Competition in the Chinese entertainment industry is so intense, that were it permitted, agents would scout maternity wards for the next sweet young thing. Indeed, ‘the younger the better’ might could be the modus operandi for the companies like the Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG), that is if its recent discovery, rising superstar Isabella Leong Lok-Si, is at all representative.

EEG is a Hong Kong-based artist management/record company that courts the youth market with its hand-picked assets, including such heartthrobs as the Twins, Edison Chen and Nicolas Tse. The company recruited Leong at the age of 12, and has since taken the former teen model and groomed her for a spot on the A-list.

Some might say the market is already saturated with product (especially now the amateurs have entered the idol competition), but in Leong’s case, she was in the right place, at the right moment, with the right attributes. She’s tall (172 centimeters), beautiful (wide forehead, large eyes and perfect complexion) and talented. And a touch exotic. Indeed, in China she’s been dubbed Xiao Zhang Bai Zhi (young Cecilia Cheung), in reference to the actresses shared profession and, no doubt, their mixed blood (Cheung’s mother is half English half Chinese). “I am half Chinese, half Portuguese, and half English,” says the 18 year old starlet. Meaning, of course, a third of each.

Since signing Leong in 2000, EGG has done much to expand her visibility (TV, music, film and stage) and, of course, bankability. At 16, she’d already released an EP (Isabella), made several guest performances at the Hong Kong Hung Hom coliseum and won various awards (Guangzhou Radio Golden Hits Awards; Yahoo! Hong Kong Buzz Awards). In 2005, at seventeen, she made her film debut in Law Chi-leung’s Bugs Me Not!, for which she was nominated Best New Performer at the 42nd Golden Horse Awards and the 25th Hong Kong Film Awards. Later that same year, her sophomore movie, the Pang Brothers’ psycho-thriller The Eye 10 was released, while she was in Macao shooting Isabella a Media Asia production helmed by Edmond Pang Ho-cheung. She also played a supporting role (a fiery urchin) in Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Tall Story.

In addition, as of the end of last year, Leong had appeared in 20 TV commercials and print advertisements (Coca Cola, Maybelline Cosmetics) and won more awards (e.g., Guangzhou TV Station Great Potential Newcomer). Not bad for someone who at the time had yet to blow out 18 candles.

That said, the actress’ stand-out performance was in the art house film Isabella, wherein she was more than a pretty young face; indeed, she proved her acting chops in a performance that one critic called “compelling and genuinely impressive”.

While Leong didn’t take home an award for her effort, following the film’s screening at the Berlin Film Festival last February, Chinese music composer Peter Kam won the Best Film Music Silver Bear, vying against celebrated composers like James Horner (The New World, Braveheart) or Klaus Badelt (Wu Ji). One might argue that other honors were due. The film is clearly different from the usual Hong Kong fare; its pace, aesthetic, music, and emotional and lyrical mood are unusually thoughtful and well-crafted.

Shot entirely on location in Macao, the low budget (USD 1.3 million; RMB 8 million) Isabella takes place on the eve of the Portuguese-governed territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The plot concerns a thirty-something, womanizing cop, Shing (Chapman To, who also co-produced), suspended for corruption. In a chance encounter, he meets Yan (Leong), the daughter he never knew he had. Yan insists on living under his roof, challenges his girlfriends and generally disrupts his life. The film’s title does not refer to its leading actress, rather to Yan’s runaway dog. She and her father search for it, and in the process become acquainted, but, of course, they never find it. The pooch is a metaphor – Yan’s last link to her late mother and the yet-to-be-found connection with her newly-discovered dad.

Pang, whose style of direction was described by Variety as “a mixture of Claude Lelouch and Wong Kar-wai”, offers more depth and subtexts than this simple synopsis may suggest; for Pang, Macao’s historical significance is as a symbol of the clash between the culture of East and West, and as such, appropriate for this story of long lost daughter reuniting with her father.
Leong’s personal history was also significant in her winning the role, as it parallels that of the character she plays. Born in Hong Kong in 1988, she was raised in Macao and suffered the loss of a parent. Says Pang: “Her personal experience made her the perfect candidate for this part.”

