How Miriam Yeung, Canto-pop star and actress, changed her attitude to work and life
Why should a Canto-pop star who is also an award-winning actress take the lead in a little film about the plight of five kindergarten kids? That was probably the question that flashed across Miriam Yeung Chin-wah's mind when she was approached to work on Little Big Master by the film's executive producer, Daneil Lam Siu-ming (who also heads Universe Films).
Yeung had reasons to be sceptical when she heard about "[producer] Benny Chan's very nice project about schools". Its director, Adrian Kwan Shun-fai, whom Yeung soon found out to be an extremely easy crier, is a notable Christian filmmaker whose credits include gospel films Life is a Miracle (2001), The Miracle Box (2004) and Team of Miracle: We Will Rock You (2009).
Apart from making sure that the production would provide sufficient care to its child actors and cater to the daily schedule of her two-year-old son, Torres, Yeung was intent on ensuring the film didn't end up being overly didactic, because "Hong Kong audiences don't have much patience for that", she says.
It wasn't until she realised the film is based on a true story that she became convinced. Predominantly shot on location, Little Big Mast er is based on the case of Lillian Lui Lai-hung, the former headmistress of an elite school who, in 2009, decided to take up a HK$4,500-a-month job at Yuen Long's run-down Yuen Kong Kindergarten to single-handedly continue the education of its five underprivileged pupils.
"The reason I really wanted to do this film is because it reminds me of values that we might have forgotten: What does it mean to respect the teachers and care for the students? Is there anything more important than the children? I hope this film can awaken people to the importance of education," says Yeung.
The chance to portray a big-hearted educator has personal significance to the 41-year-old performer. Her father taught English at both primary and secondary levels at the Tung Wah Schools for almost four decades, went on to teach part-time upon his retirement, and has only recently stopped working.
Yeung's memories from her student years include having a stern paternal figure who readily doubled the amount of homework she had, and always marked students' assignments at home. "But today, I really appreciate that he gave me this good family and education," she says.
"His favourite motto is the Confucian saying, 'In teaching, there should be no distinction of classes'. That has left me with a lasting impression," Yeung says. "There were many problems confronting schools at the time as they were facing closure. But my father treated every student the same way, irrespective of their backgrounds. As a person, he taught me to be principled and responsible."
On a professional level, Yeung's stately role as Principal Lui represents her latest effort to distinguish herself from her happy-go-lucky screen image from her younger days, one which came about from her uncontrollable laughter sometimes making the final cuts of movies and earning her a Cantonese nickname that translates as "big laughing aunt".
"To be honest, I was clueless during my first few years of acting. I was lucky that a director would tailor-make the role of Fong Lai-kuen for me, and that it fitted the taste of the young cinema-goers at the time," she says of her smitten policewoman character in Joe Ma Wai-ho's romantic comedy, Love Undercover (2002).
"I'm certain that I was an awful actress then and that I couldn't persuade anyone that I was acting. But it's precisely because of this genuine feeling and direct appeal to the audiences that a path opened up for me. To be liked by movie-goers and to have acting ability, those are two completely different things," she says.
Yeung's early attempts to reinvent herself and develop professionally - away from being "just a comedy actress" - did not go smoothly. Her portrayal in Fruit Chan Gor's 2004 horror film Dumplings: Three ... Extremes of a desperate housewife flirting with a cannibalistic method to restore her youthful looks received mixed reviews.
Her acting career reached such an impasse that, following 2007's Hooked on You, she stopped appearing onscreen for several years. It was when Pang Ho-cheung approached to take the lead role of cigarette-smoking cosmetics salesgirl Cherie in Love in a Puff (2010) - after Ivana Wong Yuen-chi had been offered the role first - that Yeung returned with a renewed outlook.
"When you've been working in this industry for 10 years, you have to face changes. Whether it's my appearance or my mental state, it's impossible to stay in that "Fong Lai-kuen" phase. But I couldn't find a way out for quite some time. [In the off years] I learned to turn away because I wasn't offered suitable roles; I just focused on my music career," Yeung says.
"It's after I got married [in 2009] and started my family that I accepted I'm a mature adult who shouldn't keep playing young characters. After that, I became a new person. It's a different experience playing the character in Love in a Puff," she says. Taking up the stereotypical kong nui character in Pang's film gave Yeung's acting career a new lease of life. Her performance in the sequel, Love in the Buff (2012), won her the best actress prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for the first time.
"Cherie is a character with whom I could express myself most fluently," she says. "Some people might say that it's just a small drama, but I appreciate that the judges recognised a rejuvenated Yeung Chin-wah. Through the very ordinary story, I had to show a different side of me from what I'd done in the past."
The same should apply for Little Big Master, which would do well to follow the example of Love in a Puff. Despite an awful opening day, Pang's modestly scaled, category III movie went on to achieve respectable box office results by positive word of mouth alone.
As a heart-warming movie equipped with thoroughly positive vibes, Yeung's latest outing has all the potential to reach - and touch - a wider audience. "I don't have high expectations for this movie's box office," says Yeung of her latest . "When I shot it, I just wanted to do something positive and meaningful."
The actress says she took up the project "as a mother". "I'm not saying that I'm beyond [financial] considerations, but I was really touched by the story. When I looked for a pre-nursery class for my son, it was very difficult - don't think for a second that showbiz people can have it easier.
"Or I can put it this way," Yeung continues. "Before the age of 30, I did everything to make money. Now, for the second half of my life, I just want to do something meaningful." And Little Big Master allows her to do so, in more ways than one.
Little Big Master opens on March 19