Dramatist, director and now filmmaker Kearen Pang had no designs on going into the movies when she was a student at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA). “I never thought of directing, or of movies. It was always acting acting acting,” she says. She is settling into on a sofa in a Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant buzzing with stylists, photographers and various media, all there to talk to her and the leads in her new film, Mama’s Affair. Veteran actor Teresa Mo heads a cast that includes two members of Cantopop phenomenon MIRROR. The press junket is in full swing, but Pang looks relaxed and focused, even on 20 minutes of sleep the night before. Mama’s Affair, coming off a screening at the New York Asian Film Festival in July, is on the cusp of being a very big deal.
Hong Kong-born Pang graduated from the APA’s acting programme and immediately started working with the Chung Ying Theatre Company in 1998, where she stayed until 2003, when she began to feel that she was stagnating artistically. She accepted a scholarship from Studio Magenia in Paris in 2004 and moved to Europe. “I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere. I was lost. So I took the scholarship and studied physical theatre. When I came back from Paris, I knew I wanted to do something alone,” she says.
Pang did just that and started writing for herself in 2005. Her first one-woman show, 29+1, came from what she called a “very dark period,” having experienced a string of deaths in the family and the disintegration of a relationship, all on the cusp of 30 – a number that strikes fear into the hearts of women everywhere for the unspoken social, career and family expectations it can conjure. It premiered at the Fringe Club that same year.
“It was very, very personal,” says Pang. “It was like I was in a cave alone when I was writing it. But the process of creating was very healing. I didn’t care about whether the audience would respond. I wanted to do something for myself.” She followed up with three other solo shows, goodbye BUT goodbye (which won her an acting prize from the Hong Kong Drama Awards), Laugh Me To The Moon and Tiffany, and wrote her first screenplay, for Pang Ho-cheung’s Isabella (2006). But she kept circling back to 29+1. “I was curious as to what it would feel like a year later, two years later. It turned out it was quite different, and much more open.”
On stage, 29+1 tapped issues revolving around the pressure of work-life balance, expectations placed on Hong Kong women, health, regrets, and, ultimately, self-determination. The story indeed has a local Hong Kong flavour, but its specificity is ironically the source of its universality. When Pang adapted it into a film that was released in 2017, star Chrissy Chau’s fourth-wall breaking breakdown of her make-up routine is both hilarious and sad, as just one of many pithy observations. She knows it now, but Pang wasn’t sure that would be the case back when she did the play in Beijing, or when she adapted it for the screen.
“I wondered if 29+1 would travel as a play. An art administrator told me it would never translate. It was too ‘Hong Kong.’ But I took it to Beijing in 2010, a very minimalist production in Cantonese and Putonghua, and on one night I could hear a woman weeping in the audience. People did respond. And the film’s first screening was in Sedona, Arizona, and no one in the audience was even Chinese. Same thing. It was amazing and that was my ‘Aha!’ moment. Creative stories travel anywhere, a film even more.”
The ability to connect with so many fanned flames that Pang hadn’t thought were there. The film version of 29+1 came as a result of a chance meeting with executives at China 3D Digital Entertainment in 2014. The now defunct company at the time had produced a very male-skewing roster of films (Donnie Yen’s Iceman, the soft core 3D Sex and Zen) and was looking to broaden its audience, and approached Pang, who’d already demonstrated an ability to write for the screen with Isabella. Although she began her career on stage, Pang has always had a soft spot for cinema. She recalls how she and her father made regular trips to see Hong Kong movies, where late singer-actor Anita Mui’s versatility and charisma became an early influence.
China 3D was keen to see an adaptation of her play, but Pang was initially resistant to the idea. “I said no. It was too personal, and as a first-time filmmaker I wanted to make an impression,” she recalls. “My fear was that I wouldn’t find the right actors to play the two characters I played on the stage.” But after struggling over a new script, she asked for more time, and China 3D once again floated the 29+1 idea. Eventually, Pang relented and turned in an adaptation fairly quickly. “I lived with the story for 10 years, I knew it inside out, so it was relatively easy to convert to a film.”
That turned out to be the right call. The final product starring Chau and local talent Joyce Cheng hit screens in 2017, and won Pang a best new director award at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2018 in addition to the film’s other six nominations – including best screenplay, and nods for Chau and Cheng. It also picked up accolades from festivals in Nice, Osaka and Shanghai.
