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Wed, Feb 13, 2013
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I'm prepared to be ugly, says Shu Qi
by Boon Chan

For an actress, getting the lead role in a Stephen Chow Sing Chi movie is a big deal. It means joining a select club that includes Karen Mok, Vicki Zhao and Athena Chu, a group nicknamed the Sing girls.

Their roles in the Hong Kong funnyman and film-maker's comedies were a springboard to greater fame and popularity - but often at a price. They were often made to look outrageously hideous. In The God Of Cookery (1996), Mok sported awful teeth and an unflattering mop. In Shaolin Football (2001), Zhao's pretty face was buried underneath a score of synthetic scars.

So when Taiwan's Shu Qi, 36, signed on for the fantasy adventure Journey To The West, a prequel to the well-known classic tale of the same name, she was prepared for a negative makeover.

"Once you accept his movie, you have to be prepared to be made ugly and I was actually looking forward to it," she says in Mandarin to the media at Hong Kong's Festival Walk mall on Wednesday night before the film's gala premiere there.

Dressed in a Felipe Oliveira Baptista outfit, a one-piece which playfully mixes solid blue and zebra print, Shu is every inch the elegant sophisticate. It is a far cry from her role in the movie, which is currently showing in Singapore: a rough-around-the-edges demon hunter Miss Duan whose face is smudged with dirt and whose hair is wildly messy.

It was a look she found to be fashionable, given that unkempt is in, she says in jest.

"It saved a lot of make-up and hair time. The stylist just took dust and mud and mucked about with it."

Certainly, Shu seems to have got off very lightly compared to previous Sing girls Mok and Zhao.

Is it favouritism or is Chow getting soft with age?

Neither, says Chow, 50, in protest: "Look at Miss Shu. How could you possibly make her ugly? I've already tried my best. I bet with you that you cannot do it."

But did he not manage to transform Mok and Zhao, neither of them laggards in the beauty department, into spectacularly ugly specimens?

He shoots back with a laugh: "Oh, them I could."

On a more serious note, he adds that Zhao, for example, was not truly ugly, either. He says: "Even though I made her look like that, her innate spirit was still beautiful."

Such talk of inner beauty seems at odds with the man best known as a pioneer of Hong Kong's "mo lei tau", or nonsensical, comedy, which is akin to the absurdist humour of Britain's Monty Python.

In conversation, however, his humour is more restrained and deadpan.

And on a film set, according to his cast, he is meticulous and methodical.

Even though Chow does not act in it, there are traces of him everywhere, from China actor Wen Zhang's expressive turn as the good-hearted demon hunter Xuanzang to sexy starlet Chrissie Chau's sinuous dance. She plays a demon hunter who is Shu's lone female follower.

Chau, 27, recalls that Chow would "personally demonstrate everything, including the dance" and adds that he did it better.

So it is no empty boast when Chow claims: "I was very focused on my role as director so, in a way, every role is me. I put my soul into every character, so you can see my style in each of them."

He adds: "I think every actor is a shadow of me - plus his own special characteristics."

Journey To The West is a departure for Chow as he is not acting in a film he wrote, produced and directed.

But he does not think this significant. For him, it all starts with the script rather than "what role I want for myself". Only when he is satisfied with the screenplay does he start thinking about casting, and then he would simply approach whoever he thought was "most suitable".

"I'm very good, I'm not selfish. If I were a little more selfish, I would go 'Hey, I'll take on this as well', can make more money this way you know," says a deadpan Chow, who is togged out in an ensemble of black peaked cap, black zip-up hoodie, black jeans and grey New Balance sneakers.

He started out in television shows in the 1980s and later shot to stardom with the gambling comedy All For The Winner (1990). He began directing in 1994 with the action comedy From Beijing With Love and would often wear several hats, including producer and screenwriter, in his later projects.

Some of his biggest hits and best-known works include the Fight Back To School series (1991-1993), The God Of Cookery, King Of Comedy (1999), Shaolin Football (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). His last film was the sci-fi comedy CJ7 (2008), in which he acted, directed and wrote.

The two-part A Chinese Odyssey (1994), his loose adaptation of the Journey To The West classic folk tale, is a cult favourite in China, despite it being a box-office flop. Many mainland Chinese movie fans watched it on bootlegged copies and can even quote lines from the movie.

A pivotal scene in it had Chow saying that he would love someone for 10,000 years. The classic line of dialogue gets a twist in the new movie, Journey To The West, as Shu says it is better to love now than to wait 10,000 years.

Chow says that he has watched the current film "several thousand times" and he would still get moved and cry every single time.

He muses: "Time is now more precious than ever so, say, I want to invite Miss Shu to a meal, I should do it now rather than wait till next week or next month. Now is important because you don't know what's going to happen to the world tomorrow."

Still, one does not buy a ticket to a Stephen Chow movie for only the tears to flow - laughs are expected, even demanded. Naturally, the film-maker delivers.

In one flirtatious exchange with China actor Huang Bo, who plays the crafty Monkey King Sun Wukong, Shu had her comic capacity tested to its limit. On film, it looks like an NG scene - a no-good or ruined outtake - that Chow used anyway because of its sheer energy.

Shu reveals: "There was no NG but the scene was too long. It was so funny that Chow just didn't yell 'cut'. But I was laughing so hard that my stomach was hurting, and I couldn't continue acting."

Shu is often cast as the emotionally fragile urbanite in dramas such as A Beautiful Life (2011) and If You Are The One 2 (2010). Asked about the difficulty of making this film and her response is immediate: "Rhythm."

She says: "For art films, you get to go along with your emotions. But in Chow's comedies, he has his unique rhythm. You need to 'shoufang' (rein in and let go) suddenly and that was a pretty big challenge."

Waiting around on set for filming to start was no laughing matter either.

Chow was constantly rewriting the dialogue even while shooting and, once, she had to wait 10 hours to do a scene. She recalls: "I slept and woke, woke and slept in the dressing room. Waiting is the tiring part."

She "could not bear to punish him" though, as he is "even more tired than me".

Still, Shu had high praise for her director for opening her eyes to comedy. She says: "I discovered that comedy is another world. And it would have been very difficult for me without Chow's direction. Hand the same script to any other director and he might not have the same ideas and that's where Chow is special."

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