Sandra Ng unleashes a double dose of Lunar New Year levity
With two new films out this month, including the latest instalment of the wildly popular Golden Chicken franchise, Sandra Ng works hard for her laughs, writes Edmund Lee
READY THOUGH SHE may be to suffer for her art, Sandra Ng Kwan-yu is not about to tolerate any more hairspray in her food. "Hold it for now," she tells her hairstylist, her lunch lying open on her desk for the better part of our interview, which doubles as her make-up session. "I ingested a mouthful of it yesterday and I could feel the plastic in me for a long time," Ng says, still not eating.
Often alternately fiery and wacky on-screen, the popular Hong Kong film actress, now 48, should know a thing or two about suffering. After all, when she starred in the first two Golden Chicken movies, respectively released over the Christmas period of 2002 and 2003, Ng had regularly to endure the pain of tearing off the packing tape used to fasten the fake bosom for her vivacious hooker character Kam.
For the upcoming Golden Chickensss, the long-awaited third entry in the beloved comedy series, those painful episodes were a thing of the past, due to more advanced technology - although Ng still had to sit for nearly three hours a day to mount her 38G silicon breasts. "It is very tiring," she says, "but they can bounce very naturally this time."
On the one hand, you could say that Ng has brought the misery on herself, being the main force behind the sequel as both its producer and leading lady. On the other, it's hard to reason with someone who is struggling to remember why she started the project in the first place. "Now that you're asking me," Ng says slowly, "I'm really having a hard time recalling why I returned to the Golden Chicken series with this movie."
The earliest inspiration for Kam - the absurdly optimistic character that Ng portrayed in Golden Chicken - partly stemmed from the dreamer (also named Kam) that Ng played in the 2001 movie Dance of a Dream. Her co-star, Andy Lau Tak-wah, encouraged her to develop the character further in future projects. As it turns out, Ng's long-time partner, the film director and producer Peter Chan Ho-sun, was looking to develop a comedy for his production company during that period.
"Here was an actress who was free of charge and very easy to use, so he took advantage," says Ng of the series' origin. "Chan thought the profession of prostitution always provides the best material for storytellers. And since he is still living in the 1960s - he's a very nostalgic person - he decided to package Kam's story alongside [Hong Kong] history."
According to Ng, the popularity of the Golden Chicken movies didn't exactly come as a surprise to either her or her partner, as Chan believed all along that the character Kam had the potential of headlining a decade-spanning franchise, in the same way the bumbling Japanese hero Tora-san did in the 48-film It's Tough Being a Man series.
It was, nevertheless, a difficult decision to revisit Kam's hilarious exploits in nightclubs and brothels. "We shouldn't be so silly, right?" Ng asks rhetorically. "After all, our money and reputation are all at stake here. Since we've already garnered both critical and commercial acclaim with the first two films, why should we risk our names again?"
As she retraces the path that has led her to reprise one of the most recognisable roles in her career, Ng remembers being captivated every time she caught re-runs of the Golden Chicken films on television, the overwhelmingly positive audience feedback she received on weibo, and the joking advice of Peter Chan: "Why don't we just speculate in the property market with the money?"
But above all, it was a booze-filled evening at a Japanese restaurant in early 2013 that she shared with her good friend and fellow actor Ronald Cheng Chung-kei that really got the ball rolling. Undoubtedly a reflection of Ng's popularity among her peers, an amazing roster of actors soon agreed - "without any signed contract," adds Ng, "silly me" - to appear in her film.
From series returnees Eason Chan Yik-shun and Ronald Cheng to debutants Nick Cheung Ka-fai and Louis Koo Tin-lok, and with an incredible parade of star cameos by everyone from Donnie Yen Ji-dan to Dayo Wong Chi-wah and Edison Chen Koon-hei, Golden Chickensss revisits many of Kam's old flames, favourite gigolos and wayward clients amid Hong Kong's changing social and political landscape over the years.
Even the actor-producer Raymond Wong Pak-ming, whose latest Chinese New Year comedy Hello Babies poses direct box office competition to Golden Chickensss, makes a brief cameo in the film. Meanwhile, Ng is also the lead actress in Hello Babies, even finding herself right at the centre of the promotional posters. "We're very good friends," she says of Wong. "He has never given up on me whenever he has a comedy project. He thinks I bring him luck when we work together."
Perhaps expectedly, scheduling issues for Ng's own project would keep it on hold until everything somehow worked out - when filming took place at full speed between November 10 and the Christmas week last year.
"I was partly to blame as well because I was busy shooting [Raman] Hui Shing-ngai's project in Beijing before this," says Ng of her part in the Shrek alumnus' upcoming part-animation, part-live-action adaptation of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.
Ng continues, "It became a running joke in the first week on set that whatever happens, like if the props arrived slightly slower than normal, someone would inevitably say, 'Move faster! This is a Chinese New Year movie!' It's a miracle how everything just fell into place at the end."
Scripted and directed by Matt Chow Hoi-kwong, who was a co-writer of the first film and a former co-host with Ng on Commercial Radio Hong Kong, Golden Chickensss takes a slightly different direction from the two earlier films' nostalgic spin, to present what Ng describes as "a comedy with modern sensibilities".
"Both Kam and Ng Kwan-yu have aged by a decade, after all. Ng Kwan-yu has gotten smarter with age," she says.
While the film's title refers not to Kam - this time a successful mama-san (or lady pimp) who's running her business like a boss - but the crowd of high-class working girls at her disposal, the series' defining spirit of fortitude amid hardship and unpleasant working conditions remains very much intact.
"Relax - I can call it a day very soon," is the motto that a working Kam repeatedly reminds herself of in the new film.
Incidentally, the virtue of hard work is one that the actress embodies wholeheartedly in her private life.
"I didn't grow up in a wealthy family," Ng is turning serene. "My father worked very hard to bring us up. I've always been fighting an uphill battle. Every time I fall into a hole and have to climb up again, I wipe my tears and keep working. I just do my best.
"So when people are having fun, I'm hitting the gym - in all honesty I could just give up because nobody has asked anything of me. When people are feasting, I'm eating vegetables. I find it worthwhile even though I have to continue with my suffering. Every day I'm striving to maintain the value of Ng Kwan-yu for another year or three months - and this applies as much to my career as it does my family. So that's that. I'm no more special than anyone else, I've just been lucky."
Ng chuckles for a moment, before thinking better of it. "Great," she exclaims. Her hairstylist is resting and her moment has come. Chopsticks in hand, Ng lunges forward and helps herself to the boiled vegetables in front of her. She's not kidding.
Hello Babies opens on January 28 ; Golden Chickensss opens on January 30