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Cover Story: Sammi Cheng on reaching new heights
By: Zaneta Cheng
February 3, 2023
In her new movie Lost Love, the Hong Kong acting and singing icon plays an introverted grieving woman who wrestles with lost motherhood by becoming a foster parent. She speaks to Zaneta Cheng about how age and experience helped her craft this nuanced character and why she’s more eager than ever to make her dreams come true
Sammi cheng has just won herself a best actress award from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society for her performance in Lost Love, a Hong Kong film production directed by Sing Fung Ka. The role of Mei, a grieving mother who buries her despair by fostering several children in her lifetime, is a first for Cheng. Mei is introverted and throughout the movie demonstrates no sense of high or low – a departure, by the actress’s own admissions, from the characters she played earlier in her career, when she leaned towards expressive roles as they seemed to her to be a hallmark of good acting.
In Lost Love, Cheng brings Mei’s imperturbable character to life through the minutiae – grief, joy, pain, excitement or disappointment – all conveyed through microscopic changes in facial expressions and the look in her eyes.
“The first time I read the script, what struck me was that I found the character to be completely different to who I am, which made me very interested in playing the role,” Cheng recalls. “Mei’s story moved me. She’s not someone the audience roots for. She’s not very pleasant-seeming nor, frankly, very ingratiating. [At] the beginning of the movie she’s really only fostering children for money, not love at all. But after I read the screenplay more closely, I realised that she had gone through a pretty traumatic experience – losing her child – and that fostering children was really a journey for her to heal herself. This might not be something she sees but it’s a part of the overall story and that really touched me.
“There isn’t a moment in the entire movie, really, that’s deliberately sensational or tries to make the audience cry. It’s not dramatic. The director was very restrained in the way that he handled the script and the filming. A lot of the more intense moments leave room for the audience to draw their own conclusions, their own feelings and their own thoughts. I really think the director handled the characters very well.”
Of course, if you get to watch Cheng in action, as I did on the set of our cover shoot, it would be hard to believe that Cheng found it difficult to play Mei. The 50-year-old actress and singer has reigned as one of the most popular performers in the Hong Kong entertainment business for over three decades and her ease around a lens is evident.
Focused and disciplined, Cheng can shift her face towards the light and move effortlessly both of her own accord and in accordance with the photographer’s instructions, all the while seeming to adopt a different character for every change of clothes.
But, according to Cheng, she took the time to delve into Mei’s psyche. From the story outlined in the screenplay, the actress took what she could from what was on the page and added her own take to make the character hers. “I think if I had played this role when I was younger, I might not have had the confidence. I did a lot of analysing of the script, which the younger version of myself would not have known how to do,” Cheng admits.
“I used to feel that the characters I wanted to play had to have big emotional upheavals and exaggerated expressions. That was what I thought acting was. But now, because with time I’ve had more life experience, when I read the script, I found the character to be very nuanced and gave me room to play.”
Cheng’s focus was to get to the character’s core and to embody her soul. “I had to get through to the inner world of the character and understand the driver behind all the decisions she made in the movie as well as her motivations behind fostering all the children,” she explains. “I had to understand this character’s quirks and personality. Mei isn’t a character that readily reveals her emotions. Even after the death of their child, she didn’t share her pain with her husband. Instead, she chose to silently process her grief and hide it from even those closest to her.
“I find that if I make the effort to really enter the character’s world and make sense of it, I can much more easily understand her personality and from there her expressions, the details, her movements and her emotions come together naturally to take the character from the page and give her flesh and blood.”
What Cheng found was a complex inner world, one where she could flex the chops she’s been honing since she started acting at age 19 with her first role in Life of His Own in 1991. “I think it was her introversion that made this character very interesting [to] me. She makes the audience want to take a closer look into her inner world. I could read the changes in her mood,” Cheng says.
Also see: Cover Story: Sooyoung Choi on artistic pursuits
“I remember in the beginning, she had a definite sense of distance from the children that she fostered. I remember the scene where I was taking a photo with the first batch of children I took care of. They sat beside me and I had my hands folded in my lap. But then Mei started to put more of herself into fostering and began to form a bond with the children she was taking care of and I would then take photos with the children with my arms around them.
“The beauty of this character is her myriad subtleties and there are many instances for the audience to notice Mei’s many delicate personality changes – which I found more interesting than superficial mood swings.”
While Cheng has certainly made the effort to examine Mei and her impulses, it’s a departure from the type of effort she once put into her characters. “I was always looking for acting breakthroughs when I was younger but I think that’s kind of confining,” she says. “I’ve learned through this film that the challenge is to play the role well and to play it convincingly.”
Cheng is looking forward to playing more roles and delivering more performances like Mei. “I hope I can still make progress, whether it be acting or singing or even in my live performances. I want to deliver some more unique performances,” she confesses.
