TimeOutHK: Juno Mak Interview
Rigor Mortis, the first Hong Kong gong zi – that is, Chinese vampire – film in over 20 years, is about redemption. Its protagonist is an ageing, past-his-prime, down-on-his-luck actor (Chin Siu-ho, playing an exaggerated version of himself), and the film itself is an attempt to bring gong zi and all their hopping, creepy glory back to the forefront of local pop culture lore, where they once belonged. However, the greatest element of redemption in Rigor Mortis is arguably reserved for its director, Juno Mak...
A person's background or job should not stop them from seeking election. So says actress-turned-film director and political adviser Diana Peng Dan.
Peng, known for her raunchy roles in the 1990s, caused a stir when she was appointed to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in her native Gansu earlier this year.
"As a citizen you have to care about your country," Peng said of her new role in an interview with the South China Morning Post yesterday. "Everyone has the right to elect and to be elected, regardless of your background."
Peng's appointment to the political advisory body became a topic of debate in Hong Kong, especially when Beijing-loyalist heavyweight Cheng Yiu-tong used the possibility of "sex symbols" getting elected as justification for the screening of candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. Online commentators used Peng's job in Gansu, which follows a string of semi-nude appearances in films and television series, to poke fun at Cheng.
The 40-year-old Peng's latest project, her debut as a film director, also has political connotations. War film On The Nan Ni Wan Frontier will premiere in Hong Kong tonight.
Set during the dark days of the second world war, as China struggled to repel the Japanese invasion, the film features a subplot about revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun , the father of President Xi Jinping .
Peng is no stranger to playing different roles. "As an artist you have to be professional. Today you play the role of a queen, and the next day you play a whore," said Peng, who studied dance and drama at New York's famous Julliard School on a Chinese government scholarship.
After graduating, Peng embarked on a film career in Hong Kong, often taking on roles that showcased her voluptuous figure. She was also a frequent winner of beauty pageants. And while she insists her new job will be secondary to her film career, she describes the CPPCC role as an honour and a great responsibility. "It's like a new job for me. I need to read more books and write proposals, and I have to visit the poor people in the countryside so that I know how to help them, particularly after the earthquake," she says, referring to a deadly quake in July.
But first it's back to the silver screen and a chance to work with Oscar-winning director Ben Affleck on the US$8 million Sino-US co-production B29. Peng says Affleck will direct the war film, with Peng serving as one of its producers. Filming is expected to commence next year. (SCMP)
Poster for "Something Good" (originally, "I Trust You")
Oct, 1, 2013
Just before this interview starts, mainland actress Zhang Jingchu asks for a straw for her drink. But the waitress doesn't quite grasp the Fujian native's Putonghua, so Zhang's make-up artist quickly steps in to interpret. Instead of moving on quickly, Zhang quietly repeats her request in Cantonese twice, trying to perfect her pronounciation.
"My Cantonese is so-so," says the 33-year old actress, who has starred in a number of Hong Kong movies including Dante Lam Chiu-yin's Beast Stalker (2008) and Ann Hui On-wah's Night and Fog (2009).
Language is important to Zhang, who is eager to learn about different cultures. A graduate of the Beijing Central Academy of Drama, she also learned English at the New Oriental Foreign Language School in the capital city.
Her intellectual curiosity about world history, her love of travel, along with her dramatic versatility, has led the actress down a more international career path than many of her peers.
In 2005, Zhang made an impact in international film circles with her notable performances in two very different films - Gu Changwei's Berlin Silver Bear winner,Peacock, and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords, which opened that year's Venice Film Festival.
The following year she was named best actress at the Cairo International Film Festival for her portrayal of a woman from the ages of 10 to 50 in Zhang Jiarui's The Road.
In recent years, she has gained further overseas recognition with appearances in films such as the China-Germany joint production John Rabe (2009), a China version ofSchindler's List during the Nanjing massacre, and Feng Xiaogang's big budget disaster film, Aftershock (2010).
