For Chapman To, the art of acting is a frivolous pursuit

He says he hasn't acted in a long time, but that hasn't stopped Chapman To becoming the king of bawdy Hong Kong comedies, writes Edmund Lee

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 10:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 10:44pm

THERE ARE TIMES WHEN Chapman To Man-chat finds himself longing for more contemplative moments as a public figure. This is not one of them. In fact, the man can barely contain his grin as five Japanese porn actresses - his co-stars in the raunchy comedy 3D Naked Ambition - keep running their hands all over him for the assorted media converging here to cover yet another charade in his eventful career.

Right before its premiere screening as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival on March 25, To is asked to offer the audience a brief introduction to his latest film. In a situation like this, most actors with half a sense of decency would cite the story origins, praise the directors or casually reveal their excitement about being part of a wonderful cast. But not with this one, who happens to be the go-to face of Hong Kong low-brow comedies today.

"It is just a porno," To declares playfully to the sell-out crowd before immediately passing the microphone to his co-star Josie Ho Chiu-yee. When he meets the audience after the film, the actor concludes his profanity-filled question-and-answer session with an unprompted plea that may very well be sincere. "Don't tell anyone about the movie's crappy 3-D effects," he exclaims before making his exit from the theatre.

It's a safe bet to speculate that To, who turns 42 in June, is a confident man. So confident, in fact, that he rarely cares if the audience mistakes his self-deprecating humour for an honest opinion. And so it proves when we meet for this interview and cover shoot on a recent afternoon, where he tells me without the slightest hint of irony that he isn't much of an actor. It's impossible to determine if he actually means what he is saying.

"I haven't been acting for a long time - I really haven't," says To. "All I do these days is try to be funny. Some people may say that being funny is a form of acting in itself, but I'm a simpler person. I know I'm only trying to be funny."

When asked if he feels like he plays himself in the movies all the time - presumably a big no-no for any actor who is serious about his craft - To gives me a resounding "yes". "All my characters are the same," he says. "There's no difference between any of them. They're all me. That's why I said I haven't been acting. Since La Comédie Humaine, all I've wanted is to make more comedies. I haven't made any non-comedy for years, and I have no intention of turning back now."

Born Ng Cheuk-cheung in 1972, To decided to give himself a stage name when he started as a contract actor for ATV in 1994. "I've long disliked my real name, which was given by my father," says To, whose current name To Man-chat was in fact created by reversing the name Chat-man-to, which belonged to his favourite racehorse from the '80s. "I love betting on horseracing, and that horse had won me a lot of money," he explains.

To first caught the eye of the film-going public with his Hong Kong Film Award-nominated role as a mentally unhinged henchman in the first two instalments of the Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002, 2003). After notable stints in the early 2000s as a talk show host for Commercial Radio Hong Kong - until he fell out with the company due to his ever-fiery temper - To's rise to A-list status started in earnest with his star turn in La Comédie Humaine (2010), which was co-directed by Chan Hing-ka and Janet Chun.

More comedic roles - including 2011's Mr. and Mrs. Incredible and Men Suddenly in Love, 2012's Mr. & Mrs. Gambler and Vulgaria, 2013's SDU: Sex Duties Unit and The Midas Touch, and last month's Black Comedy - followed on from that success. "When even someone like me can become a leading man, you can tell how down and out Hong Kong cinema is at this moment," To says.

As a gifted crowd-pleaser, it could be argued that To first cemented his audience-friendly image with the promotional campaign of La Comédie Humaine. Meet-the-audience sessions used to be the forte of film festivals with niche or arthouse programming; the practice only really became a custom in Hong Kong when To showed up at more than 60 screenings during the film's local theatrical run, a new record at the time.

Two years later, To and director Pang Ho-cheung staged stand-up sessions to follow each of nearly 200 screenings of Vulgaria, which ended up becoming one of that year's biggest local hits. Following SDU, To's streak of dirty-minded, Hong Kong-centric comedies is set to continue with 3D Naked Ambition, which is co-produced by Chan and Louis Koo Tin-lok, the co-director and star of the popular sex comedy Naked Ambition (2003).

3D Naked Ambition is not the first Hong Kong production to capitalise on the local population's fascination with Japan's adult video industry: there were the original Naked Ambition, Pang's AV (2005) and the recent Golden Chickensss, the last of which is directly referenced in an extended scene in the new movie. Referring to the tasteless portrayal of violence in 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (2011) - another stereoscopic erotic film that was produced locally - To also helpfully assures me that there won't be any "bodily explosions" in his film.

Directed by Lee Kung-lok from an original story by Chan, 3D Naked Ambition is, according to To, meant as a pornographic version of Diary of a Small Man, Chan's 1980s fiction series about a timid man who is perpetually oppressed by the women around him; the story was adapted into the 1989 film The Yuppie Fantasia.

In 3D Naked Ambition, To plays a downtrodden erotic fiction writer who has been living under the shadow of his domineering girlfriend, a popular romance novelist.

After a convoluted mix-up that eventually sees him become a major porn actor in Japan - specialising no less in the refreshing theme of being humiliated by women - the protagonist must then somehow juggle his girlfriend's fading affection, the waves of naked bodies flashing before him every day, and the fierce rivalry initiated by a fellow actor, played by Koo with hilarious abandon.

To may be once again showing off his figure - this time intentionally bulked-up - on the big screen, but the actor explains to me that full frontal nudity is never an option. "According to the censors' standards, we're not allowed to film an erect penis," he says. "According to my standards, the director is not allowed to film my penis before its erection. So we didn't shoot my genitals."

To is, however, totally unapologetic about his repeated forays into bawdy territory. "If you think I'm leading a trend that throws the Hong Kong cinema into a wave of vulgarity," he offers voluntarily, "you should also consider why, if we didn't make these films, the same investors weren't going to invest the money in other movies. Isn't that the case?

"Of course, you can say that The Way We Dance and Unbeatable [both box office hits in 2013] are not vulgar - and you have a point. But I think it's important to offer viewers options. On the one hand, it's unhealthy to have a lot of vulgar movies at the same time; on the other hand, if every project is a dance movie, it could become very boring."

A self-proclaimed advocate of local films, To has recently put his money where his mouth is by setting up a production house, subtly named Hong Kong Film Productions. With a focus on "making purely Hong Kong films that can't be sold to mainland China", the company looks to be an ideal career move for To, whose recent sympathetic comments about Taiwanese students protesting against the island's trade pact with the mainland have drawn a major backlash in China.

It is expected to produce five low-budget films in the next three years that have almost no chance of passing mainland censorship.

"While I myself have been regularly involved in vulgar comedies in the past few years, I want my company to invest in more artistic films. I want there to be more options in this market," says To, who takes pride in the fact that he's a "born and bred Hongkonger".

"I may not be able to become the 'king of Hong Kong' - but I am definitely a 'son of Hong Kong'. [My audience and I] have gone through difficult times together. Everyone is just putting in the effort in their own capacities now. The least we could hope for is that this generation of Hongkongers can maintain our own qualities for the remaining time that we're still around."

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3D Naked Ambition opens on April 3.