Sylvia Chang on her latest film, Murmur of the Hearts, and trying to shed her movie star image
For four decades, Sylvia Chang has built an illustrious career as an actress and filmmaker — and the Taiwanese star has no plans to relax
At the age of 61, Sylvia Chang Ai-chia is still regarded first and foremost as a movie star, even though she has been a director for decades. Murmur of the Hearts - her first feature as a director since 2008's Run Papa Run - opened this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, which dedicated a 14-film retrospective programme to her as its "Filmmaker in Focus". It's easy to understand why Chang might see her public persona as somewhat limiting.
"I'm the only film director [I know of] who still has to do her make-up and hair at every promotional event," she says with a sigh. "It's very troublesome - and my team always makes fun of me about it - but what can I do? It's because when other people look at me, they still think of me as a movie actress who happens to be doing a director's job."
But the Taiwanese-born Chang, who has been living in Hong Kong for almost 30 years, is renowned for her professionalism. So during an onstage Q&A with playwright Edward Lam Yik-wah as part of the HKIFF in April, Chang politely, albeit awkwardly, fielded the host's probing questions about her love life. She also obliged the giddy and very long queue that formed outside the theatre for her autograph.
She appreciates the affection, but as one of the most feted actor-filmmakers in the histories of both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taipei's Golden Horse Awards, Chang wants to be remembered for her decades-long and successful transition from a beloved face onscreen to an established writer-director behind many a sensitive contemporary drama.
Granted, Chang did enjoy a hugely prolific movie-star phrase early in her career - she appeared in 57 films between 1976 and 1986, many of those are some of the most revered blockbusters of Hong Kong cinema, such as the 1980s' Aces Go Places series and Tsui Hark's screwball comedy Shanghai Blues (1984).
"I really enjoyed the period working with Cinema City," she recalls. "The only aspect I didn't like was that they did too many sequels and the later films eventually lost the charm. But when I rewatch Aces Go Places, it still shows me how good commercial movies can be."
When she takes the director's seat, however, Chang is not afraid to reveal an art-house sensibility that may have its roots in her early collaborations with Ann Hui On-wah (1979's The Secret) and Edward Yang De-chang (1983's That Day, on the Beach), both new directors at the time who went on to become leading figures in Chinese-speaking cinema.
"I think it's important to continue the tradition," Chang says of her affiliation to the less commercial side of filmmaking. "If we don't make those films, who else would make them now? It's important to care for humanity - even when you're telling sci-fi or more light-hearted stories, like I did with [the 2004 film] 20 30 40."
Murmur of the Hearts is an artfully narrated drama about the search for emotional closure of three Taiwanese young adults (played by Isabella Leong Lok-sze, Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan and Lawrence Ko Yu-luen) with long-lost parents, including a mother played by Lee Sin-je in flashbacks.
Chang does a double take when I ask if she considers her new film to be entertaining. "Yeah," she nods animatedly. "The film is entertaining in the sense that I speak to people through it. I entertain them, but I also hope that I'm speaking to them."
The project began in 2013 when Chang came across a short story that flooded her mind with images. After a month of preproduction and a relatively smooth filming period in the second half of 2013, she found herself in a prolonged battle in the editing room due to the poetic nature of the film she had in mind.
Chang says she was influenced by her viewing of The Inspired Island: A Series of Eminent Writers from Taiwan, a documentary series that chronicles some of the best known poets in the region. "It made me see how the poets use few words, in a very direct and precise way, to build up emotions," she says.
" Murmur of the Hearts is not just about its story; the emotional expression in the film has to be very clear. I wrote a lot of dialogues and monologues but ended up ditching most of them. What constitutes emotions? I need a lot of visual details. It's the first time I did additional shoots after finishing my first cut." What did she add? "The shot of a hand, a painting on the wall, a mood - things like that."
Apart from a leading role in Office - Johnnie To Kei-fung's upcoming movie musical adaptation of Design for Living, the theatre play she scripted and starred in - Chang has kept herself busy with at least five directorial projects in various stages of development. However, the scarcity of her onscreen appearances is unlikely to change.
"I am picky because I know exactly the parts that I'd be interested in," she says. "I have no interest to repeat myself, and I really don't like it when people offer me a small or cameo role. It's pointless, because my name is going to get you zero push at the box office. And if people offer me a part that can be done by anyone, I would see it as an insult."
Chang's last appearance as an actress was in Chinese director Li Yu's 2010 feature Buddha Mountain - and it wasn't a pleasant experience. "When they first approached me, the script was excellent. But eventually, they cut out too many scenes and made me feel that I was disrespected."
Her advancing years are, of course, another factor in Chang's gradual transition behind the camera. She offers: "Increasingly at my age, I'm realising that no one cares about an actor's ability once he reaches a mature phase. We're in the best position to offer our positive qualities, but who cares?"
It looks like at least one person does. "I'm the one who cares the most, which is why I will keep on writing good characters for other actors and for myself," Chang declares - in a way that would make her legions of supporters proud.
Murmur of the Hearts opens on April 30
CHANG’S FINEST MOMENTS
A two-time best actress winner at the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards, Sylvia Chang has forged a distinguished career as a performer, director and screenwriter. Here are some of her highlights