Zhang's latest screen outing is Something Good, which is directed by, and stars, veteran Italian filmmaker Luca Barbareschi.
The Italian production was the opening film of last month's "Cine Italiano! - Cinema Italian Style" programme co-presented by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and Zetema Progetto Cultura of Rome and Istituto Luce Cinecittà. Mainly shot in Rome and Hong Kong, the crime thriller offers a little bit more than the usual exotic "European gangster falls in love with a Chinese woman over a red junk boat on Victoria Harbour" story.
Set to play in European film festivals over the next few months, it tells the timely tale of an international food smuggling racket. Zhang plays the part of a chef whose son dies of poisoning from adulterated foods, and (somewhat inevitably) falls for Barbareschi's character, who is a key player in the business that caused the loss of her boy.
The actress, named by Time magazine as one of the 25 "Asia Heroes of 2005", is no stranger to films that look at social issues. She appeared in Derek Yee Tung-sing's Protégé(2007), which deals with drug trafficking, and Night and Fog, a true story about domestic violence in Tin Shui Wai, and was nominated for best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards for both films.
Zhang says the issue of food safety dealt with in Something Good is a major reason why she wanted to join the production. "When I choose what food to buy, I look at the ingredients, and whether it is processed or not, just to be more aware. When I look at the news, it is just so absurd and saddening. You wonder how people can be so heartless," she says of recent reports of contaminated food on the mainland.
Although the Barbareschi film probably won't open on the mainland, Zhang is pleased to have appeared in it. "I think the problem of adulterated food is important and serious. It relates to everyone. If a film can reflect the situation and provoke people to think, then I am eager to get involved," she says.
Going on location in Rome - a city she loves - was a bonus. Zhang was impressed by the Italian capital, as well as the film crew. "We may not see a lot of Italian films these days but they had such a golden era in the 1970s. They have such a good filmmaking system."
Zhang plays a Chinese chef who runs a hip restaurant on a junk boat, and the Italian crew tried hard to source the necessary ingredients for her to improvise in various scenes. They also hired a professional chef to improve her culinary skills - she confesses she is too busy to have time to cook in her spare time. She is now accomplished at slicing and cutting and acting at the same time, she quips.
"Some of the ingredients were so typically Chinese they made me feel like I was at home. So it was all a bit surreal during filming. I felt like I was at home [in China] inside the studio, but once I stepped out of the set, I realised I was actually in Rome," Zhang says with a grin.
While she was not slicing and cutting vegetables on set, the actress explored the ancient sections of Rome. One of her favourite places was the Cimitero acattolico di Roma (the non-Catholic cemetery of Rome), the final resting place of 19th century British poet John Keats.
"To me, a city like Rome is like where dream and reality meet," Zhang says. She is grateful for the chance to travel for her work, and the interesting people she encounters on her trips abroad.
Earlier in the year she was in Jerusalem for a mainland romantic-comedy - and the trip has given her new perspective in life and arts, she says. While in Israel, the crew met a Russian musician who had been travelling and busking on the road for the past 13 years.
"I was shocked when I heard his music. His guitar playing was so fine and his fingering was so skilful," she says. The musician would light an incense stick before he began, and stop playing when the incense finished. "But what really moved me was that his music directly appealed to one's heart. Later on, I realised he was actually playing music 'in the moment' - straight from his heart," she says.
Although she has spent a lot of time travelling in recent years, Hong Kong and the mainland will remain her primary workplace.
"European filmmakers work from a different aesthetic to local directors and shoot Hong Kong in a different way. Luca made Hong Kong looks so surreal and dreamy," Zhang says.
"But in [local] films like Protégé and Night and Fog, the directors took a realistic approach and depicted the city as it is, even showing a bit of grey sometimes."
Her next dream place to work? She's hoping to go to an island. "I love the sea, and I love snorkelling," she says. (SCMP)
Cast: Luca Barbareschi, Zhang Jingchu, Kenneth Tsang, Eddy Ko, Michael Wong