Sylvia Rising

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In her superb new smiley-weepie Tempting Heart, Sylvia Chang, the film's director, co-writer and co-star, plays a character very much like the Sylvia Chang whom Asian audiences have loved since she was a teenager. Both the real and the reel Sylvia are smart, pretty, pert, with an audacity grounded in common sense; both are career women who can take charge without sacrificing charm. Sweet and melancholy, with charismatic performances by Gigi Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tempting Heart is the reflective work of a mature artist. Like the photos of sunsets that give a tender ache to the closing moments, this could be a film made in the rueful wisdom of life's twilight. Yet Chang, who has been in show business for three decades, is only 46; and with her teen-slim figure and chipper, unlined face, she could pass for 30. This veteran might just now be reaching her prime. Chang is always in the ascendant; a true artist of the East, she's a perpetual sunrise.




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Age brings perspective, but Chang had it forced on her early. As a child, she hopscotched from Taiwan to Hong Kong to the U.S. and back again. I went from very traditional to very liberal extremely quickly, she says. It opened my eyes, I grew so fast. Everything came out. At school in Riverdale, New York, The Jewish girls at school made fun of my name. 'Oh, you Chinese have such funny names, like frying pans dropped on the floor--ping-ping, chang-chang.' I always got into fights with them. And I beat them up. After that we were friends. It sounds like the scenario for a femme kung-fu movie. But for Chang this school of hard knocks taught me independence earlier than I would have had it in Asia. And that helped me create my own ideas, face all my own mistakes.

Chang got another harsh lesson when, as a young actress signed to a contract at Golden Harvest, she was appraised by the studio's boss of bosses, who happened to be a friend of her family's. Raymond Chow told me I was not very photogenic, she recalls, adding dryly, For a while that was something of a handicap to me. Today, Chow phrases it another way: She didn't rely on a pretty face. She had ideas, which a new girl at Golden Harvest wouldn't usually have. She'd make suggestions to actors and directors. I knew she wouldn't be content with just acting for the rest of her life. Chang now thinks Chow's remark was the best favor he could have done me. I knew I would need to try more serious stuff.

OK, but wait a minute: not very photogenic? Didn't Chow see the high drama in the blend of girlish dimples and a sensuous mouth--full of fun, impatience and naughty promise--of the sort that Anita Mui parlayed to stardom a decade later? At equal ease in farce and weepies, action movies and art films, Mandarin and Cantonese, she made the best of even her cruddiest roles; toss her a lemon and she'd give back a peach. She moved with impish grace in her lighter parts, slouched into persuasive despair in the tragedies.

Chang also did something to extend her status. After serving as assistant to two masters (Lung Gong on Hiroshima 28 and King Hu on Raining in the Mountain), she became a director, and a writer, and a producer--Hong Kong's only female quadruple-threat artiste. Here or anywhere, says Chang, a good role for an actress over 40 is hard to come by. I went a more aggressive route by becoming a director. It didn't make it any easier to stay in the business, but it helped me stay in it for longer. She also learned rules that apply beyond the film industry: Know your talents. Don't try too much or too little. Just be comfortable with what you have.

In an industry that kisses young actresses with celebrity, then swallows them and spits them out, Chang has a sequoia's longevity. She is the only Hong Kong actress of her generation--the early '70s--to keep starring in movies. Angela Mao and Nora Miao, the kung-fu cuties who played Bruce Lee's fair ladies, are long out of the business. Hsu Feng, balletic muse of King Hu's martial-arts films, renounced stardom in the early '80s and became a successful producer. Brigitte Lin consistently beguiled audiences with her smoldering androgyny, but a few years ago she retired into marriage and motherhood. That leaves Chang, who has done it all, done it well and done it just about forever.

I don't watch my old films, Chang says, especially those I've acted in. There are too many of them, and they're not all that good. Well, we watched most of them for her. They're not all good, but they offer synoptic glance at the Hong Kong and Taiwan movie industries in the quarter-century or so since Bruce Lee made Chinese cinema a worldwide fascination.

Chang, who as a young contractee on the Golden Harvest lot lived in the same room Lee had occupied shortly before, made a few martial arts films. In 1973's The Tattooed Dragon, she cheers on Jimmy Wang Yu as he cleans up a frontier town with fist and foot; in King Hu's Legend of the Mountain (1979), she is a ghost who trampolines athletically through old China. But Chang's other roles were all over the map, geographically and dramatically.

She has directed films in all three of her home countries--Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S.--and traveled the globe to save the world. She fought off a rapacious Chuck Norris in a San Francisco bedroom (in Yellow Faced Tiger, where she is billed as Sylvia Channing) and let the young Mel Gibson win World War II (in the Australian Attack Force Z). She neatly shot Sean Connery's evil brother without harming the infant he was carrying (in the Bond spoof Aces Go Places III). She dwelt in London's Asian community (in Soursweet) and risked her life during the Cultural Revolution to preserve a priceless Stradivarius (in The Red Violin).

Her movie life has intersected amiably with the biggest Asian stars. She has been wooed by Chow Yun-fat (All About Ah Long), Leslie Cheung (Crazy Romance) and Samo Hung (Eight Taels of Gold). She played the mother of two s in Twin Dragons; Chan returned the favor by serving as presenter of Tempting Heart. She has directed the finest young actresses from the three Chinas: Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung (The Game They Call Sex and In Between), Taiwan's Rene Liu (Siao Yu and Tonight Nobody Goes Home), the mainland's Gong Li (Mary from Beijing). If there is a feminist cinema in Hong Kong to complement the region's reigning movie machismo, it is in large measure thanks to Chang.

