Digital Cover: Jennifer Yu and Jason Wu x Sandro

Jennifer Yu and Jason Wu are among the current generation of actors that are heralding a new era in Hong Kong cinematic history. They tell David Ho about the shifts in silver screen storytelling and how they stay on top of their acting game

Hong Kong cinema sure has come a long way. Over the many decades of its existence, it has produced some of the most memorable movies and stars of Asian cinematic history.

It has also evolved with the times. A quick look at the box office hits over the decades sees it go from the Bruce Lee action flicks and Shaw Brothers crime films of the 70’s, continue with the kung-fu movies and slapstick camp classics of the Golden Age in the 80’s and 90’s, and then move on to the star-studded and action-packed cop thrillers of 00’s.

While projects that draw from the popular genres of yesteryears are still being produced, there has been a rise of more nuanced storytelling that hits closer to the heart.

“Hong Kong’s film industry churned out many big budget police-and-gangster blockbusters in the past, especially during its Golden Age. But in recent years, I’ve been seeing a move towards smaller productions,” says Jennifer Yu, an ardent fan of Hong Kong’s film industry. “These stories tend to be more life-oriented and are usually either character driven or rooted in some social issues.”

Yu would know best, as she happens to be one of Hong Kong’s brightest cinematic stars. Most recently, the 30-year-old won Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild Awards for her role as an investigative journalist in the socially conscious film In Broad Daylight, where her character goes undercover to expose abuse of the elderly in a nursing home.

Earlier in January 2024, she picked up a Best Actress gong for the role at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards. But the biggest honour was probably her nomination for Best Leading Actress at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, widely regarded as Asia’s version of the Oscars, in November 2023.

“Being nominated for the Golden Horse Award was a great affirmation. It’s not just a recognition my own work on the role, but also one for the whole cast and crew. After all, to have a role win recognition is not just the actor’s effort, but one that takes a whole team, which includes the director, screenwriter, photographer, editor, costumer, and so on,” says Yu.

“But any nomination or award should not bring any pressure on yourself. The next time I act out a new character and story with a new team, I will come at it with a fresh perspective. As my industry senior John Chiang once told me, always treat yourself as a newcomer. That way, there will always leave room for improvement.”

Yu certainly has no airs about her, especially when it comes to work. While some actors might focus on only big studio projects after receiving so much recognition, her heart is still centered on finding the right story to tell. “For me, it doesn’t matter whether the production is big or small. The most important thing is the content,” says Yu.

She notes that the types of stories told in smaller productions are usually very close to the lives of those watching. “The people watching these films usually become quite invested in the storyline and the characters, since it’s easier to immerse themselves in the world shown on screen. I’ve been told many times by audience members that watching things play out on screen has helped them sort out whatever is weighing on their heart,” says Yu, who welcomes this trend of more heartfelt and down-to-earth movies. She is grateful that this new wave of people-centric films has been so warmly received by Hong Kong audiences.

Yu isn’t the only one to see a shift in Hong Kong cinematic storytelling. “I think we have entered a new phase that is no longer limited to commercial screenplays to be a hit at the box office,” observes fellow actor Jason Wu. “Themes and genres are getting more diverse nowadays, I’m glad to be part of the industry to explore and keep growing together.”

Wu himself has done a lot in front of the camera, be it movies, TV series, music videos or modelling. He is particularly known for being in a trilogy of music videos for rock band Dear Jane. But feature films are where Wu aspires to flex his acting chops more in.

“For work, I have always wanted to really take part in movies, to experience the different acting techniques and rhythm needed where the production styles are also different between the two mediums,” says Wu.   

A dream project for Wu would be the films like those of Hong Kong cinema’s Golden Age. “If I could choose, I would love to take on roles based on screenplays of 70’s and 80’s style Hong Kong, so that I can experience what I have been watching in Hong Kong movies since I was small,” he says. “Stage drama are also another medium I would love to explore. I believe the intensity (of performing live) can trigger more solid characterisation as well as chemistry among the actors.”

Both are ambitious mediums for any thespian, but it doesn’t faze the 34-year-old. “We only live once. This gives me the urge to see, feel and experience more in this life, especially when we don’t know how long or short it may be,” says Wu. “I think it’s amazing to explore, experience and create memories that are worth looking back on.”

This zest for life has Wu giving it his all when it comes to his craft. “I have been attending multiple acting courses to keep improving my acting skills and come up with more possibilities for myself,” shares Wu, who feels it is also invigorating as an actor to “be naughty, have fun by thinking out-of-the-box and going beyond social norms” though he is quick to confirm that it is done strictly within the bounds of the law.

“It gives me new angles of how things can be interpreted if I truly just follow my heart,” Wu explains. Maintaining his fitness also helps him stay ready to deal with intensive shooting schedules and informs the movement work for the characters he plays.

Wu also loves to be able to have his input on roles and build the characters up. Thus, his favourite role is his recent one on the ViuTV series, The Money Game. “I was blessed with the director’s trust, to have room in exploring and playing with the character Stone, like suggesting that he could be gay and the results were really positive from viewers,” he says.

Wu’s hope is to reach the level of his acting #legend – Koji Yakusho. “How he plays the character Hirayama in Perfect Days is simply impressive! He has that tremendous charisma of his own, but still makes the character of Hirayama so real and lively. He is such a role model for me in terms of acting,” he says.

It’s more complicated for Yu, who must juggle her work with being a mother of two. “Before I started a family, I had the luxury of living in a character’s shoes 24 hours a day. For my preparation, I would also write the biography of the character I’m delving into to learn about their life,” says Yu. But as any mother would know, having kids means sacrificing time and energy, including that of being a full-on method actor.

“When I come home from shooting, my daughter would expect to find her mother. So I have to switch gears from my reporter persona to that of her mummy. At first, I was worried if this might not be enough,” recalls Yu of the guilt that plagued her when she was working on In Broad Daylight. This balancing act certainly isn’t unique to serious actors, but for anyone who has had to juggle parenthood with work.

But luckily, it did not affect her commitment to the role, as evidenced by the awards she’s picked up since. “On the contrary, it turns out that I can leave the character for awhile when I go home and relax. When I returned to set the next day, I was fully engaged and felt good,” says Yu.

But she shares that she does a few other things to make sure she is firing on all cylinders when she is filming. “Now when I’m on set, I try to put my phone down as much as possible. Don’t look at your phone, just do your best, live in the scene, and communicate well with your fellow actors,” shares Yu. “Communicate a lot with your scene partners, directors and other people both on and off stage. This helps you build trust and be more comfortable with your acting.”

The feeling of being fully immersed in a role is a proud moment for any actor. For that reason, Yu cites her role as Zoey Chin in the 2018 movie Distinction as her favourite as it marked the first time she felt truly deep in character.

All this commitment and work puts both Yu and Wu in good stead to embrace any shifts in Hong Kong’s film industry. Wu is keeping an eye out for more opportunities to shape himself into a better actor, while Yu already has a TV series project lined up this year. “I’ve filmed TV series before, but nothing too ‘heavy.’ The characters in the script this time are quite intriguing, so I hope this goes well,” she says.

Despite her seriousness with work, Yu picks lighter fare as her downtime favourite, which would be Ronald Cheng’s take on the titular character in the 2003 comedy Dragon Loaded. Naturally, that means comedy is another challenge that Yu wants to take on. “I feel that good actors should be able take on comedic or serious roles alike. I hope to be able to do this. After all, it’s difficult to master the comedic timing. So I hope I can have more opportunities to take on comedic roles,” says Yu.

And that is no laughing matter.

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