Reel Talk Stephen Au Kam-tong

text by Clarence Tsui

Stephen Au Kam-tong is arguably one of the most visible actors in Hong Kong today. He's a mainstay in Off Pedder, TVB Jade's hit sitcom, and star of The Caveman, a stage play on uts third re-run now at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Jockey Club Auditorium. Then there's his turn as Wah, the brutal lieutenant of a corrupt tycoon in Overheard, the new Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung thriller that opened in local cinemas on Thursday.

Au's fans, who come from far and wide, will be overjoyed.

"Yes, there have been quite a few who have flown all the way from Japan to watch my theatre productions," he says. These supporters go back a long way, he says, to a time when What Are You Gonna Do, Sai Fung? was first released, in 1999. Au starred in - as well as wrote, directed and produced - the hour-long film about Bruce Lee.

The film has a big following in Japan and Au - a kung fu aficionado who wrote for the now-defunct New Martial Hero Magazine before joining ATV in the late 1980s - has reworked the film for a DVD re-release there later this month.

Besides starring in two Stephen Chow Sing-chi films in 1996 (Forbidden City Cop and The God of Cookery), his movie career has largely been focused on straight-to-video fare. Au is also a keen photographer (his pictures of Paris were shown in an exhibition, titled Revolving Montmartre of Picasso, in 2005) and an indie filmmaker (his short films Idealism and Ever-chaging were entries at the Hong Kong Independent Video and Short Film Awords in 1996).

Why have you spent so many years away from films?

I've always loved cinema but I don't want to make films gratuitously. I once turned down nine films in one years. Some of these productions don't know what they're doing and why they're doing it. And it's hard to take time out from my stage commitments, so I said no to a lot of offers - not many people came back to me again.

For Overheard, Alan and Felix got in touch... You could say it's my belief in them as a brand [Mak and Chong were behind the Infernal Affairs trilogy]. When I heard the story and the character they wanted me for, I thought it was worth a try. It wasn't something I'd done before. [Wah] doesn;t have that many lines - it's all about facial expression and acting with your eyes.

Did Overheard provide respite from your television work?

Well, I find respite on stage, actually... People say television is always real lives... but the acting is hardly realistic: you have to ham it up so the audience can hear your performance - yes, to hear it, as people nowadays tend not to sit and watch programmes. Then again, television is mass entertainment, it's a medium for the grassroots who want simple stuff, I'm serving the masses when I'm on television.

You spent the better part of the 1980s as a television presenter at ATV. How did that spell affect your acting?

I remember finishing [ATV's] Hong Kong Today and demanding a transfer to the serials department. I didn't set off to become a programme host - I went there to be an actor.

But I owe a lot to the experiences I had during those three years [at Hong Kong Todey]; viewvers were demanding gritty, "authentic" staff. So I was interviewing people from all walks of life: funny people, sometimes, but mostly people with tragic tales to tell. I learned to take in what I saw and heard, and absorbed [their ways of expression], saving up all these sentimentents to be used in my acting.

What do you think of the current craze for martial arts kick-started by biopics on Wing Chun founder and Bruce Lee's mentor, Ip Man?

People on the mainland are now elevating Lee into some sort of a national hero - and I'mreally disturbed about that. It's why I made Sai Fung [Lee's nickname]; it's all about returning him to a human level. Deification is the start of sin. It's the story of an ordinary person slowly becoming great man that deserves talking about, not merely the celebration of his success.

-- from Sunday Morning Post, the Review, August 2, 2009 --