A different picture

'Oh, that grill over there is new,' says Mark Cheng Ho-nam, pointing to a smoke-oozing stall. He's quite familiar with the cafe: most of the interviews he did in the 1980s when he was one of the most sought-after pin-ups in local show business happened there - including his last interview with the South China Morning Post, almost 20 years ago.

'This is where most actors would meet journalists in those days - because they all stayed upstairs when they were doing their media rounds,' says Cheng, referring to the New World Apartments. 'It was the usual arrangement by [1980s film company] Cinema City, which I worked for back then. For example, when we were doing publicity for [Tsui Hark's] Peking Opera Blues, all three lead actresses stayed there.'

Things have changed since then. Cinema City, after a period of prosperity in the 1980s, has long vanished; and two of the Blues' female leads - Brigitte Lin Hsing-hsia and Cherie Chung Chor-hung - have left the industry, while the third, Sally Yeh, makes only sporadic forays into the limelight, and only as a singer.

Cheng is no longer the twentysomething who dazzled audiences playing squeaky- clean, energetic men (as in his acclaimed debut in Cupid One in 1985, after he was spotted working as a model by director Ringo Lam Ling-tung) or righteous, hot-blooded heroes (he plays a revolutionary in Peking Opera Blues). The looks and affable charm are still there - he's just 42, after all - but he's no longer a regular here. For someone who once featured in eight films in a year (in 1990) Cheng's turnover has been slow in the new decade: his part as a cynical mercenary in Johnnie To Kei-fung's Election 2 will be his first appearance in a local production in three years.

Cheng's menacing enforcer, employed as a troubleshooter by Jimmy (Louis Koo Tin-lok) in his struggle for supremacy in the underworld, is eye-catching throughout the film.

Cheng now lives in Malaysia with his wife and runs a string of restaurants there, returning to Hong Kong only when an acting job comes along. The offer to perform in Election 2 came out of the blue, he says. He was on the phone to Law Wing-cheong, one of To's lieutenants and a longtime friend, and Law mentioned 'this character that would really suit me'.

Law had Cheng in mind for one of the wackiest psychos in Election 2. Cheng says he wasn't told why he was deemed the best candidate for the role. Those who have followed his career, however, wouldn't be surprised, given the sleazy scumbags he played during the 1990s. His turn as a sickening rapist in the Wong Jing-produced Raped by an Angel has surely altered how Cheng is seen by casting directors and audiences in Hong Kong.

Cheng stops short of expressing regret about accepting that role, but he says local audiences are unforgiving about actors who thrive on playing villains. 'Look at Robert De Niro - he did Cape Fear or The Untouchables, but somewhere down the line he could also star in something like Meet the Parents,' he says. 'As an actor, you have got to try everything - and it's more of a challenge being bad guys because it involves more emotional ups and downs.'

But his views today are very different. 'I've got a daughter now, so I won't do big-time evil-doers.' Fluent in English (his family emigrated to Canada when he was a teenager) and Japanese (his first wife, Yukari Oshima, is Japanese, and Cheng has two Japanese television films to his credit), he has just finished work on The Rogue, a US production also starring Jet Li Lianjie, John Lone and Jason Stratham.