More than a decade ago, Charlie Young Choi-nei was a fresh-faced, long-haired singer-actress who performed lovelorn ballads and graced the covers of teen magazines. She was marketed as the girl next door; pretty yet approachable, a sweetie whom besotted schoolboys would have been proud to introduce to their parents. Posters bearing the chubby face of the 19-year-old teen queen sold like hot cakes in the shopping malls of Mong Kok. That was then. Thirteen years on and Young is no longer a manufactured product dished up to gullible youths. At the age of 32, she suits all kinds of acting roles - and she accepts them with relish. She dived back into showbiz as Jackie Chan's girlfriend in New Police Story. Then she became a mother with a primary-school child in Patrick Tam Ka-ming's After This Our Exile, which will be released on Thursday. She also plays a mute Thai girl in Oxide Pang's Time To Kill, alongside Hollywood's Nicolas Cage. The Young we see today has been shaped by adversity. Since turning her back on the entertainment business in 1997, she has endured failure in attempts to become an image consultant and a television producer; failure made painfully public by a pitiless media. To compound her misery, she has split up with her boyfriend, Singaporean Khoo Shao Tze, who was also her business partner. YOUNG, DRESSED IN a light-blue zip-up sweater and jeans, apologises for having arrived late at the M1nt club, in Central. Glamorous she is not. 'Let's see if this is better,' she says, after changing into a little black dress she happened to have with her. Salvatore Ferragamo may sponsor her but this dress - bought in Paris - shows she needs no pointers when it comes to style. She is bright and playful - sticking her tongue out at After This Our Exile co-star Aaron Kwok Fu-shing when he yells, 'You're so pretty today' - and never falters, however probing the questions. 'I'm much happier now,' she says, thinking back to her first stint in showbiz, when she had little control over her career. These days she makes time for family birthdays, to play with her dog and to surf. 'I was a newcomer; I had to take every opportunity. [Now] I can choose quality films - and I don't have to sing.' As a child, Young was approached in the street to appear in advertisements and modelling shows but her parents refused to allow it. They relented when she was 16 and she began to appear in television adverts and karaoke videos alongside Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and Kwok, whose management agency offered her a five-year contract. Off-screen, Young maintains a wholesome image; you're far more likely to see her promoting a charity event than tearing up the dancefloor of a hip nightclub. In the absence of juicy tabloid material, the general public know her mainly as a friend of singer Gigi Leung Wing-kei. But on screen, she welcomes a challenge. Among her 20 film roles, she has been a traditional, but sexually confused, Suzhou girl (Intimates, 1997), an edgy prostitute (Task Force, 1997) and a warrior protecting a village from destruction (Seven Swords, 2005). She is best known, however, for her role as a rich girl who dresses as a boy to attend school, in Tsui Hark's folklore tale Butterfly Lovers (1994). She briefly turned her talents to art-house cinema, gracing Wong Kar-wai's martial-arts flick Ashes of Time (1994), alongside a stellar cast including Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, and Fallen Angels (1995). Young may not have garnered much in the way of official recognition for her film work, but she is no 'flower vase': an actress who looks pretty but cannot act. 'I have never looked very pretty in a film. I was very dirty in Seven Swords and in Butterfly Lovers and Intimates [I wore] no make-up. I have never repeated myself when it comes to roles,' she says. She is maturing gracefully and disagrees that there is no place for actresses in their 30s in such an age-conscious industry. She points to 46-year-old Japanese actress Hitomi Kuroki as an example of a mother with a vibrant career. 'When you are 17, you can only take up roles of 17-year-olds. When you grow older, you can be someone's girlfriend or wife. If you don't have enough life experience, you can only imagine. I feel like I can fit into many more roles [now].' Young calls Tsui, with whom she has collaborated on three occasions, her 'godfather' because of the help the director has given her. 'He said you cannot just [concentrate on stealing] the show. It's a collective work and the key thing is whether it touches the audience or not. If you stand out, but other people don't, it's still a failure. 'I think this is why I can easily mix with different actors now. I want to be in harmony with the people on the screen.' The promotion manager for After This Our Exile, Polly Leung, has said this was the reason the director picked Young. Tsui was there to welcome her back to the industry in 2004. In the martial-arts epic Seven Swords, she had the lead role of Wu Yuan Yin, one of seven warriors chosen to protect a village. She spent months training on the mainland, learning the basics of kung-fu and how to handle a horse. Seven Swords sold well internationally and was shown at the Venice Film Festival but Young's part in the movie has been relatively unsung. The actress, however, says she was more concerned about satisfying the director and investors than the cinema-going public. 'What I [took away from] the movie was something only I, my parents and the director [could see]. Tsui Hark pushed me to the limit. I was old to be a learner in martial arts. I was the only female and I had to double my energy when I jumped onto the horse. It was a huge confidence boost,' she says. Having cleared the debts from her business ventures, Young is free to pursue diverse interests. As well as acting and her family, she ploughs a lot of her energy into charities such as Unicef, Caritas and the Hong Chi Association. She also pens magazine columns and still provides her services as an image consultant ('I don't think it is always about looking pretty. It's about confidence boosting'), most recently to TVB news anchors and clothing brand Bossini. 'I don't just confine myself to being an actress,' she says, although music is one activity she's forsaken. A disciplined woman for whom fame isn't everything, Young is looking to restrict her film work to about two projects a year, for the sake of her sanity. While shooting After This Our Exile, she says, she became depressed, consumed by the tragedy of her character. 'I'm very meticulous about [acting]. Once I am involved, I can hardly pull myself out of it,' she says. '[Any future film] has to be a serious project. The director and the script are the backbones. Then I look at whether I could fit into the character.' Although Young is reconciled to the way the media savaged her over her business failures, one or two aspects still rankle. 'All the numbers they reported were wrong. From start to the end, it wasn't like [Khoo] used all my money.' The common perception, fostered by the media, is that the couple's relationship foundered because of financial worries. 'In fact, what I sacrificed was time and energy. I never said it was anything unhappy but [everyone] seems to have assumed it was.' There is, however, one silver lining to the failure. 'If I had only ever been an artist, I wouldn't know much. When I was doing business, I learned to type. There was no assistant helping me. Things didn't come too easily and I know how to treasure. I became a normal person and acquired a new perspective. I was no longer just in touch with artists.' Young has been learning more than typing. Stealing time between filming - and attending lectures in Singapore - she managed to complete a University of London diploma in law. 'I went all crazy when I got the certificate last year,' she says. 'It was [a dream come true] as I regretted not having entered university.' She also took a colour-therapy course in New York and learned the basics of kaseki ryori (multi-course Japanese cuisine). 'When I want to do business, I [do it]. When I want to study, I go ahead. I don't want to regret anything when I grow old and have become a grandma,' she says. The assured, stylish woman sitting opposite me is unrecognisable from the round-faced ingenue of yesteryear and there's no more telling proof of the metamorphosis than her attitude towards an old adversary: the press. '[I used to think] why should I have to tell people everything, positive and negative? I thank God now because I know how to make good use of [the publicity].'