Why Sandra Ng's 12 Golden Ducks isn't about the money
Actress Sandra Ng Kwan-yu can still remember a conversation she had with her partner, director-producer Peter Chan Ho-sun, about making a local film without hankering to mainland censors.
Chan - whose recent films, including American Dreams in China (2013) and Dearest (2014), were made with the mainland market in mind - cautioned that such a move might result in losing serious money, as Hong Kong films no longer enjoyed the financial support of Asian markets such as Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
"It would just be a Hong Kong movie made for your own amusement," Ng recalls Chan telling her.
And if that project was to be a follow-up to her first two Golden Chicken comedies about an ageing prostitute, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, it would be a double whammy.
"In the Hollywood formula, if the first movie makes money, the filmmakers will definitely make a sequel because it will be a bigger success most of the time," says the 49-year-old entertainment personality.
"But in Hong Kong, if the first movie makes HK$50 million, the second may drop to HK$30 million, the third HK$20 million, then they quit at HK$10 million."
Undaunted, she went on to produce as well as star in Golden Chickensss (2014), a sometimes raunchy, often hilarious comedy that was not screened on the mainland but did play in Taiwan and elsewhere. Released during last Lunar New Year, the star-studded production went on to become 2014's highest-grossing Hong Kong film, with domestic box office takings of over HK$41 million, according to the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association and Hong Kong Theatres Association.
"We were just really lucky. Is there a formula? I think filmmaking is all about intuition," Ng says.
Perhaps it was this same intuition that got 12 Golden Ducks made. Written and directed by Matt Chow Hoi-kwong (who co-wrote the first Golden Chicken), this holiday offering revolves around the lives of a dozen gigolos.
"When Golden Chickensss was doing well and we were attending the meet-the-audience sessions after screenings, we always closed by yelling 'See you next year!'", recalls the 46-year-old Chow.
"Whenever we were asked what our next film would be, we said "golden ducks". We were just making that up, but it got a reaction every time. When we said that at Udine [Far East Film Festival], everyone laughed; when we explained that 'ducks' mean gigolos [in Cantonese], they laughed even harder."
But the project is anything but a joke. Following research trips to Taiwan and Thailand, it was decided that this new film's lead character should be someone who has mastered the skills of pleasing women - rather than one who sells his body. The protagonist, suggestively named Future, is a gigolo who struggles to reclaim his glory in today's escort business.
Initially set to play a woman who meets a dozen gigolos, Ng was soon persuaded to play one herself. The actress had sat through lengthy sessions to mount the fake bosom for her character in the previous films, and her transformation for the new film was no easier.
"The make-up to turn me into a man - by making my face more angular and hairy - took two hours every day," Ng says. "The special effects make-up for the body, which we had for several scenes, took six hours to apply, but would begin to fall off after a while. It was also very expensive - costing over HK$200,000 each - and could only be used once.
"Its texture was much more realistic than what you saw in Love on a Diet," she says, referring to the 2001 romantic comedy that saw Andy Lau Tak-wah and Sammi Cheng Sau-man in fat suits. "After that, we needed to apply CGI (computer generated imagery) to retouch the footage."
The film's many celebrity cameos - including Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and Eason Chan Yik-shun - offer another attraction. Another guest star, Simon Yam Tat-wah, is fitting, as he starred in various gigolo movies in the early 1990s.
Ng says that the creative team of 12 Golden Ducks was aware of those older movies, among them Hong Kong Gigolo (1990) and Gigolo and Whore (1991), when they approached Yam for the new film.
"Yam is revered as the first duck king," she says. "I cast him for the sentiment but, of course, those films were much more depressing than ours."
While the first two Golden Chicken films were released over Christmas, 12 Golden Ducks follows Golden Chickensss lead in being a Lunar New Year release. She believes the timing should work to her advantage.
"I still remember the Christmas [in 2000] where five Hong Kong films opened at the same time," says Ng. "But now, if you don't release a Hong Kong film at Lunar New Year, there's no chance of surviving. There was only one [notable] Hong Kong film in  summer - Temporary Family - and it did just all right [with HK$16.5 million]. It's crazy."
Ng jokes that after 12 Golden Ducks, she's considering leaving the sex industry stories behind and making a new film entitled Golden Cats.
"Cats are getting out of control. On Facebook, Instagram and Weibo, you post a photo of two cats and you get tens of thousands of likes."
No matter what Ng ends up producing, however, it is unlikely to make her rich. While Golden Chickensss' achieved substantial commercial success, the actress-producer ended up doling out much of the profits to her guest stars - many of whom had taken part in the film for little or no money - to show them her appreciation.
"According to my accountant, I made a profit of HK$180,000 from that film," she says. "But I was reminded that I had treated the cast and crew to a lot of meals. So I've earned almost nothing."
But Ng doesn't mind. "It's worth doing as long as the investors are happy and the brand looks good. Filmmaking is like breaking stones with a hammer. You go step by step and shouldn't be obsessed with making HK$100 million with one film."
12 Golden Ducks opens on February 19