OLDER CINEMA-GOERS might be forgiven a sense of deja vu these days. Recent Hong Kong movie releases are filled with familiar faces from the past - only they're stars who first found recognition on the small screen. A number of former television actors are emerging from years of semi-retirement to make serious breakthroughs on the big screen. In the new cops-and-robbers drama Wo Hu, for example, Michael Miu Kiu-wai shows his chops as a bona fide movie star. One of TVB's hottest talents in the 1980s, he turned a minor role in 2004 triad romp Jiang Hu into his springboard for a career revival with several hit soaps in the past year, and more film calls. Rain Dogs, Ho Yuhang's small-budget film about a teenager's search for his brother, features Leo Liu Wai-hung, the character actor who found fame as a country bumpkin in the hit TV series Man in the Net. And then there's the array of former TV stars in director Johnnie To Kei-fung's latest action movie Exiled - from leading man Nick Cheung Ka-fai, to supporting cast such as Hui Siu-hung and Eddie Cheung Siu-fai. But the ultimate blast from the past comes in My Mother is a Belly Dancer. The well-received neighbourhood drama stars 80s TV stars Sydney (Suet Nei) and Ken Tong Chun-yip, as well as Gordon Lam Ka-tung and Kristal Tin Yui-lei, all small-screen celebrities of the 90s. Its director Lee Kung-lok, who started out as an assistant director at TVB before switching to film, says TV actors often have more experience. 'Newcomers in movies lack the training that television actors went through,' Lee says. 'When you began your career at a television station, you were put through a long, intense period of training, and worked your way up through the ranks. You can't give people who jump straight into film that sort of schedule; and that's not good for the development of their acting.' In his 2003 debut feature, Fu Bo, the director cast as his lead, Liu Kai-chi, who blossomed on the big screen after decades of playing minor characters in soap operas. TV has never enjoyed film's cachet, and a continued decline in the quality of recent serials has further eroded its standing. But the revitalised careers of former TV faces highlight the small screen's importance to the Hong Kong movie industry. Critics agree that with 30-hour shifts and overnight shoots, acting in a TV series is more demanding than film roles. Movie scenes are shot in segments, giving the cast ample time to rest, but TV work doesn't allow such luxury. 'After doing TV, making films is easy,' says Sydney. 'When you work on a TV series, scenes are all shot in one take and you really have to deliver a coherent range of emotions throughout. This isn't necessary in film, and it poses a problem for young actors who haven't done television. Many don't know how to play out feelings that match the previous shot, whereas we habitually plan out how we should perform.' Her flair for investing characters with convincing emotions has worked a treat for My Mother is a Belly Dancer. The drama about the struggles of four women in a public housing estate is remarkable for the natural, assured delivery of its experienced cast. Of course, many TV actors have made the leap to movie stardom over the years: Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau Tak-wah were TVB alumni, as was Chow Yun-fat, who first made his name in serials such as Hotel. But the movie industry's reliance on pop idols over the past decade has bred a generation of film stars who devote little time to honing their acting skills and, in some cases, only consider movies as a way to further their music careers. 'The pace in the film industry has stepped up a lot since the 1980s,' says the head of the Film and Television Department at Baptist University, Cheuk Pak-tong. 'In the past, actors were given a year or more to develop their skills, you now see people who are thrust into their first major film role after only a couple of months' training. But now it's all about pretty boys and girls or former beauty queens who are just given a month or two of training. 'This is certainly one way to shape new talent, but it's surely not the best.' Cheuk, a former assistant producer at TVB, says such an approach won't help newcomers develop the depth that their predecessors acquired. 'You won't see a Miss Hong Kong starting out in some small role, whereas in the past you would really have to slog it out as a minion with fellow graduates from [TVB's] artist-training course. Consider how many years Stephen Chow Sing-chi spent in the shadows before he became who he is today.' In this light, the rebirth of 80s TV actors isn't just the result of a wave of nostalgia. According to screenwriter-director Wai Ka-fai, actors from that era tend to be more resourceful and confident than the latest wave of pop stars-turned-actors. 'They have remarkable self-discipline,' he says. 'Resources were pretty thin when they worked in television, so they had to be really hands-on. They'd be very attentive to their own wardrobe and makeup, for example. This nurtures a professional attitude, unlike today's young stars who are accompanied by a coterie of minders and assistants attending to every whim. It's not a good way to nurture them.' Wai says he prefers directing TV veterans such as Lau Ching-wan, Francis Ng Chun-yu and Maggie Siu Mei-kei. Backers were initially sceptical about such casting, says Wai, who, with To, is among the most regular employers of former TV stars. However, solid box-office returns from productions such as Too Many Ways to be Number One and Fat Choi Spirit have vindicated his move. And with the critical acclaim for low-budget dramas such as My Mother is a Belly Dancer, Wai says more semi-retired TV actors could re-enter the fold. 'While there has been a wave of films riding on the popularity of pop idols, the box office has proved that they can't guarantee good financial returns,' he says. 'People behind the scenes now realise that these idols might not know what acting is about. But the films Mr To made - and the ones we did at Milky Way Image - proved that movies with television actors can sell too.'