Interview: Karena Lam

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One of HK’s most adored actresses, Karena Lam, is returning to the big screen this year after four years. And she’s also the official ambassador of this year’s Le French May fest. Arthur Tam asks why she’s back to work and finds out all about her French connections. Photography by Calvin Sit. Art direction by Jeroen Brulez

Karena Lam is the apple of Hong Kong’s eye. She’s one of the most beloved actresses in the city. Some say it’s her disarming smile, others it’s that charming personality and natural charisma. Girls want to be her and guys want to be with her – she’s virtually infallible in the eyes of the public. Well, that was until she got hitched, had two kids, became a full-time mum and semi-retired from the industry. Right? Nope – everyone still loves her.

Lam is truly an anomaly in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry. An import from Vancouver, her talent for singing was scouted early on as a doe-eyed 15-year-old ingénue. However, she didn’t really hit it off until she landed a series of bumper films in 2002, most notably playing Choy-lam – a sexually blossoming teen with an eye for her teacher, played by Jacky Cheung – in Ann Hui’s successful July Rhapsody. Lam won both the Best Supporting Actress Award and Best Newcomer Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards that year. Afterward, she continued her streak with more top roles in movies like The Floating Landscape (2003), Koma (2004), Mob Sister (2005) and Claustrophobia (2008) – solidifying herself as both a respectable actress and HK’s darling. Audiences appreciated her approachability and, compared to other actresses in the early 2000s, Lam was a fresh, unadulterated alternative who didn’t seem caught up with media scandals or bogged down by immense pressure or too much work.

Now, after a four-year hiatus, the 37-year-old is heading back into the industry. And she’s doing it in style. Lam journeyed to France earlier this year with Hong Kong’s Le French May team so she could absorb Gallic culture first hand, with the aim of bringing her experiences back to our city as the ‘face’ of the annual two-month-long fest. She’s been a canny pick by the LFM team since  she was already well-versed in French culture, having studied, several years ago, at acting school in Paris. But in need of a refresher,  she visited the home of the late Bauhaus architect Le Corbusier, travelled around with guerrilla street artist Invader, watched the Lied Ballet and immersed herself in renaissance music at a 16th century castle. She may not be French – but she’s the ideal Hong Kong spokesperson for the ‘fête Français’ that started on May 1 and runs across the city until the end of June. Lam really knows her art and culture. Just ask her about it and she can go on and on. Trust us, we know.

Lam, who is mother to Kayla, born in 2010, and Sofie, who is just turning two years old – hence her four years off work to concentrate on motherhood – is also gearing up for her triumphant return to the silver screen with her new film, Zinnia Flower [百日告別], set to premiere at the end of September. She’s also working on a film directed by her husband Steven Yuen – Heaven in the Dark [暗色天堂] – where she plays opposite Jacky Cheung, 14 years after their last collaboration. On top of all that, the star is also soon to publish her first children’s book – as yet untitled – which she says features ‘strong female role models’.

So, it’s all go for Karena Lam. Indeed, how does the actress, author, wife, mother and icon find the time to balance her professional and personal life? We sit down with her and prepare to find out just what makes this hardworking star so admired...

it’s been four years out of the limelight and now you’re the face of Le French May. How did you get involved this year?

Last year I was one of five ambassadors for Le French May, along with Carina Lau and Tony Leung. But instead of just taking promotional pictures and videos, I asked if they would have a budget for me to go to Paris, meet the artists and have the whole experience. I thought that could translate into having a bigger impact – and, sure enough, they allowed me to do it. So, this year I’m their exclusive ambassador. The four days I spent in Paris just made me feel like I was born again. Baptised [laughs].

You’ve spent time in Paris before, though, right?

I studied in Paris a few years ago. I went there for six months and I’ve always been a fan of its arts. I told myself each day that I have to go to a different museum or gallery after class. That was my first encounter with the city and I think that’s one of the main reasons why Le French May invited me to be an ambassador, because I’m in touch with what is currently going on in the scene. It’s something that I enjoy. It sort of surprised them because they’re like... you’re an actress, you’re not supposed to know these things! I’m happy that Le French May is bringing the best of the best to Hong Kong. I just feel that a lot of people in Hong Kong think art is impractical and feel that they have to know art or know how to paint to enjoy it. But it’s not that complicated. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t. And when it does, it can move you in a spiritual and emotional way. I also made some suggestions as to which artists LFM should bring to Hong Kong. I thought there were some who don’t usually have to the opportunity to come here.

What part of your four-day tour particularly resonated with you?

I really liked Thomas Lebrun and his Lied Ballet. At the beginning there was no music. The dancers came up and they were doing all sorts of zoned-out zombie movements [Lam mimics the movements]. It was just really cool. Lebrun told me he was inspired by a 17th century painting with propped-up dead bodies. I was surprised.

Kind of cryptic and cool at the same time...

