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Karen Mok Man-wai's mind-bending new film hitting Hong Kong cinemas

With a gripping psychological thriller hitting cinemas this month and a concert tour in motion, fans of Karen Mok Man-wai are spoiled for choice at the moment

 

Karen Mok Man-wai has been on the move lately. The singer-actress has been running around so much these days she has to take a long pause before answering one of the easiest questions you may encounter in a media interview: Where are you based?

"I'm based … on the plane," she says, finally, letting out a hearty laugh. "Actually, I'm not very sure where I'd call home nowadays. My office set-up is in Hong Kong, but all the work is in greater China - and mostly on the mainland. I live with my mum whenever I'm in Hong Kong, although my time in this city is really limited - maybe only several days a month. Hong Kong is more like a place of transit for me. My real home is probably London because that's where my husband is."

It is on one of those precious days in Hong Kong that we sit down with Mok, who turned 44 last month, though she doesn't look her age. For months the elegant songstress has been traversing the mainland with The Age of Moknificence concert tour, which marks her 20th anniversary in the entertainment business. "This touring experience has been great," she says.

"It's different from the past when I mainly played in stadiums. Because it was a jazz album that I last released, we chose to play concert halls this time to evoke the more intimate atmosphere. The audiences are almost close enough to touch me. It's a whole new experience for them and for myself - and that's why they think the tickets are worth the price even though they're really expensive."

Mok's music career is not the only reason that she's been spending the majority of her year on the mainland. Her new film The Great Hypnotist, which is set to open in Hong Kong cinemas on July 17, was released there in late April.

A mainland production directed by Taiwan's Leste Chen, the film represents a return to his early roots: he made his directorial debut with the haunted-house horror flick The Heirloom (2005). Chen has since also made the gay youth drama Eternal Summer (2006), as well as two profitable romantic comedies, 2011's Love on Credit and 2013's Say Yes.

The director's latest is essentially a stylish ghost movie disguised as a psychological thriller, to get past China's strict censorship - which generally frowns upon supernatural themes. It sees Mok's mysterious patient, who claims that she can see dead people, engage in a battle of wills with a celebrated hypnotherapist played by Xu Zheng ( Lost in Thailand).

"It's a pleasant surprise that I got to work with Xu," says Mok of one of the most bankable Chinese actor-directors today; Xu is both the star and an executive producer on The Great Hypnotist. "Most people know him for his comedies, so when he accepted a project in a completely different genre I really looked forward to finding out what we might accomplish. He had a lot of helpful input into this movie."

Film fans may notice that aspects of The Great Hypnotist bear more than a passing resemblance to M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999), a connection Mok casually dismisses. The actress is, however, more than happy to mention other mind-bending films on hypnosis. "I'm a fan of this type of movie," she says. "Many viewers have commented that our film is a bit like Inception. I think, to an extent, the ambience is slightly similar. But of course, the stories are completely different. None of us would even try to copy from such a representative movie, but I'm personally a big fan of the film. I've watched many films along this line, like Trance recently. I find hypnosis a fascinating subject."

Since its mainland opening, The Great Hypnotist has become one of the highest-grossing suspense thrillers in Chinese cinema history, having taken more than 250 million yuan (HK$314 million) at the box office.

"Our film is actually a non-mainstream attempt," says Mok, putting her effort in context. "Because in China, the genres that have proven to be successful are the romantic comedies or heroic action movies or period films. People were more reluctant to shoot a suspense thriller because there wasn't a successful case in the past. The end result is very good and audiences like it a lot. I'm very happy because it seems like we're opening up new opportunities."

In any case, Mok's overall success in the Chinese market shouldn't come as a surprise to her long-time supporters. The singer-actress made her mark early with memorable roles in Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels (1995) and several Stephen Chow Sing-chi films (such as 1996's God of Cookery). Since the release of her first Mando-pop album in Taiwan back in 1997, however, Mok has been shifting her focus away from Hong Kong.

"From the early 2000s, the mainland market was opening up in a very rapid way. Much attention was given to China, and the jobs were also happening on the mainland," says Mok, who participated in her first production there, All the Way, which she describes as "a very low-budget road movie", back in 2001.

The Chinese film industry made a gigantic leap in the decade that followed. While she doesn't see "language or anything" as a barrier to her transition, Mok - who is herself of Chinese, Welsh, Iranian and German descent - maintains that she keeps an open mind whenever she takes up a new challenge. "Of course, the people in China have a different personality, just as Hong Kong people have their own attitudes and the Taiwanese people have their own, too.

"But that's what I like. To meet new people in new places and to do something different. Perhaps it's because I studied at an international school and was in touch with students from all over the world."

Mok attended United World College of the Adriatic near Trieste, Italy, between 1987 and 1989. "I find that really eye-opening."

For now, Mok is doing her utmost to keep herself busy. Before her China tour dates conclude in September, she's looking to find time in her packed schedule to squeeze in some recording sessions for her upcoming Mandarin album, her first since 2010's Precious.

Encouraged by the positive experience she had with her last jazz album Somewhere I Belong (2013), for which she recorded her vocal part with a live band, Mok is looking to experiment with further live sessions even though she's not playing jazz this time around. Instead of letting a musician arrange each song on his own, Mok is going to put several of her trusted collaborators in the studio to sort out the music arrangement together. "I'm trying to create a more consistent vibe that runs through the album," she says.

Mok is hoping that she'll be ready to launch at least several songs, if not the complete album, by the time the tour ends. Once her work commitments are over, Mok reveals that her next project is, ironically, to take her plane-hopping habit to an unprecedented level. "There are no more work plans after that because I have an even more kick-ass project planned," she says, beaming. "I'm going to have fun."

Realising she is a workaholic and finally feeling a little burnt out in her 21st year in the business, Mok wants to take an extended sabbatical with husband Johannes Natterer. "We were thinking about a holiday, and then I said, 'since I've done the [Hollywood] movie Around the World in 80 Days already, why don't we actually go on a trip like that?' So we're going to take, well, three months off."

Mok bursts into laughter at this point, obviously excited at the thought of it all. "It's unlikely that we can cover the entire world, but we'll go to many places that we haven't been to and be very far away from our familiar territories. It's all for visiting new places and experiencing something new. I'm really looking forward to it."

 

The Great Hypnotist opens on July 17

 

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