Among the Best Actress nominees at the prestigious Golden Horse Awards last year and the recent Hong Kong Film Awards, one name stood out - Cherry Ngan. Many had never heard of her.
The 20-year-old actress, who was nominated for her role as a feisty hip-hop dancer in The Way We Dance, was a clear outsider among the roster of established stars in the category at the Hong Kong event which also included the likes of Zhang Ziyi, 35, Sammi Cheng, 41, and Paw Hee Ching, 64.
Just before he gave out the award, actor Nick Cheung pretty much told her she stood no chance of winning it.
"You still have so much time, unlike all the other nominees who have already sacrificed their youth. So you should sacrifice a little too. Tonight, just show your support and that should be enough," he said in jest.
In a recent telephone interview with Life!, Ngan openly admits that her ascent to stardom is a lot faster than most others'.
"Compared with a lot of people, I'm really very lucky. Some people work for many years and never get to play the lead, but I got a lead role in a movie and also got recognised for it. I'm amazed and flattered," says the actress in Mandarin. She made her acting debut only two years ago, in a bit part in the drama Floating City (2012), starring Aaron Kwok.
Which is why the bubbly star has no issue whatsoever with anything that Cheung said to her on the night of the Hong Kong Film Awards.
"When he says this kind of thing to me, he's actually encouraging me to work even harder, so of course I don't mind it at all," she says with a chuckle.
"I look at the nominations as a great start to my career and treat the award ceremonies as events where I can just observe how veteran stars do their thing. I still have many years before me in this industry."
Over the 20-minute interview with Life!, she sounds mature and level-headed, perhaps surprisingly so for someone who exudes such winsome, child-like innocence.
She is the first to admit that her next project, whatever it may be, may not even come close to the critical and commercial success of The Way We Dance, which turned out to be an indie hit in Hong Kong.
Directed by Adam Wong Sau Ping, the film, centred on a group of young dancers, made US$1.7 million (S$2.1 million) at the box office after 53 days. In Singapore, it is playing at the Singapore Chinese Film Festival this Sunday.
Ngan, who is still in university, says: "Everyone is going to have such high hopes, not just for me, but also for everyone else who worked on the movie. To be able to achieve the same result in the future is something we can never guarantee and, in fact, often times when you succeed, your next movie never does as well.
"But that's okay. We shouldn't just look at an actor's one or two movies. Everyone's career rises and falls. What we should look at is how well an actor does over many movies, over a long period of time."
Given that her star power has now shot up, has she been inundated with new scripts lately?
"No, not really, actually. The Hong Kong market is very small for actresses. Scriptwriters tend to write movies with a specific person in mind, and usually these are for men, such as Chow Yun Fat, so those scripts will never come to me.
"But maybe now that people know about me, they will start writing scripts specifically for me. I just have to wait patiently," she says with a laugh.
She lets on that despite the high-profile recognition she has received in the film industry, the people she meets outside of it are none the wiser about her showbiz ascent.
The second-year English language and literature student at Hong Kong's Baptist University says one of her lecturers did not believe her when she said she had to leave class early to attend a Hong Kong Film Awards press event recently.
"My group and I asked our lecturer if we could do our presentation first so I could leave for the press conference. As it was on April Fool's Day, the lecturer thought I was joking but played along anyway and let me leave early.
"The next day, she told me she was shocked to see me on the news on TV. So you see, in school, my classmates and teachers all treat me like any other."
She adds with a laugh: "Besides, I usually dress so normally. No one ever recognises me. I'm just a regular Hong Kong girl."
This article was published on April 23 in The Straits Times.
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