Don't call me a feminist

In the male-dominated world of Chinese language films, Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang stands out as a rare female voice.

Her scripts and directorial works are often women-centric, telling stories of realistic female characters who are otherwise so lacking in mainstream films such as Hong Kong cop movies.

Her 2004 film 20 30 40, for example, followed the lives of three women with the ages of the title, portraying female desires at different stages in life.

Nine years before that, 1995's Siao Yu told the story of a Taiwanese woman who pays an American man to marry her so she can get a green card.

Her latest film, Murmur Of The Hearts, which opens in Singapore next week, is once again centred on a woman - this time, an artist named Yu Mei (played by Isabella Leong) who feels lost in life after her mother (Lee Sinje) dies and she is separated from her elder brother (Lawrence Ko).

But do not call Chang a feminist - that term is "a little discriminatory", she says.

"No one ever asks a man, 'Your movies are all about men, so are you fighting for men's rights?' But why is it that if a woman makes a movie about women, people always have to bring up the notion of feminism? "I'm a woman and so I tell stories from the perspective of a woman. That is all," she tells Life! thoughtfully in Mandarin.

Still, she admits that women in the film industry often have to "work harder", given the circumstances.

"I think I have been treated well and fair, but the Chinese film industry is nonetheless dominated by men. Women tend to get fewer opportunities.

"Even for actresses, they will have movies to act in, but these movies may not be about women or care about women."

Speaking slowly and carefully, she comes across as not only fiercely intelligent, but also very down-to-earth. Looking considerably younger than her 61 years of age, the always elegant actress-turneddirector is classy even in the distressed jeans and casual grey top she donned for this interview.

Every now and then, she looks over to the other reporters in the room and asks if they would like a snack while waiting for their turn to interview her.

Murmur is her first film in seven years and it is evident that she is excited about sitting in the director's chair again.

"It's about time I made a movie again, don't you think?" she exclaims with a laugh at the start of the interview.

"I was never away from the film world, but I needed to film something of my own again."

During her film-making hiatus between 2008's Run Papa Run and Murmur, she starred in Li Yu's drama Buddha Mountain (2010) and served on the boards of several international film festivals, including the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Last year, she took chairmanship of the Golden Horse Film Festival's executive committee, considered the most prestigious film event in the Chinese-language movie world.

Returning to the director's chair, she chose to make Murmur out of two scripts she had ready "because the story is so touching". Drafted by Taiwanbased Japanese actor Yukihiko Kageyama, the film is loosely based on his own experience with his family. After looking at it, Chang took over as co-writer and filled out the screenplay.

"When I first read his story, I could already visualise the scenes because it was so vivid and moving. It is rare for a man to write what's in his heart, to show so openly how much he misses his family and loved ones," she says.

There is much hype over the film, not only because this is her comeback film of sorts. It also happens to be a comeback for its Macau-born star Isabella Leong, who has not acted since she was in Hollywood's The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008).

During her time away from the entertainment scene, the 26-year-old made headlines for dating billionaire Richard Li, 48, the younger son of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. Before the couple split in 2011, they had a son in 2009 and twin boys a year later.

Chang says it was the actress' "earnestness" to act again that earned her the leading role.

"She told me she had an interest in acting again, so I said I have this script. She loved it and when she was talking to me about the characters and the story, I could tell she was very invested in it.

"The more we spoke, the more I could see her as the main character Yu Mei. She has certainly matured a lot."

Murmur was shot on location in Taiwan, a decision the director insisted on right from the start. There is something very "special and warm" about a "very Taiwanese film".

Chang, who has lived with her businessman-husband Billy Wong Ching Hung and 24-year-old son Oscar in Hong Kong for the better part of her life, says: "The pace in Hong Kong and China is so fast and people always seem quite hurried. In Taiwan, things move a little slower and I think people are also more traditional.

"Interpersonal relationships and old customs are very important in Taiwan and that translates into a kind of warmth that is felt very clearly on the screen in Taiwanese films. And that warmth is vital to the story of Murmur."

She is well-placed to make the comparison, having successfully straddled both the Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries for decades, well before regional co-productions made it more common.

