Action film heroine, aromatherapist, television serial actor, amateur ink painter - Wai Ying-hung has been all these and more since she made her screen debut in Chang Cheh's martial arts epic The Brave Archer in 1976. But for the past year, she could also stake a claim as an expert in yet another line of work: as an award presenter.
For that's what she's been doing in the past 12 months, opening envelopes and handing out statuettes of all shapes and sizes in ceremonies around the region, from the Golden Horse awards in Taipei to TVB's very own year-end love-in at the broadcaster's Clear Water Bay studios. She was also present at last month's Asian Film Awards, handing Sammo Hung Kam-bo the best supporting actor prize for his turn in Ip Man 2.
'There's been quite a few of these requests, and if I can make it I usually say yes - I'll try to be at them all if I have the time,' says Wai. And she does: the day after her meeting with the South China Morning Post, she was in Guangzhou to preside over the announcement of nominations for this year's Chinese Film Media Awards.
But perhaps more importantly, the star will be present tonight at the Hong Kong Film Awards, at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre's Grand Theatre, handing out a gong on the very stage where she took a best-actress statuette home last year for her performance as an alcoholic mother in At the End of Daybreak.
Wai says she's going to these events to show her gratitude to those who have helped propel her back to centre stage. Her acting chops have rarely been questioned - after all, Wai, now 51, was a winner at the inaugural edition of the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1982, when she was crowned best actress for her performance in the action-comedy My Young Auntie - but she has spent the past decade playing supporting roles in films and television serials. While her turn in At the End of Daybreak, a gritty drama helmed by Malaysian director Ho Yu Hang, is a revelation in itself, she has really been back in the spotlight thanks to her success at the Golden Horses, the Changchun and Vladivostok film festivals, not to mention at the Hong Kong awards.
A year later, Wai says that winning awards hasn't changed things that much for her. 'It's not like my pay has ballooned - I've since starred in quite a few off-mainstream films and I've only acted in two blockbusters,' she says, referring to her parts in Wilson Yip Wai-shun's A Chinese Ghost Story (in which she plays the main antagonist, the Tree Demon) and Peter Chan Ho-sun's Wuxia.
Still, she admits her awards have allowed her an easier ride in convincing filmmakers of her versatility. 'Before Daybreak, for example, I don't think [Yip] would have thought about me as the Tree Demon. But now, with that performance and the award, they are much more confident about casting me in the film.'
While it's easy to overplay the Hong Kong Film Awards' significance, it's safe to say the annual event retains a certain allure for the public. Founded in 1982 as a casual year-end get-together by the publishers of the now-defunct City Entertainment Bi-weekly magazine, the awards have since outgrown their humble origins to become one of the glitziest events for the Hong Kong film industry.
'It's a respectable event which allows everyone in the industry to come together and have a big party,' says actor Nick Cheung Ka-fai, who took the best actor award in 2009 for his turn as a deranged assassin in Dante Lam Chiu-yin's action thriller The Beast Stalker. 'It's a very important event for audiences too. There's a show and a competition - it's at once very entertaining and representative of the industry's achievements every year.'
Before his 2009 win, Cheung - a former policeman who turned to acting in the late 1980s - was largely confined to parts in ensemble dramas or second-billing roles, for which he was nominated three times in the best supporting actor category (for The Conman, Election 2 and Exodus). His leading-man status was finally sealed with the success of The Beast Stalker, in a performance which eventually led him to more success at the Golden Horses and the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea.
Cheung says he has been receiving much more varied screenplays for the past two years, especially from the mainland. He has also been invited to star in a public information announcement - on the government's value-enhancement retraining programmes, no less - as well as being offered more television commercials than before. 'The award really enhances an actor's popularity, especially on the mainland,' he says.
Such kudos have certainly helped reinvigorate many a veteran's career. After winning the best supporting actress award in 2009 for her part as a lonely pensioner in Ann Hui On-wah's Tin Shui Wai drama The Way We Are, Chan Lai-wun found herself inundated with job offers: Wong Jing called about casting her as a legislator in his drama To Live and Die in Mongkok and she was invited to star in several RTHK television series.
Talking to the Post two years ago, Chan - who spent most of her life working in ATV serials - said the most surprising offer was the invitation to deliver a short speech about green living at an event at Times Square.
Hui says Chen and Paw Hee-ching, who won the best actress award for The Way We Are, received a thoroughly deserved recognition of their work. 'We are in this business not just to make money - we do this because we enjoy the work,' says the director. 'It's definitely a good thing for them.' Looking back, Hui says her best director award for the same film represents something much more practical: widely recognised as one of the best filmmakers to have emerged in the past three decades, she has secured commercial and critical acclaim throughout the 1980s and 90s with films such as Boat People, Song of Exile, Summer Snow and Ordinary Heroes. The 21st century hasn't been kind to her, however, and The Way We Are is a lifeline after two previous films - Goddess of Mercy and The Postmodern Life of My Aunt - flopped. 'It was a very difficult time,' she says. 'It has been a challenge to get financing for the Hong Kong-oriented films I've always done. If I hadn't made The Way We Are and won awards with it, I'm not sure whether I could still sustain a career here.'
Hui has since made Night and Fog, based on the real-life multiple murders in an impoverished Tin Shui Wai family; All About Love, a same-sex romance featuring A-listers Sandra Ng Kwan-yue and Vivian Chow Wai-man; and A Simple Life, a HK$36 million drama with Andy Lau Tak-wah producing and also playing the lead in a story about a pampered, affluent man and the maid who raised him.
Hui says the awards carry much more weight today than when she won prizes for Boat People in 1983. 'With the new media, news spreads much more quickly and people do take more notice about these things,' she says. 'Nowadays, winning an award is like having your signature stamped on the ground.'
She's certainly right about that: all award winners have had their handprints shown at the Avenue of Stars at the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui - a slice of immortality which adds to the mythology of the awards, as they head into their fourth decade of existence.