New York Asian 2018 Interview: Hong Kong Star Stephy Tang On Letting Go With THE EMPTY HANDS

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New York Asian 2018 Interview: Hong Kong Star Stephy Tang On Letting Go With THE EMPTY HANDS
Starting her career in 2002, as part of a CantoPop girl group, Stephy Tang went on to become one of Hong Kong’s most popular singers.  Acting followed in a host of light rom-coms and crowd pleasers.  
 
With The Empty Hands, Tang shows a new depth and rebirth as a serious actress in her role as the rebellious daughter of a karate master.  Tang spoke with LMD on the occasion of winning the New York Asian Film Festival’s Rising Star award. 
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Congratulations on the Rising Star Award.  How does it feel to be a Rising Star after almost two decades in the entertainment industry?
 
Stephy Tang:  When I first heard that they are giving me this Rising Star award, I got a little bit confused, and I had some thoughts, because I am no longer a new actress, and the time that I was given a new actress award was way past.  But it also made me feel like I’m going back to my youth, when I was getting all these awards in Hong Kong, and this is the first time I’ve received any awards outside of Asia, and especially in America, in New York.  It is the first time I’ve received an international invitation, which made me really excited.  I can’t really believe this.
 
LMD:  It’s interesting that you say it felt like going back to your youth, because it feels like THE EMPTY HANDS signifies a career rebirth for you; Stephy Tang, Version 2.  I wonder if that’s how you felt when you took such an unusual role?
 
ST:  I wouldn’t say that it is an intentional rebirth of my career, because all these years, all these movies that I’ve made have given me increasing growth and experience.  It was always about growth; every different movie, every single movie I gained a little bit more experience.  Then all these experiences and years of acting culminated in this film.  It wasn’t really an intentional breakthrough, or intentional remake.  
 
But I also think that being an actress is more than being good-looking, so you need real-life experience, and also your point of view about life, that is what makes you look different, actually, and that came with years of experience.
 
LMD:  Talking of how being an actress is more than being good-looking, in THE EMPTY HANDS, you’re all beaten up.  Even the poster shows your face covered in blood.  Not only that, the character is very flawed in her personality.  You are primarily known for having a glamorous image.  Did you have any hesitation at all in shedding that skin to play Mari Hirakawa?
 
ST:  I don’t really evaluate whether or not a role is pretty when I’m choosing a role.  It’s more really about the feeling about this role, for me.  Also, I try to take myself out of the picture when I’m trying to act.  I really do not really consider as trying to be pretty, or anything like that.
 
But when I was starting as a singer who can act, I may or may not have had some baggage back then to consider if my image is good.  But when I transitioned to an actress who can sing; I consider myself more of an actress, I won’t even take all this baggage into consideration, anymore.  I realised that baggage is not really relevant to an actress.  If you really believe in the role, if you believe in yourself, or the storyline, then being pretty or not is no longer important.  
 
And for me, this character is really the one that I invested the most of myself in, because first, she’s closest to my character in real life, and second, because the training process was so long, it really helped my understanding of the character, as well.
 
LMD:  Your fans know that you have always been athletic.  You even have your own volleyball team.  What was different for you with regard to the training you underwent for this role?  How long did you train, and how many different disciplines did you learn?
 
ST:  I trained for half a year.  Before this film, I had zero understanding about what karate is.  I didn’t know anything about karate, so we started from the very basics, which I think is the most difficult.  So, I thought that training could’ve been a little bit longer, because we rushed and rushed to understand what karate means.  For me, I think even one year would not be enough, because you need at least a year or two to understand the basic understanding of karate.
 
I also trained for boxing, because of the K-1 competition scene, but regularly, I train for a volleyball team, and that keeps me fit for my energy level and everything.  I did so much sports during that period that I could no longer wear a skirt. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  Earlier, you mentioned how the character of Mari was closest to you.  Tell me how you initially read the character, and how much of Stephy is in the character of Mari that we see onscreen, now?  
 
ST:  For the character of Mari, when I first read her, I thought a lot of her was very close to me, because in her thinking, she is a strong woman, and everything like that is very close to me in real life.  But what is different about her, is that she believes in herself very much, and she is rebellious; she’s headstrong, but she believes in the wrong things.  For me, even though I’m strong, and I believe in myself, I think I’m believing in the right things.  
 
That is what I thought about her, but during the training process, during the study for karate in boxing, I started to realise why she is such a character, and why she is having these types of thoughts.  I started to realise that her growth and her stories, her background -- everybody has their own choices in life, and it might take me to say that it’s wrong that she’s thinking like that, but then there is a reason for her to think that way.
 
