Sara is a step forward for Charlene Choi's acting career
Pop idol hopes her latest film helps in her quest towards being considered an authentic actress
She is still better known as one half of Canto-pop duo Twins, who are set to celebrate their 15th anniversary with a range of projects later this year, but Charlene Choi Cheuk-yin's career as an actress has gained serious traction of late.
In her latest film Sara, 32-year-old Choi plays the title role of a sexual abuse victim who has an affair with a much older man (played by Simon Yam Tat-wah) during her adolescence. Later, she starts working as an investigative journalist, and stumbles across the story of a young prostitute (Sunadcha Tadrabiab) in Thailand.
This is the first title released by the production company, Hong Kong Film, which was set up by Chapman To Man-chat in 2013 with the aim of making "purely Hong Kong films that can't be sold to mainland China", To told the Post last year.
As its lead actress, Choi, who was born in Canada and moved to Hong Kong at the age of three, is less concerned about the film's identity.
"I don't mind where my films are released," she says. "The internet reaches everyone; even if you make a film that tanks at the box office, it doesn't mean that people haven't seen it. So if a project gives me a chance to express myself, I'll do it."
Sara is one such project. In 2013, Choi, To and singer-actress Fiona Sit Hoi-kei posed nude - except for the signboards they held up - for an anti-slavery campaign organised by the charity Liberty Asia.
It was the first time that Choi had encountered the issue of underage prostitution. To, meanwhile, was so affected by his research that he decided to make a film based on the true stories he had come across. Directed by Herman Yau Lai-to and produced by To, Sara is a socially conscious - and at times sexually charged - drama, and it has been recognised as such. The film is slated to screen at next week's Osaka Asian Film Festival, and April's Udine Far East Film Festival.
It also has been included in the Hong Kong Panorama 2014-2015 section of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival.
For her headlining role, which represents a substantial bid to be taken seriously as a performer, Choi was nominated for best actress by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society (she lost out to Dearest's Zhao Wei in January) and the Hong Kong Film Awards (winners of which will be announced on April 19).
When asked about the best actress prize she received for Sara at December's Macau International Movie Festival - a minor accolade in the awards season - Choi offers the usual platitudes about her surprise at winning, and the effort she put into the project.
Then she turns thoughtful. "I really didn't expect to win anything and get so much positive response before the film was even commercially released. I've never had a film whose trailer got over a million hits on YouTube before," she says.
Much of the internet attention is probably the result of Choi's provocative line of dialogue ("I've been letting you f*** me," her character shouts at her middle-aged lover). But it's still a breakthrough for a performer not known for taking adventurous roles.
"As an actress, I've always been confident," says Choi, who was named best actress at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival for her role in the thriller, Diary (2006), as well as the Golden Bauhinia Awards for the showbiz satire, Simply Actors (2007).
"But it's true that you experience different things in different phases of your career. If someone had given me this script a few years ago, I might not have been able to handle it."
As a prime product of Emperor Entertainment Group's idol-making machine and, for many years, a meticulously managed member of a palpably sweet and innocent girl group, Choi's management haven't always allowed her the freedom to pick her projects.
"It's true that there were films I really didn't want to make," Choi says. "Then again, in my film career, I think I've enjoyed enough freedom. If I am to compare the films I like and the films I don't, I'd say there are considerably more of the former than the latter."
The irony is that the squeaky clean image of Twins has gone out of window. The tabloids revealed in 2010 that Choi had married, and then divorced, the singer-actor Ronald Cheng Chung-kei, while her partner Gillian Chung Yan-tung has never fully recovered from her involvement in the Edison Chen photo scandal of 2008.
Still, Choi thought hard before taking the role. "I spent a long time asking myself whether I could handle the sex scenes in Sara," she says. "After all, I'm used to making other kinds of films. I thought about whether this would make people see me in a negative light, and I do need to worry about that as a pop idol.
"But as I want to be [known as] an actress now, I decided I shouldn't be asking myself those questions," she says.
In Sara, Choi's character has a secret relationship with her married lover (Yam), who is a senior government official.
While admitting that the experience of living in hiding resonates with her own past, Choi - who has made her relationship with partner William Chan Wai-ting public knowledge - stresses she is now comfortable living her life in the public eye.
"Once you decided to become a public figure, you have to accept this fate," she says. "I once felt I could change that situation. I didn't really give up. It's more that I now feel more comfortable with it. I have more freedom to do what I want to do today."
Choi has appeared in around 50 films since she showed up as a student extra in Francis Ng Chun-yu's What is a Good Teacher (2000), and she claims that Sara is the first movie in which she appears in virtually every scene.
"It's very different from my previous films, which were mostly about being happy, lively and funny. It was easy to pass the day on those sets," she says.
"In the next few years, I hope I can make more movies that require me to act - because I have made many that didn't," she says with a chuckle.
"People need new challenges, and it would be great if more challenging roles came my way."
Sara opens on Mar 5