She started out as a singer, but quickly turned to acting in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, appearing in popular films such as the Aces Go Places movies alongside actors Karl Maka and Sam Hui.

Subsequently, she worked with major Taiwanese film-makers such as Edward Yang and Lee Ang, starring in Yang's That Day, On The Beach (1983) and Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), both of which are considered classics in the Taiwan film canon.

To date, she has starred in nearly 100 films, winning the Golden Horse award for Best Actress for her performance in My Grandfather (1981) and then in Passion (1986), which she also directed.

She holds the record for the most Best Actress nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, with nine nominations and two wins.

Her directorial efforts have also won much acclaim, showing at major international film festivals and garnering awards.

The romantic drama Tempting Heart (1999), starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Gigi Leung and Karen Mok, earned her a nomination for Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards, while Passion and Run Papa Run were up for Best Director at Golden Horse.

Acting is still on the cards for her. After doing the media rounds for Murmur, she is set to start promoting Johnnie To's Design For Living, which she co-produces and stars in. Slated for release in Hong Kong in July, it is the movie version of the 2008 stage musical she wrote.

In the next few months, she will be acting in Jia Zhangke's new film, Mountains May Depart, about a woman who leaves her boyfriend to marry a rich mine owner.

Then, there are plans to start shooting "a film about China" that she has already written.

She says with a chuckle: "I am almost 62 years old. If I don't do all this by the time I'm 70, I won't be able to finish all my projects."

Other female directors in Chinese cinema

ANN HUI, 67

Representative works: Boat People (1982), Song Of The Exile (1990), Summer Snow (1995), A Simple Life (2011)

The awardwinning Hong Kong director is a regular on the international film festival circuit and is best known for her naturalistic and delicate film-making style.

Her critically acclaimed Boat People, the last of her Vietnam trilogy and widely considered her masterpiece, looks at a group of Vietnamese after the Vietnam War, while her semi-autobiographical film, Song Of The Exile, presented the ostracism and family drama faced by the Japanese wife of a Chinese man following the Sino-Japanese war.

She has multiple Golden Horse awards for Best Director and Best Film, including for A Simple Life, about the bond between a man and his long-time servant, and Ordinary Heroes (1999), which examined the social and political activism in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

XU JINGLEI, 40

Representative works: My Father And I (2003), Letter From An Unknown Woman (2004)

Better known in her native China, this actress-director is a big deal, with more than 32 million followers on Weibo. Along with Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao and Zhang Ziyi, she is known as one of China's four major actresses, called the "Four Huadan".

The star of films such as Spring Subway (2001) and I Love You (2002) turned to directing in 2003 with My Father And I, about the relationship between a young girl and her father after her mother dies.

The film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and won her a Best New Director award at the Chinese Film Media Awards.

Since then, she has directed five more films, including Letter From An Unknown Woman, about a writer and his brief encounters with an unknown woman.

The film earned her a Best Director award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

VICKI ZHAO WEI, 39

Representative work: So Young (2013)

The Chinese actress, who shot to fame with the popular television series My Fair Princess (1998-1999), made her directorial debut with the well-reviewed romantic youth drama So Young in 2013.

The film went on to become the 19th highest-grossing film to be shown in China, with 718 million yuan (S$157 million) at the box office, ahead of even Hollywood blockbusters The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) and The Avengers (2012).

JOAN CHEN, 53

Representative work: Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998)

The Chinese-American actress-director is known for acting in films such as The Home Song Stories (2007) and The Last Emperor (1987), but she has also directed two features to date, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998), which earned her the Best Director Golden Horse award.

However, her Hollywood romantic drama Autumn In New York (2000), starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, was widely panned.

CHARLIE YOUNG, 40

Representative work: Christmas Rose (2013)

Taiwanese actress Young made her directorial debut with Christmas Rose in 2013, a controversial courtroom drama about a disabled woman (Gwei Lun-mei) who accuses her gynaecologist (Chang Chen) of sexually abusing her and takes him to court with the help of a famed lawyer (Aaron Kwok).

The film receieved mixed reviews, but critics applauded the rookie director for tackling such a heavy subject.

yipwy@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 15, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.