Cinematographer Justin Ivan Hong shows off love for New York City in award-winning film
Growing up in Singapore, Justin Ivan Hong was an introverted child. Rather than speaking, he liked to observe leading to a sense of empathy and a desire to try and understand why people are the way they are. He explored this through the arts, whether drawing or taking photos, passing the time in his youth. However, as he grew, he began to have an increased interest in the idea of narrative motion pictures, and all these pieces of himself began to click together in cohesive harmony.
“While I can’t say that I consciously wanted to be a cinematographer, the more I learned about it, the more evident it became that this was the creative outlet/voice that I had been searching for. It was inevitable,” said Hong.
Now, Hong is an industry leading cinematographer in Singapore and abroad, known for his substantial contributions to the many films and television shows he has been a part of. He has worked alongside industry icons, like Star Wars’ Mark Hamill and Howard Kazanjian (Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and contributed to the success of many acclaimed films, like the viral comedy The Buddhist and the award-winning drama Sui Side Inn.
One of Hong’s first large international successes was the film I Love New York, an ode to the hustle and uniqueness of New York City. After a NYC first-timer befriends a savvy street girl on the train, she takes him on a fantastical ride through all the city's pitfalls. But nothing's free in this town, and what appears to be a hustle, might not be what it seems after all.
Hong had been to New York several times before and loved the city, enjoying the frenzy and pace at which the city resonates. When he received the script for this film, it perfectly encapsulated that feeling and he very quickly started to have ideas on how to approach this.
“I like this story for the simple fact that it is funny and entertaining. I love all kinds of films and there are films for every mood. There are times that a serious film challenges our status quo, a documentary opens up our worldview. But I also believe that purely entertaining films are equally important. Life is about finding a balance and we all need to unwind and relax, and take time to embrace silliness,” said Hong.
Hong’s instincts on the cinematography paid off. I Love New York premiered in 2017 and spent the whole year playing at film festivals. It won a Remi Award at the 50th Annual WorldFest Houston and Best Narrative Short at the Artists’ Forum Festival of the Moving Image. It also was Officially Selected to be screened at over 30 film festivals domestically and internationally.
“Working on this was a great experience primarily because it had the right amount of challenge to promote the growth of my own craft, but yet not so difficult that I struggled. Most importantly, the film itself is funny and entertaining, and it feels so satisfying to know that I contributed to something that brought some joy and laughter into the world,” said Hong.
Hong travelled to New York City to shoot the film, which was a very enjoyable experience for the cinematographer. Growing up in a dense and urban city like Singapore, he was able to relate to the story very personally and was able to effectively translate that feeling onto the image. He understood the constant movement and energy and the feeling of being lost in an urban jungle. Because of this, he was flawlessly able to craft an image and make the right choices to encapsulate this so that the audience would feel it as well.
“Justin is an absolute joy to work with. We had a great and fun time travelling all over New York City shooting this film. New York can be chaotic, noisy and distracting, but Justin was somehow able to tune all of that out and stay calm and focused on what he needed to do. He never got frazzled even once. He had an enormous impact on the rest of the team and crew because his vibe also influenced the rest of us and made us calmer. This is what makes Justin so invaluable to any production. Aside from being fearlessly creative and technically competent, his general disposition and leadership of his crew makes for an extremely ideal and conducive environment in which to be creative, especially for a Director,” said Christian Vogeler, Director.
I Love New York still, over three years later, holds a special spot in Hong’s heart. Not only was it a very successful film, but it allowed him to see the potential of his craft, not just by doing what he loves every day, but by travelling the world.
“Having grown up on an island, I’ve never truly understood just how big and diverse the world is. I just knew it as a fact, but never quite experienced it. It is such a joy for me to have the privilege of travelling to other towns and cities and learning about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of different cultures,” he concluded.
By Annabelle Lee
June 16th, 2019