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Scarlett Johansson tells ST's John Lui: Your question is giving me a lot of anxiety

Vanishing buildings, skin-tight silicone suits, prosthetic eyes and mullet hairdos are just some of the difficulties the cast and crew of Ghost In The Shell faced

Rupert Sanders, director of Ghost In The Shell, was happy to shoot the Japan-set film in Hong Kong. He had worked there in the past and location-scouting for the new movie only deepened his affection for the city.

"I've been up pretty much every building in Hong Kong," says the 46-year-old Briton.

The movie, a live-action remake of the manga series that includes a 1995 anime of the same title, is set in Japan, 2029.

Like the anime, now a cult classic, Sanders' futuristic Japan looks a great deal like the Hong Kong of the 1980s, with its Chinese signboards, teeming streets, raw meat for sale at street stalls and dirt-streaked apartment blocks, but with high- tech add-ons.

Sanders took pains to find places in the former colony that looked as well-worn and weathered as in the 1995 animation film. He would find a spot, then make a note to return in a few months for the film shoot.

But Hong Kong does not stand still for anyone.

"The thing I love about Hong Kong - the grime - is dying. It's being pushed away by new tower blocks. We'd choose a building and we'd come back three months later and the building's gone," he says.

Vanishing buildings were not his only problem. In the West, the film was beset by charges of whitewashing, with critics saying the lead character of cyborg policewoman Major Motoko Kusanagi should be played by a Japanese actress instead of Scarlett Johansson.

But such questions were vetoed by the film company at a recent press event in Seoul.

For Johansson, the challenge was physical. Her cyber-enhanced character of Major spends a good portion of the film in a figure-hugging skin-coloured silicone suit, its contours now seen in movie posters all over Singapore.

"I used to have to dislocate some limbs (to put it on), but it gets easier," she says of her signature one-piece outfit, which grants her super-policewoman character the power of invisibility.

Her pre-shoot regimen, which included a lot of paramilitary training, helped whip her body into shape for the suit.

"I was training a lot to be as effective as possible in all my stunt work, so that thing just slipped right on.

"Like a second skin," she adds, for emphasis.

Her character takes up most of the screen time, but speaks very little.

At another conference during the same event, the American actress, 32, talks about using body language to express inner conflict.

Major has a "ghost" - remnants of her human identity - lodged within a consciousness that has been programmed by her employers, the anti-terrorism agency Section 9.

The "shell" is her artificial body. In the future, while most people have some kind of robotic enhancement, Major is unique in that she is almost all machine.

Major reports to Section 9 leader Chief Aramaki, played by Japanese movie veteran Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, who speaks his lines in Japanese.

Johansson says: "With Takeshi and I, obviously there was a language barrier between us. But you realise your eyes are the strongest tools to have a human connection with somebody."

United States-based Singapore actor Ng Chin Han plays Togusa, a Section 9 operative who prefers to keep his body as free of cyber enhancements as possible, relying on his sleuthing skills to get by.

 

His recent Hollywood roles have been race-specific - in the Netflix series Marco Polo, he is chancellor Jia Sidao in the royal court of China; and in alien-invasion epic Independence Day Resurgence (2016), he plays a China military man, Commander Jiang.

But increasingly, the actor, who goes by the stage name Chin Han, is pleased to find that scripts are deliberately stating that characters do not have to be white.

"These days, for American movies, they cast their net wide. They don't look at just Asian actors or African-American actors. Very often, I'm looking at scripts with casting notes that ask for multiracial actors," Ng, 47, tells The Straits Times on the telephone from his home base of Los Angeles.

However, he thinks that the progress is driven more by the market wants than by a conscious desire to be fairer to minority actors.

"TV shows and movies reach wider audiences and these audiences support these films with their dollar, so there is a push to include the race of the people that you are making the movie for."

In the world of Ghost In The Shell, director Sanders saw a multiracial, melting-pot future society, so he asked actors to bring their own natural accents, which is why Togusa speaks as Ng would, with a British-leaning Singapore accent.

Another trait of Togusa's that the actor is grateful for is his lack of cyber enhancements. Compared with fellow cast member Pilou Asbaek, who wears prosthetic eyes to play Section 9 member Batou, he had it easy.

All he had to worry about was Togusa's mullet, a hairstyle that is long in the back and short in the front. "It still takes a while to get ready, even though I grew out my hair for it. The hairstylists needed to add extensions," he says.

"It took me a while to get my hair ready, but it took Pilou twice as long. He was my buddy in the make-up trailer... we passed the time by showing each other funny YouTube videos."

It took 4 hours to put on bionic eyes

Danish actor Asbaek, 35, is not too fond of wearing the prosthetics that are supposed to be enhanced eyes for his character Batou to see through objects with.

“It took four hours to put them on. The days I was not wearing them were happy days,” says the actor at the press event in Seoul.

But the eyes are not just a cosmetic decision, he says – they play a role in making Batou an interesting character, one that embodies the film’s themes of the clash between human individuality and machine conformity.

In the story, Batou goes from a normal person to one with superhuman gifts because of his bionic eyes. But his new powers never diminish his capacity for kindness, says Asbaek.

“The more cyber-enhanced Batou becomes, the more human he becomes.”

French actress Juliette Binoche, 53, is the odd one out in the cast as she is best known for her work in weighty dramas and arthouse cinema, in films such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy (1993- 1994) and the critically acclaimed Clouds Of Sils Maria (2014).

There is no “big-budget movie Juliette” versus “arthouse Juliette”, says Binoche, who was also in Seoul. What she brings to the role depends on the freedom given to her by the director. On Ghost In The Shell, Sanders set her free.

In the movie, she is roboticist Dr Ouelet, a member of the team that created Major. Her relationship with Major becomes deeper and more maternal as the film progresses.

“I was given space, absolutely. Sometimes, Rupert would worry that the relationship would be too emotional because he wanted to believe my character is a scientist. There is a fine line to find that equilibrium – she is the scientist who created this ghost in a shell, yet she feels emotions about it.”

• Ghost In The Shell opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Ghostly challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe