Candid, occasionally hilarious and always riveting, DEANIE IP gives CHRISTINA KO a no-holds-barred look at her life in film and music
THERE ARE STARS who command presence, who walk into a room to the attention of all eyes. Deanie Ip is not that kind of star. When she arrives at Prestige Towers for her cover-story interview and fitting, she’s in a tracksuit, without an ounce of product on her face or in her hair, nodding politely and, perhaps, in bewilderment at the entourage of people who come to greet her (or find an excuse to walk past in the hope of catching a glimpse of her).
And then she opens her mouth. Her voice carries through the office with a deep, rich tone, a husky, confident low vibrato accompanying every laugh – a reminder that, though she’s now best known as the only Chinese performer to win the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress at the Venice International Film Festival, Deanie Ip began her career as a singer.
Ip was discovered at a hotel bar in the 1960s, and transitioned into acting thanks to a natural comedic ability that follows her to this day. She’s appeared in 50 films, occasionally in lead roles, but mostly in the supporting cast, enabling her to traverse a diversity of characters rarely seen by most leading women, whether it’s playing an undercover cop (Carry On Pickpocket), a lazy nurse (Murder) or an aged prostitute (The Truth).
A Simple Life was a project that came to Ip after a more than 10-year hiatus in filming. The story was, indeed, a simple one, and a true one – a woman, Sister Peach, has worked as a maid for a family for the better part of her life. After she suffers a stroke, the tables are turned on Roger (who, incidentally, is the film’s producer), the only member of the family left in Hong Kong, whose turn it is to take care of her as she lives through her final days at a nursing home.
It’s a quiet film, languid and exquisitely, intentionally heart-wrenching. Ip’s Sister Peach is stunningly real, boldly interpreted and liberally portrayed, a character who is as lovable for her diligence, cooperation and patience as for her frankness and sense of humour, and, later, her simultaneous strength and fragility.
There are stars who become their characters, who live life in the shoes of their roles for the period of filming. Deanie Ip is not that kind of star. She did not live as Sister Peach, but she did live for her, studying every aspect of her movements, possessions, clothing, surroundings, and her interactions with them. She plagued director Ann Hui with queries, clarifications, complaints and details. She didn’t inhabit the character so much as she created it. As she admits, “If my son had fallen in the street next to me, I wouldn’t have noticed. It’s not a good thing.”
Ip hasn’t signed on to do another film since A Simple Life. Right now, she’s focused on rehearsing for her three-show concert series in March, planning a trip to Iceland in September and enjoying her own simple life. But first, a few words with Prestige Hong Kong…
How did you decide to enter the world of entertainment?
It was accidental, actually. I was working at the old Kai Tak airport back then, in ground services. We had all these coupons for people whose flights were delayed, and if there were any left over, the staff would take them and go for drinks at the hotel. One night we went to the Carlton Hotel in Sha Tin, which had a nightclub and a Filipino band. We were peeking in that night at around 10.30pm when the bandleader, Vic Cristobal, beckoned us to come in. He asked us if we wanted to sing, like at a karaoke bar, and we all went up and did. When I was done, he told me that I could sing, and asked if I was interested in doing so part time. I asked him if they would pay me. And he said $100. I didn’t make a lot of money then, so I needed to make sure that I could at least pay for my transportation.
I began singing there, and one night he asked if I wanted to go sing on a new TVB show. I asked how much they would pay, and he said $200. I didn’t have any evening dresses at the time, and I needed to buy some nicer things to wear. From there, I started singing on other TVB programmes. RTV, which is now ATV, would also call me to sing. There was a nightclub on Peking Road called Copacabana. They asked me if I would sing, and I asked how much they were paying. They said $800. That was more than what I was making at the airport, so I left and became a full-time singer.
How did you go from singing to acting?
There was a TV special called QQ, and it aired every week. They needed various roles, and invited me and my friend Michael Remedios to go sing. We sang duets. It was kind of boring, and both of us were quite cheeky, so we would change the lyrics in funny ways, and then people realised we could do comedy as well. I started doing comedy that way.
Why did you choose to take on the role in A Simple Life?
It’s not me who chose them, it’s them who chose me. I’m a fan of Ann Hui, there are two of her films that I love. One is Boat People, one of my favourites. And one day, Kenneth Ip from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts called and asked me to dinner. At the end of the meal he told me that Ann wanted me for a film. Apparently, the dinner was really to see what I looked like now – how old I looked, how worn down. I passed that test, so Ann and I started talking about the film.
What did the preparation involve?
