Have you heard of The Language of Love? You probably should have. Stephen Fry tweeted about it. It went viral on YouTube. It crashed a website. And it was written by an seventeen-year-old. Kim Ho penned the first version of The Language of Love as part of the Australian Theatre for Young People’s short film competition, Love Bytes. It is the story of Charlie, a high school student who, in the midst of his French exam, comes face to face with the fact that he is in love with his best friend Sam. The monologue secured Kim a place in ATYP’s Fresh Ink National Studio, a mentorship with Tommy Murphy and the opportunity to develop and produce The Language of Love as a short film. Since being released the film has gained international recognition and been viewed as an inspiration in the LGBT community.
GDS: Your entry into the Love Byte’s competition was your first-ever theatre piece. Why did you decide to enter the competition?
I’ve been interested in storytelling ever since I can remember and in theatre since I was eight, so I certainly had a desire to write something. I found out about Love Bytes through a friend, but didn’t think I’d be good enough. After seeing Strange Interlude at Belvoir, I became fascinated with monologues and eventually convinced myself to give it a go.
GDS: How did you get into writing and performing?
When I was four I used to make up stories about the magnolia tree in our backyard being a portal to another world. And later, when I got the chance to act, I really liked becoming someone else for a bit. So I suppose writing and performing developed as means of self-expression.
GDS: What was your motivation behind writing The Language of Love?
Around the time I discovered Fresh Ink, I saw Stephen McCallum’s It’s Time advertisement for marriage equality, and I wanted to express in my own way the idea that love doesn’t discriminate. Originally, there was a religious element to it but it made sense to just make it about how exquisite and beautiful love can be.
GDS: You sure know how to tackle the big issues: sexuality and love. Was it intimidating to write about such huge topics?
Absolutely. I was constantly worrying about it; I felt an obligation to the LGBT community to write something both candid and respectful, and at the same time not get too preachy. I think being kind of morally didactic was inevitable, but I hope I’ve done it in such a way that it celebrates love more than selling a message.
I’d noticed a common trend, even amongst open-minded people, that homosexual love was seen as somehow different to heterosexual love. By placing “I’m in love with a boy” halfway through the monologue, I wanted the audience to get to know Charlie first, so that his sexuality wasn’t what defined him. He’s first and foremost a teenager dealing with love; the fact that the object of his affection is a boy is kind of on the side. I didn’t want to make it a political message. I thought the best way to inform and persuade was to entertain, so I hoped that if I took care of the intricacies of the monologue, I’d deal with the big issues in a round-about way.
GDS: What do you hope people will get out of watching The Language of Love?
The aim was just to tell a moving story that might, if I were lucky, challenge a viewer’s beliefs. But I never really thought how deeply it might affect people. I’ve had straight guys say it made them cry; gay people say it gave them strength; and even a homophobic person say it made them seriously alter their views. I’m immensely proud that it’s been able to achieve so much and at this stage I want it to help as many people as possible.
GDS: What has been the reaction of your friends and family to the film?
Everyone’s been really supportive – I’ve been very lucky. I thought the film’s sudden international exposure would make both myself and the guy who plays Sam vulnerable to haters, but so far I’ve received no homophobic feedback whatsoever.
GDS: Has all the attention surrounding The Language of Love been a distraction from school?
Unfortunately yes! My parents and I had the “No, we’re not going to even try messaging Ellen because you have exams in two weeks” discussion, and it was hard convincing myself that integrating trigonometric functions was more interesting than seeing the next wave of comments for the film!
GDS: The Language of Love is set in Charlie’s French class. Do you study French?
I do. I love how it’s such a fluid language, how you can’t help but sound sexy when you speak it. “Il faut que je descende la poubelle” means “I need to take out the garbage.” You just can’t match it.
GDS: What other subjects are you studying?
I’m also doing Extension 2 English (my major work’s a play), maths and music. So I get to study Debussy as well as Descartes.
GDS: What do you hope to do when you finish Year 12? (I know millions of people are asking you that this year but I am genuinely interested.)
At the moment I’m torn between going to uni and choosing the most ridiculous courses to find out more about the world, and doing a vocational script/screenwriting course at an institute like the Victorian College of the Arts. Either way, I have tons of reading to do, from Shakespeare to Williamson via Pinter and Chekhov and Beckett.
GDS: The Language of Love has reached over 245,000 views on YouTube. Did you ever expect the film to be such a success?
Not at all! I expected a few hip Sydney-siders to go, “Oh yeah, not bad for a teenager” and then forget it. The huge reception has just floored me.
GDS: Steven Fry tweeted that your film was “Amazing”. Are you a Fry fan?
My friends watch South Park; I watch QI. Stephen Fry is one of the most inspirational and impressive people I can think of.
GDS: You’ve said before that you were surprised between the parallels between Charlie’s story and your own. What is it that you see in Charlie that reminds you of yourself?
I was surprised at just how universal Charlie’s situation is. I think that’s part of why the film has had such wide appeal: people can relate to the fear and doubt and passion that Charlie expresses. The fact that it’s an interior monologue makes it very personal, and I found that as a budding writer looking at a very, very uncertain future, the parallels between Charlie and myself weren’t restricted to love: people are scared of the future, but we have to be brave and take risks, otherwise you’ll never achieve what it is you’re after.
GDS: The Language of Love has just been featured on the UK website rucomingout.com. How do you feel about being an inspiration to young people in the LGBT community?
I’m not sure what to think, to be honest. A friend said, jokingly, that I’ve become a kind of gay icon, but I don’t want to be in a position where I represent an entire community that has been subjected to prejudice and intolerance throughout history. Of course, I’m immensely humbled that something I’ve written has given people strength, but I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility.
GDS: What would be your words of wisdom to other young writers?
Read widely, write prodigiously (but not carelessly), and try to make opportunities for yourself. I’ve also found that the best type of criticism comes from people who care about your work enough they’re prepared to tell you when it sucks.
GDS: What else are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a play for Extension 2 English. It’s a black comedy and, if I pull it off, a jovial indictment of the Board of Studies. But don’t tell them that.
TBC: Apart from being the writer and performer of The Language of Love, what’s the most important thing we should know about you?
I think empathy is the most important trait we can have as human beings. Love is intense empathy, and hate is the absence of it. I’m sounding like some kind of hippy love guru, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a recurring motif in what I write.
You can also watch Kim Ho’s film The Language of Love on The Voices Project website here.