Teresa Mo may be reluctant to trumpet her many successes, but the veteran actress is quietly confident about her latest film, writes Clarence Tsui
SHE'S BEEN ONE of Hong Kong cinema's best-known players, a star of more than 60 films and countless more television series in her 30-year career in show business. Beloved by fans for her part opposite Chow Yun-fat in John Woo's Hard Boiled (1992) and revered by cinephiles for her comic turns in films such as 92 Legendary La Rose Noire, Teresa Mo Shun-kwan has carved a niche for herself in an industry that's rarely held middle-aged actresses in high esteem. Not that Mo is willing to acknowledge her achievements: perennially amicable and candid, she insists she never aimed high and saw her work as a humble means to 'bring some bread to the table'.
'I'm quite a passive person,' says Mo - not once, but several times during a 30-minute interview, but the modesty doesn't sit quite right, given how the film she's publicising, Men Suddenly in Black 2, counts the 46-year-old as its star, producer and screenwriter. 'I'm quite worried that if the film becomes a hit, people will start to think I can cut it and just throw things my way so that I can help sort them out,' she says with a laugh. 'No, no. I can't. I hope they don't.'
Her self-deprecation seems even less suitable given Men Suddenly in Black 2's storyline. A sequel of sorts to Edmond Pang Ho-cheung's 2003 hit - a hilarious chronicle of a group of men's fumbling attempts at infidelity - Mo's film turns the tables and features four women out to get even with their unfaithful husbands in a weekend of debauchery in Macau.
The film is a cynical critique of modern-day matrimony and a morality play about traditional family values, featuring the feisty language that gives Desperate Housewives its edge.
But Men Suddenly in Black 2 also rejects the usual celluloid scenarios that long-suffering wives can only choose between frustrated silence and kicking down doors at dodgy love hotels.
While the film gleefully chronicles the many ways a woman can react to her husband's infidelity, Mo's hesitant to describe the movie as a 'woman's film'. 'The men play a significant part in the film as well,' she counters. 'You just feel that the women might have finally dared to voice their own feelings here, but the proportion is not as extreme as the last one.
'In the last film it was like three-quarters about the men and the remaining quarter about their wives; this time it was like 60-40, I think.'
She also brushes off suggestions that Men Suddenly in Black 2 is a cinematic tale of sexual equality. 'Men and women could never be equal,' she says. 'I think women are all willing to follow their men - as long as the men don't betray them that often. I'm not an advocate of sexual equality - I back the idea of men as always a bit higher up in the order of things than women, as long as they would respect me and not hurt me all the time ... you can see from the film that it's actually got a very 'little women' mentality. The wives [tried to cheat on their husbands] out of desperation, and at the end of the day would want to be back with their husbands; the message they want to tell the men is, 'Don't go too far with what you do'.'
Mo may sound like a willing subject of a patriarchical society, but she's also well aware of the disadvantages it imposes on women. The fact that middle-aged actresses aren't given proper recognition for their work, for example, has been a long-term irritation, she says. 'Hong Kong is unusual in the way people see you as having limited value when you've reached a certain age, even if your acting could bring down the moon - it's not like in the overseas arena, where you would always be held in high regard if people see you as a good actor,' says Mo. 'Actresses are always placed on the side in films here - and even then, it's better for them to be pretty young things. It doesn't matter whether they know how to act, just as long as they can doll up the picture.
'I hope things can change, but then again I hope actresses will be more willing to prove their worth, too. It's just not done if you stroll into the scene thinking beauty is all that matters - if one day you're handed a challenge and you fail to match it, the audience will be more entrenched in thinking that actresses are merely vases.'
For once, her self-deprecation dissipates: she says that she can match anything her fellow 'wives' - who are all played by actors in their 20s - pull off in Men Suddenly in Black 2. '[Marsha Yuan] Chi-wei has the looks and a great body, while [Gia] Lin Yuan is very young - but I think my part is an important highlight in the film as well,' she says.
Now in her third marriage (to former film director Tony Au Ting-ping, with whom she has two daughters), Mo has gone through enough trials and tribulations in her personal life to relate well to Mary, the character she plays (opposite her long-time on-screen partner, Eric Tsang Chi-wai) in Men Suddenly in Black 2. 'I think stuff like this or Desperate Housewives calls for people who've actually gone through difficulties in life,' she says. 'It makes things click. Here, however, they would still get some young actress to play mothers - that's nearly the rule rather than the exception in television - but it just doesn't work. They just lack the gravitas and strip the characters of the colour they should have.'
Mo knows what she's talking about: she made her debut as a teenager in the now defunct Commercial Television's adaptation of The Dream of the Red Chamber, playing the thoughtful and elegiac Jia Baoyu. She spent the next 15 years working as a small-screen actor, becoming a TVB veteran. It was after her departure from the station at the beginning of the 1990s that Mo established her credentials as one of the most bankable comic talents of her generation. She starred in Clifton Ko Chi-sum's All's Well, Ends Well and It's A Wonderful Life (as the sparring partner of the late Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, who famously proposed to her while they were working at Commercial Television) and did a stunningly barmy turn in Jeff Lau Chun-wai's 92 Legendary La Rose Noire, which consolidated her standing in the film industry.
The fact that she was always typecast as a loony-gag machine proves far less annoying than it would seem, Mo says. 'The market dictates the way my career goes,' she says. 'It's always been a one-track frenzy: if you make the tills ring by playing comedy, then comedy it is that you'll play from then on. I'd want to try my hand at drama, but people would inevitably say, 'Oh, you have to cast Ah Mo in a comedy'. I didn't get to choose.'
She attributes her willingness to dive headlong into anything that comes her way from a conversation with Chow Yun-fat, a long-time friend from her TVB days and her co-star in Hard Boiled.
'He said, 'Take whatever's offered to you - you've got to try crashing into walls',' says Mo. 'He told me that sometimes the most unseemly film you star in might become a hit and then something you deliberately choose might just sink without trace - the trick is to cast the net wide and make a killing out of everything.'
Few of her performances stand out for her, however. 'If you ask me which of the films I did in the 1990s left a lasting mark in my mind, or ones that I specially admired - I can't really tell you that,' she says with a laugh. 'People would now say to me how they loved my turns in All's Well, like the scene where I shaved my leg. But they're not scenes I loved most. I think the only film that could represent me well is Men Suddenly in Black 2.'
Armed with her award-winning turn in Derek Yee Tung-shing's 2 Young - in which she plays the manic and distraught mother of Fiona Sit Hoi-kei's pregnant teenager - Mo now carries enough currency to move beyond the inane comedy parts that she nearly made her own during the early 1990s. She followed her husband to Canada in 1994 and has made only five films since her return to Hong Kong in 2000.
Next up is a role in Gordon Chan Ka-seung's Run Papa Run, starring the many faces of Ronald Cheng Chung-kei. 'Well,' says Mo with a smile, 'it's something that harks back to what I did in the past.'
It's on the mainland, however, that audiences will see her moving further away from her stereotype roles in Hong Kong: in a yet-unnamed project, she will play the mother of a swimming coach who succeeds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The role involves her playing a character across several decades.
'The husband dies in the first reels, and then she had to go through the Cultural Revolution when she's sent to work in the rural backwaters - and then she's resigned to losing her son for years when he leaves for studies abroad,' says Mo of her role. 'It's something that was shaped as film festival fodder. I do hope it will work out well.'
Men Suddenly in Black 2 opens on Thursday