Just me talking about the role of Sister Peach, and Roger, the man she served. I thought he was a heartless man. But Ann disagreed. She didn’t think that there was a problem for him to put Sister Peach in a nursing home. I thought that if a man has money he could hire 10 nurses to come and take care of her without having her move into the nursing home. In my experience, when people get older, they don’t like moving into new places. They like to take the same roads, eat the same thing, do what they’re used to. They don’t want to go live in a palace, they want to live at home, even if home is a dustbin. Ann and I had this main difference.
Roger was played by Andy Lau, a man who gives off a vibe of being very loving. How could he play this character? There were issues, but we came to an understanding before I finally signed the contract. I waited and waited and waited to sign, because I kept thinking that this or that wasn’t going to work, and I couldn’t possibly play the character.
They asked me to try some of the outfits for Sister Peach’s character, and they set the scene in winter, because they thought it would be more tragic to see an old woman in the cold. I’m a person who loves the cold and hates heat – if you’re going to give me all these clothes, you might not have a movie, because all you’ll see is my sweat.
They chose these maid’s outfits – Sister Peach started working at 14, she came from Macau as an orphan. She wouldn’t have nice uniforms. She wouldn’t have sleeves that hit the wrist, because they’d get in the way of her working; she’s a worker. These details all needed to be discussed. A lot of the people working on the film were younger, so they didn’t live through the time and see what people would be wearing back then. I needed to see everything – her shoes, her undergarments, even down to her bra. Does she wear a bra? Where would she have got a bra? She shouldn’t be wearing one. What does she eat? She wouldn’t make herself dinner. She would eat the family’s leftovers.
No matter what the film role, that’s something I need to experience. In the past, I’ve played prostitutes. There are many kinds – some are sold into it, some are forced into it, some want to do it. Which am I?
What was it like to go to Venice and win the Coppa Volpi?
When it was all shot and my role was over, they told me that the film might go to Venice. I thought that would be great; I wanted to see how they set up a festival, what happens backstage. But then they told me I’d have to give interviews. Once we got there, it was interviews every day. No backstage visits. By the last day, none of us thought that we would win any awards, and because of budget reasons we’d asked all the hair and make-up people to leave. I went to some Italian grandma’s shop, where they didn’t have air-conditioning, it was feverishly hot. By the time we were done, everything had fallen flat already. I don’t like getting my hair done, nor do I know how to do it. I took some make-up and patted it on my face, but it had pretty much melted off, so when I got to the venue I looked like a crazy woman. But then, we were very lucky; we won this award. And it helped this film so much, in terms of promotion.
For me, I think we did OK. Andy Lau didn’t lose money. The other investing party didn’t lose money. That’s my job done.
Is it hard to leave a role after filming?
It’s better now. I’m older; I know how to distance myself. But when I’m working, it’s best not to talk to me about anything really. I think about everything to do with the role – how to hold my chopsticks, how the bowl should be. After a role, I need to rest a while before I can pick up something else. That’s how I work.
Given your attitude towards the character of Roger, how did you work with the man on whom he’s based, Roger Lee, your producer?
Of course I couldn’t offend him. He’s a producer, the guy who shows up every day to see how much money we’ve spent. I could only tell Ann that I thought the character of Roger was heartless – I wouldn’t tell Roger. To some people, family dinner means sitting together in front of the TV together eating, and that’s it. Some people take their mothers to lunch, and they sit together and read the newspaper. Everyone’s values are different. I feel that what Roger did wasn’t right, but he might not feel that way, so there’s really no point in me upsetting anyone.
This is your 10th collaboration with Andy Lau – how did that happen?
I’m not sure, I don’t count! It isn’t that I choose him or he chooses me, but his company invested in the film. I’m guessing the investors saw that we had good chemistry.
Do you feel there’s a difference in working with a female director?
It’s not really a gender issue, but Ann is a unique director. After I heard that she wanted me to be in her film, I went out and bought all of her movies to watch, except for three that I couldn’t find. She has her ways to express what she has to say. She’s not commercial at all. I was a bit scared, actually, that it would be like her last two movies. It would just be an eating scene, and then a scene of going to work, and then eating again. And I asked myself, why would an audience go to watch a movie where the people just eat dinner? It’s her style, I understand that, but I was worried. But when it came out, it was fine.
Every director has his or her own style and pacing though, right?
Yes, but you look at National Geographic, Discovery Channel – even their promos are filmed like some police action film. It’s edited to be so fast. In our film, it takes us ages just to walk down a street. Would people fall asleep? In Venice, during the premiere, I was really scared. But afterwards, when people kept clapping and clapping, I looked around and thought to myself, are these guys extras or something? I figured, Italians lead a very leisurely life. Their dinners are three hours. They have two months off every year. Their pace of life is a bit slower. Maybe they thought the pace was normal.