“I never thought I’d become a filmmaker. When I was shooting, Chrissy’s manager gave me some advice. ‘This is the time to think about your second project. Before you‘re done. Ask for a budget,’” Pang recalls with a laugh. “I brushed it off. Then when we were done and the film was doing festivals and winning awards he said the same thing. I still wasn’t sure. Then we got HKFA nominations and there he was. ‘Last chance! If you don’t ask now and lose the award it’s all over.’ But I wanted to see how it played in cinemas.” If 29+1 did well Pang was confident opportunities would come her way. If it flopped, she didn’t deserve to be there. “The awards were a ticket to the industry. And recognition is important,” she admits. “I thought maybe I have something to offer that others don’t. After 29+1 it was a maybe. This time I’m sure I want to try a third time.”
After the success of her debut, Pang experimented with different media, including working as creative director for singer Joey Yung’s “My Secret Live” concert series in 2017 and as a coach on ViuTV’s wildly popular King Maker, the reality competition that produced supergroup MIRROR. King Maker proved to be the fuse that sparked Mama’s Affair. The show introduced her music manager Ahfa Wong, nicknamed Fa-je, who ultimately steered MIRROR to omnipresence. Around the same time, Pang met film and television mainstay Teresa Mo at an event hosted by their mutual employer Emperor. Mo (John Woo’s Hard Boiled, The Justice of Life) is beloved by Hongkongers for her irreverent sense of humour and longevity. Mo mentioned how much she’d enjoyed 29+1 and hoped they could work together some day. “That was a huge compliment for me,” Pang deadpans. “She’s Teresa Mo.”
The two women combined to sew the seeds of Pang’s second film. Pang was convinced Wong had no life beyond work, and when chatting one day on King Maker, Wong mentioned her son. “What? You have a son?’ I said. No, she has two sons! That misconception is on me. So aside from work, she’s a wife and a mother to kids the age of the band she’s managing. That’s a story. I’m not talking about Fa-je, just about the complicated position.” Pang pitched Mo on the idea and it snowballed from there, though casting MIRROR members wasn’t part of the original plan. No one believed competing talent houses would agree to the crossover—MIRROR is signed to Music Nation Records—but they did, and the result is the buzz in the restaurant.
Mama’s Affair, whose Cantonese title is aa3 maa1 jau5 zo2 dai6 ji6 go3 (阿媽有咗第二個), literally meaning mother’s second one, mixes the kind of female-focused drama that ties Pang’s work together with lighter comedy and, given the presence of MIRROR, music. The story revolves around Mo’s character Yu Mei-fung, a legendary music manager, who goes back to work in middle-age after her marriage implodes, and shepherds a talented cha chaan teng waiter, Fong-ching (MIRROR’s Keung To) to stardom, much to the chagrin of her son, Jonathan (Jer Lau, also of MIRROR) who’s the same age and who resents having to suddenly share Mei-fung.
There’s going to be an audience to soak up the extended sequences pivoting on Fong-ching’s performances, but Mama’s Affair has just as much in common with 29+1 as it does with a music video. MIRROR fans may not fancy the visuals of their boys fighting, but Keung (a natural) and Lau coming to blows over Mei-fung’s attention, the former basking in maternal affection he’s lost, the latter realising he’s taken it for granted, is a high point in the film. The same can be said for Mei-fung’s quiet resignation when she accepts the end of her marriage. Mama’s Affair holds together because of the little details that combine to paint everyones’ experiences, laced with the same kind of empathy that ran through 29+1.
But female-focused doesn’t necessarily mean feminist to Pang, a label that’s been attached to her more than once and one she’s quick to shoot down. Too many so-called feminist films are woman-positive at the expense of men, as Pang sees it, though she too bristles at the persistence of houseplant roles for women – roles in which they look nice, but don’t contribute to the story. “I have no intention of portraying men as bad guys. Everyone makes mistakes. I had no intention of making Mei-fung the perfect woman. She has her problems just like everyone else,” Pang argues, sounding quite feminist. Though she will admit to pride in her films passing the Bechdel Test, a way to measure the representation of women in any given film.
As the frenzy builds for Mama’s Affair, Pang is already looking ahead to her next film, which she plans only to direct. “This will be an experience,” she says wryly. Will she be able to let go of the script? There’s a pause and a sharp shake of the head. “I won’t let go.” But the challenge of directing beckons. Ask Pang if she’s a better director because she’s an actor first and she says yes, because “it’s about the way you approach a character, a person. It’s a rounded process that demands coming at it from all sides.” Indeed, in just two films Pang’s demonstrated a habit of putting character first. Which raises the last question. Will she be directing herself any time soon? “Maybe when I know more about it,” she finishes. “I’m still learning.”
Mama’s Affair opens August 11.