LMD:  She is really acting out in a lot of ways that might not have the audience on her side.  She’s very cold and cruel with Mute Dog, She resents Chan and her father’s students, and she’s having an affair with a married man.  How did you find the sympathy in some of her difficult moments?
 
ST:  First of all, I think her family had a really big impact on her.  As you see, her mother left her at a very young age.  I grew up in a single family myself; my father left and I grew up with my mother, so I really understand what a single parent family can do to a kid’s psychology.  
 
So, because her mother left, she lacks a mother’s love growing up, but she also had this bad relationship with her father, because she has this deep insecurity about herself and the environment that she was surrounded by.  So, she built up this shell that she surrounded herself in to protect herself.  That made her very difficult to approach.  She was also doing all these things, like having the affair with a married man to challenge her morals, to challenge her ethics, to challenge herself.  So, my family background made me more empathetic about the psychology of the character.
 
LMD:  Is that the reason we watch her freak out and being terrified as she’s getting pummeled during her first bout?  Was that meant to symbolise her terror at really expressing herself?  It felt like she was undergoing a very painful catharsis
 
ST:  The scene that you’re talking about is sort of the action part, so I had to focus very much on the action, because this is an action film, but most of the action was in that scene, almost.  I did a lot of physical preparation, and I had to focus very much in order to finish it.  
 
Emotionally, she was fighting with Chan in order to get the apartment, and it was also the first time after so long that she entered back into a competition, but a lot of these emotions are bursting within herself.  Maybe they were different memories coming back from her childhood, participating in karate.  Maybe there was this thought about why she didn’t continue to practice karate all these years, all these emotions were bursting.  Then the third part was the emotional support that she had in order to finish.  She just had this belief that she had to finish it.  So, all these three things were coming in the same scene that I had to present with my acting.
 
So, initially, Mari started the competition to get the apartment, but it essentially became a competition to prove to herself that she could finish this fight.
 
LMD:  Did Mari being half-Japanese figure into your creation of her?
 
ST:  Not really, because the character, she was half-Japanese, but she grew up the whole time in Hong Kong, so, she doesn’t really have that much difference from being a local person.
 
LMD:  Every time I’ve ever spoken to Hong Kong artists about this person, I always get interesting answers, so would you please tell us about your experience being directed by Mr. Chapman To?
 
ST:  Chapman To… He’s a weird person! {Laughs}
 
LMD:  And there you go!
 
ST:  He is a weird guy. {Laughs} So, I have a love and hate relationship with him. {Laughs} Usually, people see him as a guy who makes jokes, he’s funny, and sometimes he makes enemies with his words or speeches.  But then the Chapman To that I know from making this movie together is a person who has very high requirements about everything; about himself, about the people around him, and also the materials and all the work around him.  He is talented and smart.  
 
But then I think the most successful thing that he did in making this film is to create an environment where everybody enjoyed their own job.  They enjoyed putting everything they had into making this film successful.  That’s why I felt so comfortable in making this character and to act sincerely.  I think that is the one thing that he did most successfully for this film, was the environment that he created.
 
LMD:  You’ve been a singer, you’ve been an actor, and you’ve also been a published author.  Do you see yourself going further and writing screenplays or directing? 
 
ST:  I have interest in both screenwriting and directing, but from my acting career, I see that being a director is really a hard job.  They always have a hard time.  So, I want to enjoy my life as an actress, first, and then maybe someday I will become a director.  
 
But for screenwriting, because I’ve been writing, myself, so I always have these stories and characters popping up in my head, and I always have these ideas; like if there were such-and-such a character, that would be great, or if this was written this way, that would be great.  So, I would be very interested in looking into that.
 
LMD:  How are you feeling about THE EMPTY HANDS being shown to the audience here in New York City?  What would you like them to take away from the film?
 
ST:  I’m very excited! {Laughs} I’ve been looking forward to it.  So, even though this film looks like an action film from the poster and all the promotional materials, even the name of the movie, but still, it’s a movie about the realistic thinking and logic behind it.  So, the inspiration for Chapman To is the saying that if you empty your hands, you will get everything in the world.  
 
The first two Chinese characters in the word “karate” means “empty hands.”  So, for me, I hope the audience will get that point from the movie; that if you let go of all your baggage, then you will be able to get everything in the world, like THE EMPTY HANDS.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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Chapman ToHong Kong CinemaInterviewKarateNYAFF 2018Stephy TangThe Empty Hands