I GAPED. Incredulity reigned. But can anyone blame me? Here was Josephine Siao Fong-fong nonchalantly telling me that she had just turned down a role opposite Johnny Depp in a coming film, Shanghai. Yes, he of the Kate Moss and hotel room demolition fame. 'You know, that was exactly my daughter's reaction when I asked 'who's Johnny Depp?'. All she could get out was 'oh, Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp!', ' Siao said, before adding as an afterthought: 'Is he a very good actor? I haven't seen his movies. 'One woman director - my memory is so bad I can't remember her name - asked Michelle Yeoh's manager to contact me about the film. She wanted to start filming in September but I already have another commitment.' So, we know, Siao is not easily impressed. Big Hollywood names don't faze her - she has been acting since she was five and has seen and experienced more than the average actor. And, early this year she capped a long and illustrious career with her first international acting award: best actress at the Berlin Film Festival for Summer Snow (now playing at the UA and Panasia circuit). In fact, she shrugs off her Berlin coup just as easily as she does the Shanghai offer. 'I spend very little time thinking of awards,' she said. 'I have been a judge at one of these competitions before and I know what it's all about. I know a lot depends on luck and whether the judges like you. It's all very subjective.' The award came as quite a surprise to Siao because she never even realised she was in the running. 'I never even knew she [director Ann Hui] entered the film in the competition. I thought she just went to show her film. That's why I wasn't even there,' she added with a laugh. Summer Snow has been named Woman At 40 in Chinese and, looking at the svelte and fashionable woman sitting in the Cafe of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, it seems apt. Because in her 40s now, Siao is looking better and fitter than ever. In her short skirt and black vest, she could easily pass as 30 any day. Summer Snow, which also stars veteran actor Roy Chiao and Law Kar-ying, is about a woman's trials in trying to juggle a full-time job, being a housewife and a nurse to her overbearingly chauvinistic father-in-law who has been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. While the subject sounds heavy and the film, a tearjerker, it has turned out to be an enjoyable lighthearted look at the disease. In many ways, that can be credited to Hui's sensitive treatment and Siao's excellent performance. 'The thing I like about the film is exactly that, how Ann has taken a heavy subject and given it such a light treatment,' 48-year-old Siao explained. A television station broadcast a 15-second clip from the film when her award made news. 'My friends called me and said, 'your acting has improved so much. You don't even look like you anymore!' I told them I was sorry to disappoint them. My acting hadn't improved; it just wasn't me!' she said with mirth. 'Actually they had picked a clip of [co-star] Lo Koon-lan instead. I think my friends were trying to take the mickey out of me.' Talking to Siao, it is easy to notice how frequently her laughter rings out. Laughter makes up a large part of her life, both family and career-wise. Once known as the 'Hong Kong Shirley Temple', she shot to international prominence playing a forlorn orphan singing plaintively about the lack of mother's love in Nobody's Child, but these days she feels that it is more important to bring happiness to people. 'I told Ann I could only do [Summer Snow] if she let me have a comical part. I can't cry all the time,' she explained earnestly. 'People need to see 'happier' films nowadays. Who wants to go into a cinema and be bored and have to think a lot?' Siao is particular about the amount of work she takes on because, like the woman she plays in Summer Snow, she has to juggle three 'lives': one as a wife and mother, one as a student and finally, as an actress - in that order. Siao has just started her second-year studies in child psychology, an external degree course from Regis University in Denver, Colorado. It requires her to do a lot of self-study, with help from professors from either the Chinese or Hong Kong Universities. How does she do it? 'I can't!' she exclaimed with merriment. 'That's why I'm having so much trouble with my studies.' That is also one of the reasons why Siao will take on no more than two 'but preferably one' film project a year. The main reason, of course, is her family: husband, media executive Clarence Chang and her two daughters, aged 14 and 10. 'If I take on anymore, I will die!' she said dramatically. 'But I will usually discuss it with the family first before I decide when to film.' Siao lost the hearing in her right ear when she was two and is gradually losing the hearing in her left ear. For the most part, she relies on a hearing device which makes filming a more exhausting task than usual. 'I tire very easily on the set. I can't use the hearing aid for too long because it starts buzzing after about two hours and I start getting a migraine,' she said. 