The room I was staying in had no television, so I don’t really know what it is they watch on a day-to-day basis in Italy. But I had a lot of question marks in terms of how the film would be received. But so far, so good.
Do you think one film can change international perceptions of Hong Kong cinema?
Partially, but not totally. Not that many people like to watch Hong Kong films. To be honest, if I watch a film with a lot of people of a different ethnicity, unless their looks are very special, sometimes I can’t really tell them apart. I told this to the art director of A Simple Life – some people can’t tell Chinese people apart. And they don’t often like to hear the sound of Cantonese, it sounds like “ging ging gong gong” noises to them. So we need to keep that in mind. So I don’t expect a lot of people internationally to watch this. Maybe those who love film.
Have you had more opportunities since doing this film?
No, not at all, actually. Nothing I really want to do. But there’s more attention in public. People who see me passing on the street get really excited. They tell me how great I am, although I have no idea why I’m so great. They think I’m a hero, and they’re happy, which I guess is OK. In the past, they’d walk past me and pretend they don’t know me, and then whisper, “Hey, that’s Deanie Ip.” Now, it’s more like, “Hello!” Or they’re even audacious enough to say, “Hey, you’re so beautiful!” Or that they like my music, or my films. People are a lot more warm now. But my car still got keyed recently. Don’t know who did it, but you can’t please everybody.
So what’s next?
This year, I have a concert, three nights. I’d like to see the Northern Lights. I want to go to Iceland again. It’s so beautiful, it looks like a place that was just laid down by God, the way the world was just conceived. The people are clean, everything is expensive, so I could only afford to eat fish and chips, but the fish and chips were really good. Well, now I don’t eat anything that moves. But I do hope to go back in September.
So you won’t be working till then?
Well, there’s a possibility that I might do a film after my concerts. But you never know, if they don’t need me, they might not call. So I’ll do something else. But I want to keep learning. I go to the gym, I have trainers that teach me how to lift weights and things. I do yoga. I do Pilates. I like to know what things are about, and the best way is to learn about them, to learn enough so I can teach it. I like having time to learn these things.
Is that how you base your role choices?
I do, but I’m at a certain age now. It’s not like I can play Andy Lau’s girlfriend. I usually end up playing someone’s mother. But I hope never to play someone who’s crazy. Let’s not equate getting old with going crazy. I want to do films that reflect the true human condition.
Some people, they get older, and they don’t like to bathe. My mother passed away when she was around my age. And my sister told me that she refused to bathe, that my sister had to force her to bathe. So apparently it’s true, and there are things like not wanting to eat hard food, or go to new places. It’s because they’re scared of dying. And when you’re afraid of dying, when you feel like you’re close to that time, you don’t want to do things. It’s almost like a depression. You think you’re old, you’re a burden, no one wants to take you out. Not everyone is as independent as I am now. I want to understand that, I want people to understand that.
They don’t make films like that in Hong Kong. They do in Taiwan, and in some other countries. I think they’re great. They’re small-budget productions; we’re not talking about flying a group of grannies to Paris. But that’s the kind of film I want to make.
Would you consider…
…becoming a director? No, never. I couldn’t, I don’t know how to handle money. I’d spend all the money, and then afterwards, say, “Huh? We don’t have any more money? But we only did two scenes!” And then it becomes a short.
Which films or projects are you most proud of ?
I don’t know if I have any yet. There is one film, Murder. I like the character that I play, a nurse, but a bad nurse. “I’d prefer if you leave me alone; I’d prefer if you didn’t ask me to do anything; I’d prefer if you weren’t in pain.” But of course, she has her good side – I like these three-dimensional characters, ones that aren’t all good. We can’t treat everyone like they’re angels.
What can we expect from your upcoming concert?
We’re in preparation. Let’s hope everything goes smoothly – I don’t get sick, we don’t lose money. There aren’t any special guests, I’m not having Andy Lau join me on stage or anything. I’ll have my friend Steven Liu. I’ll have a six-year-old kid to play violin for me. And I’ll be wearing Van Cleef & Arpels, so I won’t be going off stage to shake hands with the audience, because I’ll be wearing millions!
Which do you prefer more, singing or acting?
I love both. And to be honest, there’s acting within music too. Every song that I sing, I picture a story, and I tell a story with the song, or else I can’t sing it. And film, too, is a story. It’s about a person and emotions.
PHOTOGRAPHY / KAON
STYLING / TASHA LING
MAKE-UP / STEPHEN L
HAIR / BILLY CHOI, HAIR CULTURE
STYLING ASSISTANTS / KATHY LAM, YUMEI LEE, CLARE NGAI, VICTORIA KUNG
LOCATION / HULLETT HOUSE, HERITAGE 1881