“It’s actually a very tall order for artists like me who’ve been doing this for so long. It’s not easy to make progress. It’s easier to see the progress of new artists, so I’m always reminding myself that I shouldn’t approach my work like I know everything because I’ve had so much experience.
“There’s so much that’s new that I don’t know about and that I should understand and learn. I want to continue exploring facets of myself through acting. I’m still super passionate about acting. I think I’ll know if I ever lose my enthusiasm for performing. I really need that personal fire to do things. When I’m keen on something, I really put my whole body and soul into it in order to keep exploring and keep trying until I get it right. I’m of that disposition where I have a very strong personality and will. I don’t ever baulk at difficulty mentally or physically.”
Cheng’s physical discipline is well-known. Her Instagram is awash with photos and videos of the actress hard at work in the gym, her face dripping with sweat. It takes a lot of work to look this good whatever the age, but it’s a whole other level to stay looking as youthful as Cheng does. She does it, she says, to make sure she can keep up with the demands of her job. Cheng has starred in two movies in the last year alone with a concert coming in July and constant travel. Just a few days after our shoot, she’s already in Singapore for a live show.
When on the topic of her concert, Cheng is full of zeal. “I want to push the artistic elements that I worked into my last concert in 2019. I love subcultures and niche genres and I’ve always wanted to incorporate elements of my own taste in my songs or in my performances which I didn’t have the courage to do when I was younger, but I feel like these were well-received in 2019 so I want to keep going,” she says.
“To be honest, these ideas have always been there, but I didn’t have the resources and I don’t think I would’ve dared to execute them back then, but now I can’t contain them anymore. And I think if I have the time and opportunity to do it now, I really should do it quickly because when I hit my 60s and my 70s, I might not have the stamina or the opportunity to perform anymore. I’m also lucky that my label and my colleagues are also really on board to turn my fantasies into reality.”
But ageing to Cheng is in fact something she’s looking forward to. “Being old will not become a burden to me. I think it’s a different life experience, which means I’ll get to play yet more varied roles. Even if, one day, my skin isn’t smooth and flawless any longer, even if it begins to wrinkle, it’ll fuel my acting. Nobody can stay in their 20s forever and I could only play Mei at my age because I can understand her character’s motivations and her inner world,” she explains.
“It’s much better to be honest with myself and to serve the role I’m playing wholeheartedly. If the director wants me to grow old, lose weight or get fat, I’m going to try and do it. I don’t go into anything with fear because fear will get in the way of good acting. I’m not going to feel like I can’t do anything because I have a wrinkle on my face. I’m actually very proud of everything on my body, wrinkles included.”
Staying true to and accepting oneself seems to be a quality that Cheng holds in very high regard. She cites Momoe Yamaguchi as her #legend. The Japanese singer and actress, whose career lasted from 1972 to 1980, decided to retire at age 21 at the peak of her career in order to become a full-time homemaker.
“She never went back on her word and returned to the entertainment industry even with the lure of money and she now lives completely free from vanity, which I feel makes her a legend,” says Cheng. “She’s shot by paparazzi occasionally and magazines report that she’s become a grandmother and an ordinary housewife, but I think she’s incredible because her words and her deeds are consistent and I really admire that.”
Perhaps this is why the role of Mei in Lost Love has had such an impact on Cheng. What began as an opportunity to try something new and a chance to give back to the Hong Kong film industry by waiving her performance fee and agreeing to participate in a movie with a first-time director became a personal breakthrough for the icon who now places personal validation over the applause of the masses.
“I care about doing things well and doing my job to my own standard. It’s important to do the job well. I make sure I complete every task and every step when I approach any job. Whether or not I get the recognition and love of an audience is another matter,” Cheng says. “I want to make progress in even the smallest of spaces, which is why I’m so happy with this project and my role. When the audience saw me, they said that it felt different to watch me and they could see my acting choices and the time that I spent on it. What I really cared about was really baring myself and showing up for the role.
“To be frank, it’s really very hard work and sometimes I ask myself if I can really do it, whatever it is I set my mind on, because I do get very tired. But at the same time it all feels worthwhile and that process of hard work then gives me a sense of complete relaxation because I know I’m working towards something meaningful, which is very contradictory. But then I push on in the confidence that the result will be greater than any exhaustion or hardship I might feel and at the end of it, the tears won’t matter because I’ll have achieved what I set out to accomplish and uncovered a new piece of myself.”
Creative concept and production / #legend
Editor / Zaneta Cheng
Photography / Issac Lam
Videography / Derek Yuen
Styling / Tang Lai at Formz
Hair / Joey Hui from Hair Culture
Make-up / Ricky Lau
Photography assistants / Ivan Chan, Jason Li and Kiano
Wardrobe / Gucci
Jewellery / Buccellati
Also see: Cover Story: Lee Jae Wook on dissecting characters