With Empty Hands role, Hong Kong pop singer Stephy Tang is poised to make the leap to serious actress
After several fluffy outings as rom-com heroine Bo, Tang’s dramatic roles in The Empty Hands, Somewhere Beyond the Mist and Husband Killers have cemented her resolve to become better known as an actress rather than a singer
Hong Kong pop idol Stephy Tang Lai-yan is not looking back in her dramatic mission to reinvent her career as a serious actress, and three titles making the rounds on the film festival circuit confirm her progress.
“It’s a new experience to me,” Tang tells the Post during a stopover in Hong Kong between trips to the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and the Kaohsiung Film Festival in Taiwan, where Somewhere Beyond the Mist and Husband Killers were screened respectively.
“My past films were restricted to Hong Kong and, at most, mainland China. It’s only with these three new films that I’ve started to attend overseas film festivals,” she says, referring also to The Empty Hands. “In my recollection, I don’t remember having any of my films selected by festivals before this year.”
All three films are showing in this year’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, which runs from October 31 to November 20, and Tang says that’s partly coincidence.
“Actors are in a passive position in terms of what they’re offered. But at just the moment that I was looking to transform myself, I was approached for three eclectic projects,” she says. “I say coincidence because Somewhere Beyond the Mist was shot three years ago and is only readied for a release now. For people to see these films at the same time, and they are all so different, the impact is significant.”
She is giving up her singing career to focus on film, Tang says. “In the last few years, I have been hoping that people would recognise me as an actress rather than as a singer. Of course I still do concerts but, in the past, I made movies as a singer, and now I hope I’m more an actress doing music. I’m determined to make this happen.”
With The Empty Hands alone – the first of Tang’s upcoming films to receive a general release – the 34-year-old has made enough of an impression to trade her former teen idol image for that of a serious character actress. A nomination for best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards would not surprise.
In the atmospheric drama, Tang plays a woman without purpose who picks up karate again as a way of recovering her fighting spirit after the death of her estranged Japanese father (played by Yasuaki Kurata), who was a karate master teaching at a dojo in Wan Chai, and the breakdown of her tortured relationship with a married radio host (Ryan Lau Chun-kong). Director Chapman To Man-chat co-stars as her coach.
While Tang is excited to recall her reaction to To’s offer of the martial arts role (“slight disbelief”), her reference for it (the Japanese film 100 Yen Love ), her six months of training (“I can endure pain because I play volleyball”) and the ideal reception for the film (“more female-oriented films in Hong Kong”), she is aware of the public’s inclination to judge her new character alongside her most notable – Bo, the heroine of several corny romantic comedies written and directed by the critically derided Patrick Kong Pak-leung.
Kong put Tang and her then-boyfriend Alex Fong Lik-sun together in four relationship dramas, released over nine years, that explore the nasty, ulterior motives in modern love. Tang had made other films in that period but none, arguably, was as memorable.
She sounds defiant when asked about her current choice of projects. “I’m a relatively simple person when it comes to picking films,” she says. “I don’t think about the box office and I don’t pay attention to the audience’s comments about my [choices]. Even if I make 10 romance movies, all 10 characters feel different to me. Each of them feels like a new life to me.”
Tang is aware she’s been typecast into youthful romances, and she’s fine with it. “Why the fixed image, some people would ask. Because the directors think I’m suitable for those roles. And why keep making those films? Because people keep going to see them. That’s all I could think of,” she says.
Her challenging role in The Empty Hands appears to more than a few critics as a sign of her finally making the leap to forgo her idol image, but Tang has a different take.
“I’ve honestly never felt the burden of being a pop idol – although I could understand if you don’t believe me. I couldn’t quite believe that, either! But, say, in the film In Love with the Dead (2007), my character was totally disgusting in appearance, and I didn’t mind doing that at all. I didn’t feel the burden [to stay pretty]. It’s just that I hadn’t come across the right characters.”
Tang says she is more eager to wipe out her image as a singer than as Bo. But with Husband Killers, a violent actioner which is “kind of a cult movie” and sees her portray a housewife-turned assassin, and Somewhere Beyond the Mist, a realist drama in which she plays a pregnant policewoman trying to understand a teen murderer, the actress is seemingly on course for acclaim.
After the trio of new films, Tang is set to continue her acting renaissance with several films already wrapped and scheduled for 2018 release. They include director Fruit Chan Gor’s The Invincible Dragon, the Louis Koo Tin-lok action sequel L Storm, and Teddy Robin’s fantasy comedy Lucid Dreams. She is currently filming the true-life drama Keyboard Warriors.
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Tang is quick to clarify that her part in Kong’s upcoming Lunar New Year family comedy, Mother-in-law vs Son-in-law, is no more than a cameo role. So are there any new Kong projects in the pipeline?
“Not in the foreseeable future, to be completely honest,” Tang says with a giggle. “And there are neither positive nor negative implications in that statement. But I believe both of us need to try out something new.”
The Empty Hands will be screened on November 1 and 4, Husband Killers on November 11, and Somewhere Beyond the Mist on October 31 and November 17, as part of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. The Empty Hands and Husband Killers will then open respectively on November 2 and December 7
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