond & Steve Lo - Part of the
HK Police Investigating Team

My partner-in-crime in Hong Kong was this awesome researcher and line producer Becky Lee. Like me, she too is an avid consumer of crime on tv and decided that this film was going to be as much her baby as it was mine. She got down to brass tacks, pulled in favours and and with some unconventional non-google methods managed to track down the cops who investigated the case - Martyn Richmond & his Deputy Steve Lo. They agreed to be interviewed.


Becky Lee
Becky had worked on ‘Dark Knight’ in its Hong Kong schedule and brought along a really smart local team -  Maurice Vy, a production Assistant and Sam, the driver of the Crew Van. So, I was proud to have people in my team who had worked with my God - Christopher Nolan. What more could I ask for?


But if I didn’t believe in superstitions and ill omens, Hong Kong certainly did. On the second day of our shoot, Becky got hit by a Black Merc at the same location, where almost 30 years ago, the murderer had disposed the bodies. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious and she wasn’t badly hurt. Just some outpatient care, but it shook us all up.


Guri just before he fell ill
On the third day, we realized that our camera had started malfunctioning, and we needed a replacement.


As we were getting a fix on that, Guri fell ill – high fever that came on with a dramatic shiver. By the sixth day, our fears had been confirmed. But Malaria in a country where it is so rare is far more insidious  – the doctors panicked. According to them, this was an epidemic condition. They wouldn’t agree to administer the quinine unless Guri got admitted, and if we were to get him admitted, we were told that they would quarantine him for two weeks. In those 3 or 4 days, I think saw more of hospitals than I’ve ever seen in India. We really didn’t know what to do. Stay alone in a foreign country and get better, or head back to India and get treated by the family doctor at home. We eventually chose the latter. Thankfully, the paracetamols and ice-packs kept the fever down, and Guri escaped the thermal scans at the airport and the epidemic scare in the country. He took the camera with him.


Now, we desperately needed a new DOP with a new camera and some good luck in a red envelope. We were also running madly against time and money. Thankfully, we had a crack support team in our Delhi office who very efficiently managed logistics and sent out replacements. In the meanwhile, Becky decided to place some incense sticks at the temple.


The next 4 or 5 days, the streets of Hong Kong belonged to us. We shot ferociously – on the streets where he drove for hours at night in search of his victim, in the taxis where he murdered them, by the river where he dumped the bodies, in the Kodak store where he got his photos developed, and in the original house where he lived with his family (and they didn’t know that he brought dead women home).


Becky with Henry
Among the many incredible things that Becky pulled off, she even managed to get one of her friends to agree to play the role of the serial killer in the film. And he was brilliant. As good as any professional. He would have a hundred questions about the scene, and then give me several options in return on how he would approach it. The only time, that I thought he may have been a little nervous was when I asked him to check out on-shot the real ‘women-of-the-night’ on the streets of Mong Kok. He later told me that prostitution in Hong Kong is run by the Triads and we were filming right under their nose. If they had spotted our camera, this film would have truly been killed. But we survived, and lived to come back home.


The bedroom
Back in India, we had to complete some indoor murder shoots before the film got on to the edit table. Yeah, it sounds gruesome. Guri was back on track and was completely focussed on reconstructing the serial killer’s bedroom.When I look back, those few days of pre-production, were actually quite bizarre. One of our art guys was busy making female body parts of thermacol, a couple of interns working in this project were scourging the streets of Delhi for discarded porn magazines and downloading as much as possible as homework.The Associate Director had to convince a photography lab to help develop semi porn photos. Guri set off for Chandni Chowk to look for old LP records and ancient photographic equipment. Another colleague had to locate a butcher willing to supply meat and blood to the sets. At the end of it all, the bedroom was ready - it had jars with meat floating in alcohol, suitcases full of porn magazines and books on surgery with scalpels and scissors.Yes, that’s what the Police found when they raided his room.


Hong Kong Skyline
On the edit table, Sanjeev Nag took over. There were many challenges. The story and its theme were too gruesome for family viewing. We had to ensure we didn’t cross the line. Secondly, unlike other crime films, this was not a whodunit. You knew who the murderer was, within the first Act. The meat was in the 'how' and the ‘why’. As always, our creative guru, Niret worked his magic on the script, and with some very clever and pointed legal arguments on the conflict between mad and bad, we constructed our case for the Jars Murderer. The commissioning editors loved the final film.


The Jars Murderer produced by Miditech Pvt Ltd premiered on the Crime & Investigation network last year in August, and I believe has been picked up by networks across Europe and the US. If you get a chance to watch it, please do. I'm most certain that it will not kill you - the jinx has been broken, the evil has been ‘jar-red’.







Maurice captures Guri filming the Shinmun River




Pack-up



It's a wrap at an Indonesian restaurant 


Miditech - Documentary - Jars Murderer
Crime & Investigation - UK