Pang also stresses that the title is in no way meant to promote the actress, insisting that the choice was nothing more than coincidence. “We cast Isabella long before I decided on the title,” says the 33-year-old director, who claims he did not write the script with Leong in mind. “I liked her name, and later found its meaning [God’s promise] matched the theme of my film.”

Leong agrees that her character in the film “resembles me in a lot of respects”. And she drew on her personal experience (the death of her father in Macao, for example) when playing the part. “My personal experience was important for my performance,” she says. ”A lot of memories just came back; I always felt depressed there and quickly sensed the character’s state of mind.”

Both Pang and Leong say the shoot was an emotional one, intensified, perhaps, by To’s physical resemblance to Leong’s late father. A resemblance that was a little too close to reality.

“When I cried [on the set],” says Leong, “it wasn’t acting; it was natural emotion.” An emotion that Pang encouraged, advising the actress not to analyze her character.

As a result, Isabella works; the drama is poignant, and the sentiments appear genuine, which greatly benefits the overall mood of the film. Leong’s performance is surprisingly mature for a young, and relatively inexperienced, actress. At 17, she captures the essence of a rebellious-cum-ingenuous and fatherless girl.

In past roles, Leong’s directors seem entranced by her charm, youth and freshness; yet only Pang has managed to capture her teen angst and bring out an exceptional performance. Says Pang: “Though I didn’t get the chance to watch Leong’s previous movies, I realized she really exceeded herself with her performance in Isabella.”

Indeed, Pang thought Leong a shoe-in for the Best Actress Award in Berlin. Though Leong appeared more concerned about an outbreak of acne than her chance to win the top award. In fact, she behaved as a typical teenager, joking that “I’ve never had a pimple in my life. Perhaps the festival has disrupted my hormones.”

Leong, didn’t win, of course, but the festival did provide plenty of exposure, and considerable international respect. Film critic Tim Youngs wrote that “[Leong] displays considerable range in her first leading dramatic role, exuding a rough edge and displaying believable emotion.”

In the wake of such acclaim, Leong has received a number of offers, some of which may provide equally good roles. Or not, as the case may be. However, two are worth mentioning. One is High Tea, in which Leong is cast opposite fellow EEG star Deep Ng and the veteran Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang. Here, Leong plays a young adventurous kung-fu expert involved in a hunt for lost treasure. Part Da Vinci Code, part Mission Impossible, this promising action movie was shot in Shanghai and Europe early this summer by Spanish B-movie director Germán Monzó. Those of you fortunate enough to have caught Monzó’s very amusing exploitation film, Kibris, which artfully combined choreographed high kicks and long-toothed vampires, at the 2005 Shanghai film festival will have an idea of what to expect.

Leong has made several public statements expressing her desire to take on challenging roles, including that of a prostitute. That aim has yet to materialize; in the meantime, however, Leong has agreed to take on a rather daring role in Taiwanese filmmaker’s Zhou Mei Ling’s Tattoo. Currently in production, it is the story of a half-Japanese/half-Taiwanese tattoo artist (Leong) and her relationship with another woman, played by the pretty Taiwanese idol Rainie Yang. Leong’s management was concerned (before later agreeing) that such a role might tarnish her image. For two reasons. The first is obvious – lesbian roles are not the stuff of mainstream box office. The second less so: Leong’s co-star is just as young and cute as Leong herself. That said, Leong is hardly one to worry about the competition.

-- SIDE BOX --
In praise of youth

“Isabella’s like a piece of white paper. Her naturalness is a virtue hard to get from mature [self-conscious] actresses. I hope she can always keep her intuition.”
– Hong Kong filmmaker
Law Chi-leung.

“… One of the most naturally gifted young actresses to have emerged in Hong Kong in recent years. She found it a little hard to memorize all her lines in the beginning [of Bugs Me Not!], but managed to overcome that by sheer hard work. Her single-mindedness was simply astonishing!”
– Emperor Motion Pictures CEO
Albert Lee.

“She has the opportunity to be one of the important actresses of her generation.”
– Hong Kong filmmaker
Pang Ho-cheung.

“It seems to me that Isabella’s an actress with a promising future ahead”.
– Spanish filmmaker
Germán Monzó.



(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
Photo courtesy Hugo Hu www.huphoto.cdd.cn.
July 2006 issue



(c) that's PRD
PRD Chief editor: Christopher Cottrell
July 2006 issue