Hong Kong's male stars get to maim people and grunt forcefully. Females represent the civilized voice, soothing or whining, that is never heeded in action films (if it were, there would be no action). Chang's arias, in her early films, were small sobs of loss or remorse, often in a sickbed. In The Story of Four Girls, she is a student who wants to study animals but screams at the sight of a mouse. She steals a friend's beau, then pays for it by getting lost and wounded in a cave. After emoting up a storm in her sickbed, she gives up husband-hunting for animal husbandry.

In The Lady Killer, a nudie-roughie musical, she has a booze-bubblebath-and-bed tryst, is sold into a prostitution ring and somehow manages to hold onto her clothes and her dignity. In The Immortal Story she has prison hysterics, a long, tepid love scene with a man and a bathtub scene with a woman. She injects drugs, sings a few songs, cries rivers in the big courtroom scene--how come Chang didn't win a Golden Horse Award?

Life is rough for a female star in a male-dominated movie industry. In He Lives by Night, the tough kid played by Chang is attacked by a razor-wielding sex maniac. In White Jasmine she endures a rape and a suicide attempt. In Seven Years Itch she studies Peking Opera while her drooling hubby, Raymond Wong, chases the ladies. In The Game They Call Sex, which Chang co-directed, Maggie Cheung must choose her beau from among a teen hothead, a crippled teacher, a boring guy who gets seasick on his marital-night waterbed and a thug who breaks into her home, forces her at knifepoint to undress, then--he's not a total creep--helps her clean the house!

It wasn't all sanctified masochism for Chang. She got to save a victim tied to railroad tracks (The Funniest Movie), give a sidewalk sales pitch (King of Stanley Market), don an Eastwood poncho, dreadlocks and a wedding dress (The Funny General). In the hit series, Aces Go Places, with Sam Hui and Karl Maka, Sylvia did the heavy kicking. My weakness is that I can't say no, Chang laughs. When asked to do her stunts for the first Aces Go Places, I did it--I did it very well. Now guys were fighting me thinking I was a stuntwoman, and by the end I was covered in bruises. So I thought, 'No more Aces Go Places.' But Chang can't say no: she returned for the next three episodes.

One measure of an artist is that she takes control of her work; Chang did. In 1981, Chow let her direct the film Once Upon a Time--after the original director died. She rewrote the script (about two boys and their girlfriends) and still, she says, It was a disaster. At the press conference I cried. I said it was an awful film. I'd gotten drunk before the press conference, and said lots of bad, honest things.

Her directorial debut is lumpy and naive, but it hints at Chang dramas to come. It has the same long arc as Passion and Tempting Heart--domestic epics that hopscotch over the decades it can take an affair to ripen or sour. It says that marriage is just the start, not the end, of romantic complications. Realism abounds: money worries, careerism vs. conscience. And that nice leading couple: they divorce!

In Chang's best films as actress and director, the real heat and warmth is between the women. Tsui Hark's swank, fizzy Shanghai Blues sets her up as friend and rival to perky Sally Yeh--as she'd be in the bright Sisters of the World Unite. She teamed with Cheung and Siqin Gaowa in Full Moon in New York: three women for whom sisterhood is all, and men, if they're there, are just in the way. As star and director of Passion, she pines for her best friend's boyfriend; the idea is that hurting a soulmate is worse than betraying a spouse. (In real life, Chang is happily married to businessman Billy Wong; they have two sons.)

In her recent films, Chang's characters are drawn so persuasively that they can justify their sins of the flesh. In the jolly Tonight Nobody Goes Home, written and directed by Chang, a 60-year-old leaves his wife for a young woman, so the wife gets close to a dishy singer. It's not a matter of who's right; everyone's nuts in the human comedy. Before Tempting Heart, this was Chang's cleverest view of couples in erotic upheaval. And speaking of upheaval: why is vomit such a prominent motif in the movies she has appeared in and directed? In times of distress, Chang women can be counted on to spill their guts, literally.

In Tempting Heart, it's some enchanted evening. Teens Shen Sheo-lin (Gigi Leung) and Lin Ho-jun (Takeshi Kaneshiro) make contact across a crowded room, they come closer ... and she throws up on his shoes. In a Chang film, this is kismet! Their love, off and on and off again, spans two decades and the kinds of missed opportunities that occur more often in life than in movies. The third party is Sheo-lin's pal Chen Li (Karen Mok), who has a crush on one or both of the lovers. And the whole messy story is monitored by the movie director (Chang) who is creating the story--or is she remembering an old love of her own?

Moment to moment, the film is acute: in the geometry of romantic glances, the tears that stain the cheeks of a heartbroken karaoke singer, the engagement ring dropped into a cocktail glass (If you drink, it means yes), the way Leung removes an unwelcome arm around her as if her fingers were pincers and the arm a dead fish--right to the end, with its wonderfully fake shot of a tree and a sunset.

Leung, 23, and Kaneshiro, 27, prove that not all of Hong Kong's star quality has gone West; they are convincing and winning as teens and 30-somethings. And Chang has achieved what she defines as the art of directing: It's like you take an orange and peel it and peel it, and finally you taste the juices. Krzysztof Kieslowski could do that--let the true feeling out rather than pretending it. Her film has it all: the feeling, the love and the art.

The phrase love thy neighbor is no mere cliché for Chang, who has given aid and made trips to Africa--and who donated receipts from Tempting Heart's first two nights in Hong Kong theaters to Taiwan earthquake relief. Love is very important for me, she says. I've dealt with it my whole life. Nowadays people don't seem to know what it is. The whole world has lost that romanticism.

Yet the success of the Ghostly love story Fly Me to Polaris, a surprise summer hit, proved that Hong Kong can go for romance. Now there's a smarter reason to have a good cry at the movies. Who better than the Chinese cinema's most beguilingly tenacious presence to teach lessons in the temptations of the heart?