'Usually I will switch off the device and sit in a corner to rest. I can't sit around and chat like other people. It's more difficult and takes a toll.' When Siao decided to go back to school, she choose to limit her film-making to the summer holidays, leaving spring and autumn for her studies. 'But this year there has been some confusion because something like that happened at Berlin. I have had to do a lot of promotion and my homework has suffered!' she said. For all her griping over her 'homework', Siao enjoys the freedom that it gives her - from thinking. 'Being a student is great, you don't have to think so much! It [thinking] is such a bore. A student's life is so simple,' she chuckled. In a way, studying gives her a chance to make up for lost time. As a child, she was too busy making films (she made 200 between the ages of five and 21) to go to regular school. Instead her mother arranged for a British tutor to give her lessons. It was not until she was 21 that she insisted her mother let her take up television production at the Seton Hall University in New Jersey, in the United States. 'But that was just four years. It's not enough!' she said. I politely point out that she does not actually need to take on all these acting roles and could just concentrate on her studies, even though it would be a great loss to film fans. In fact, since returning from her studies in 1973, Siao made countless announcements of her 'retirement' only to bounce back in one celluloid hit or another. So why does she do it? 'That is a good question!' she exclaimed. 'I would like to know why too. It's like a kind of human bondage, you know. Every time I said I would retire and go away, one film would turn up that I wanted to do. I suppose it's what we call affinity. We're [films and her] like unmarried lovers who are living together. We split up but can't really get divorced because we were never married. So we keep breaking up and reconciling.' And, so, Siao has just committed herself to another film, Shu Kei's coming one for which cameras will roll in September. 'My daughters are really happy about it because it means I can spend the summer holidays with them. But the family has been very supportive of my film work.' With such a strict quota, one would expect Siao to be busy poring over scripts and choosing which directors to work with, but she said she can't afford that luxury. 'Most of these projects are things that I promised to do a long time ago. For instance, Shu Kei already told me he had such a film in mind as soon as I got back from Australia [in 1988]. But he has only recently decided to start work on it. I can't say I'll quit now. It would look very bad for me to announce my retirement at this particular time, wouldn't it?' she asked. 'And Shu Kei has been marvellously obliging in arranging dates to suit my schedule. Besides, I tell them I am handicapped. If you're not patient, it would be very frustrating working with me. I usually ask the directors to reconsider very carefully. If they still insist, then OK.' As for scripts . . . 'What scripts?' she asked. 'They don't have scripts. That hasn't changed from the time I got into the business. They didn't have scripts then and they still don't now. Thirty years and nothing has progressed, it's such a shame.' Further proof of Siao's popularity comes next month when a group of film buffs hold a retrospective of 10 to 12 of the actress' films. She dismisses it as 'part of a data collecting exercise by a group of film fans' although the scale on which it will be held hints otherwise. The retrospective will be held in Taipei and Taichung and will include an exhibition of Siao's photographs as well as a special book tracing her 43-year acting career. Siao said it was not an authorised biography 'although they did ask me a lot of questions about my life from the time I was five'. With the span of her career, the book looks like it will be a thick one because she was such an early starter. 'Early starter, late bloomer!' Siao quipped in perfect English, before dissolving in a fit of chortles. 'It was very boring! When they asked me all those questions, I said, 'don't ask me to tell you, it's so boring'. 'I'm so tired of answering questions about my childhood. No, no, I'm not going to write my own biography either!' Siao has promised to put in an appearance in Taiwan for the retrospective 'probably for the opening'. After that she hopes to hit the books. 'If I don't finish my assignments, I will fail and have to repeat my second year.' Hopefully, Siao said, by the time 1997 rolls round, she will find herself a qualified child psychologist. And then Hong Kong film-lovers will be the losers, because the actress intends to put her hard work to use by being a practising child psychologist or do research work 'depending on how my hearing holds out'. It was Siao's turn to be incredulous when the subject of acting came up again. 'Why would I still want to make films then?' she asked, eyes wide. At least that's what she is saying - for now.