Having built a successful career playing a series of scarlet women since the '80s, award-winning actress Carrie Ng Ka-lai is gearing up for a new role. She will make her directorial debut in Angel Whispers, a project which secured a HK$150,000 prize at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum last month.
Set in Sham Shui Po's red-light district, Whispers is a suspense-drama about a group of prostitutes and their landlady engaged in a battle of wits against a mystery killer.
Ng will co-produce, and will share directorial credits with Shirley Yung Sau-lan, a project manager with Sundream Motion Pictures, the main backer in the project. Work is scheduled to begin on the US$1.5 million production at the end of this month. Fully aware of her sultry image, Ng insists she's no sexpot in real life.
"I'm more like a 'tomgirl' - I'm boyish. So I think it's a great success that the way I perform in the films makes the audience believe that I am a very sexy person. And I think that success says I'm a good actress."
Since graduating from TVB's actor training class in 1981, she has appeared in more than 100 feature films and television series in Hong Kong and on the mainland. At her busiest, Ng has sometimes been involved in nine projects at once. But she also found time for less commercial productions, including Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang De-chang's Mahjong, and French filmmakers Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud's Red Nights.
This body of work has not gone unnoticed: she won a Golden Horse best actress award for 1993's Remains of a Woman and a Hong Kong Film Awards best supporting actress trophy for 2000's Diamond Hill.
Ng has long thought of going behind the camera even as she continued to accept acting roles. She will be seen in Pang Ho-cheung's upcoming Aberdeen, in which she brings a mature twist to her typical femme fatale roles.
But she believes taking up the director's role will reveal her true personality to cinema-goers - someone who's more feminist than feminine, and who sees films as being able to do good rather than just entertain.
One of the main attractions of Angel Whispers for Ng is that it places the spotlight on a group of women who are discriminated against because of the nature of their work.
Perhaps because she has played a number of sex workers in films such as Call Girl '88 and Candlelight Woman, Ng empathises with them, and is making Angel Whispers in part to help highlight their plight.
"These people are earning a livelihood with their own abilities. They are not stealing; they are not doing anything illegal. They have the right and ability to protect themselves," she says.
Ng credits actor Nick Cheung Ka-fai, who cast her in his directorial debut Yu Lan Magic last year, as the person who inspired her to think that she should follow suit.
"I've actually thought before that I'd be a director and, having been in the film industry for so long as an actress, I wanted to repackage myself and demonstrate to the audience how that has affected me."
She believes directors leave much more of an imprint on a movie than those in front of the cameras.
"In my opinion, the actor is only part of the film. But the director is the soul of the film and has a more proactive role. I am attracted by the chance to be more proactive in the whole process of film production," she says.
Deciding that the time had come to make a move in that direction, she approached Shirley Yung, a close friend and industry insider who also had an ambition to direct.
The two women got to know each other when they collaborated on 1995 crime film Passion Unbounded.
They became firm friends who "share of a lot of everything", Yung says.
At a get-together, the friends were discussing what they would do if they were directors when Ng suggested they could work on a film project together, she recalls.
The two women have figured out how they will divide their behind-the-camera duties.
"Because I've been an actress working with directors, I understand more about the performance aspects. So I'll focus more on the actors' performances - especially because in Angel Whispers, we will be having many new actors and actresses. Shirley has lots of experience working behind the scenes," Ng says.
"We'll be leveraging each other's advantages so we can make the best use of them."
Besides balancing directorial duties, the two hope to strike a balance between pursuing profits and creating a film with social and artistic value.
"To get investors interested in our project, we will have to have some commercial elements. And if we want to get the audience to buy tickets to watch our film, we are going to have to be commercial," says Yung. "But I hope that we will be able to put some artistic value in the film."
They are producing Angel Whispers as a wholly local production with prominent roles for Hong Kong actresses. Ng thinks it will give younger actors a chance to advance in their careers the way that Ringo Lam Ling-tung helped her when he cast her in City on Fire (1987).
"A lot of actors and actresses were crying out to work on that particular project, but director Lam offered the role to me. He had absolute confidence in me, based on the training I had received from TVB. Being able to perform on that project, being able to act with Chow Yun-fat, was a great start for my film career," she recalls.
"After that, I worked with a lot of great directors who inspired me to be a good actress. But for my own directing project I want to use my own techniques.
"I want to take advantage of what I've learned from all these directors and interpret their techniques my own way. I want to show people how Carrie Ng has transformed herself."