Exactly. There was also a really cool vocalist. You couldn’t tell their gender but they had this beautiful voice.

So, you know your art then. You must be a regular gallery-goer?
I bring both my girls to galleries and they just love it. I brought my daughter to Art Central! The reason why I’m really into art is because it gives you a really different perspective on life. Art is like food for us on a spiritual level. I love it.

Let’s talk about your girls. How old are they now?
One’s four-and-a-half and the other’s almost two. I raise them in a very non-Hong Kong way.

What does that mean exactly?
What I mean is more free-range. You know how some schools have kids start at like 8am and go on until 10pm, right? I always feel that our creativity is at its peak when we are most free. For example, when I’m driving and my daughter steals a giggle while she looks out the window. I love that because you know that she’s thinking of something  or an image that makes her happy. In Hong Kong, if you’re always just engaged with academics, you won’t have free time for creativity. It’s all about getting certified and accredited here, which makes things boring.

You seem like a modern, open-minded mother...

I try to be that. Or, at least, I try to remind myself to be that.

You’re a cool mum?
I don’t want to be rigid, boring or cold.
I take my daughters painting with me a lot so they can create something that they’ve imagined.

At this junction of your life, how do you want to approach your career?
I always say that my girls are like my little mentors because kids are so much more direct. They don’t have burdens or filters. They change every day, so you have to change with them. Seeing them grow up reminds me of how fun all this could be and how creativity can come from the smallest thing. They open a door of possibilities for you and I take that with me when I work.

Have you missed being on-screen over the past few years?
I do, I do, I do. I want to be in films again. I’ve had a few years of being a stay-at-home mum and I’ve realised I’ve been craving acting and performing again. I’ve realised a happy mum means a happy family. If you’re happy, your family’s happy. And things are great now that I’m working because I look forward to going back home and wrapping my kids in my arms. Your world just gets smaller and smaller if you just stay at home and you lose touch with everything.

How did you get involved with Zinnia Flower?
The director approached me by writing a letter instead of handing me a script. I was really moved by what he wrote, so I agreed to it without seeing the script. I felt he was very honest with his feelings and he put a lot of his emotions into the script. It was more like a personal project. And I don’t know, for some reason I felt like I had a duty to complete the film with him.

You have another film coming up called Heaven in the Dark...

It’s with me and Jacky Cheung. It’s been 14 years since we’ve worked together. I’m curious what the chemistry will be like now. He’s known me since I was 16 and now I’m 37! The film is also directed and written by my husband.

Partners in both your professional and personal lives...

It’s scary. I’m asking other friends that are director and actress couples, and I’m like ‘how do you guys do it?’ I mean, do they have to live separately during the shoot? I try not to bring work home. What’s scary is that he knows me inside out, so it’s difficult to give him something new. And I feel like he’ll push me onward in terms of his expectations of my capabilities. I feel like I’m getting myself into a rollercoaster right now...

Your husband seems supportive...
He says I’ve been looking much happier since I’ve returned to work. He says he can see a sparkle in my eyes. It’s so great just having a sense that you’re putting to good use what you do best.

You seem to always land more arthouse or indie film roles. Is that a conscious decision?
It’s not like that. I just keep getting cast in these roles due to my previous work. People think ‘oh she films a lot of art films, so let’s choose her for this role’. They don’t really have a casting system here, so my roles aren’t based on my deliberate choices. But I think, now that I’m back in the business, I kind of really want to do something different. I want to try.

Are you working on other projects?

For the past two years I’ve been running a blog recommending children’s books [check it out at bit.ly/KarenaLamBlog] – but not your typical princess-type books. I recommend more arty, creative types of books that I think are great for parents and kids. I think good children’s books speak to people of all ages.

Nothing misogynistic, then?
A more heroic princess with no princes. At the end of the year, I’ll also publish a children’s book! I’m really looking forward to it.

Sounds interesting! Tell us more...

It should be out by the end of November. My inspirations come from my real life experiences but there is a humorous, child-orientated twist. It’s going to be a gift for my children because they aren’t going to watch my films.

Are your girls aware of your celebrity status or your job?

Whenever people take pictures with us, my daughter thinks it’s normal. She doesn’t  grasp what I do. I do let them know that mummy is returning to work. And when she asks why, I explain to her that there is something that I really love doing. I try to explain to her that passion brings the best out of someone. I’m not going to show my films to them yet because I’ve been in thrillers and I don’t want to freak them out seeing mummy going ‘rawr’. Mummy is mummy, right?

So they’re okay with you being away for longer periods of time?

At first, my eldest would bear-hug my legs and cry until she would vomit. And you’d be like... ugh... what am I supposed to do? But now it’s better and I’ve never felt so alive. Being a full time mum is great – but there is a part of you that just wants to burst out.

Le French May May 1-Jun 30, various venues; frenchmay.com.

Special thanks to Frites, Central
Makeup Shuen Kong
Hair Hin Wan @ il Colpo

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