Clockwise from above left: Nelson Chia, Muhammad Mahfuz Mazlan, Audrey Luo, screenwriter Michael Chiang, Michelle Chong, Moses Lim, producer Choo Meileen
Photos: Tammi Tan, Cathay Asia Films
Video: Teng Siew Eng
Fifteen years after their last original production That One Not Enough, Cathay Organisation is releasing another feature film to commemorate its 80th anniversary this July: Our Sister Mambo, a charming rom-com based on their iconic classics Our Sister Hedy (1957) and The Greatest Civil War on Earth (1961).
Michelle Chong plays the spunky titular character Mambo, who pokes her nose into the romantic affairs of her three sisters, played by Ethel Yap, Oon Shu An and Joey Leong. Moses Lim stars as their father Mr. Wong, and Audrey Luo aged up from 32 to 50-plus to become their overbearing mother.
“I have a lot in common with my character: I’m the second child, and I can be a bit bossy and nosy when it comes to my siblings,” said Michelle at yesterday’s press conference. She also left MediaCorp in 2012 to launch two companies, Left Profile and Huat Films; in the flick, Mambo quits her job at a law firm to follow her dreams of becoming a chef (much to the chagrin of Mrs. Wong).
When we asked screenwriter Michael Chiang if he based the family matriarch’s blatant parental objection off any real life experiences of his own, he replied, “I think Mrs. Wong is a mixture of all our mothers, who are loving and protective and want the best for their children, but by their own definitions.”
“In my case, my mum was horrified when I left MediaCorp six years ago to do freelance work – she couldn’t understand and kept asking me why, which I think is typical of all mothers,” he continued. “I wasn’t a child, but she still worried about me, and that was something I wanted to capture about Mrs. Wong: she loves them but it comes off as salah (wrong) somehow.”
Moses (centre) with his onscreen daughters (L-R) Ethel, Shu An, Michelle and Joey.
Moses, too, faced some opposition against his decision to dabble in entertainment, particularly from his father. However, instead of trying to talk the older one into acceptance before proceeding, Moses – much like Mambo – went ahead and jumped right in before anyone found out.
“The industry in Singapore is not as big as Hong Kong, so when opportunity strikes, you must grab it,” said the veteran thespian, who made his first TV appearance doing crosstalk comedy in the 70s. “I’m very fortunate to have done well and proven myself – that’s the best way to convince anybody.”
On the other hand, Michelle, Audrey and Nelson Chia (who plays Ethel’s onscreen beau) were fortunate to have supportive folks.
“When I told my father I wanted to do theatre, I expected a lecture, but all he said was ‘Okay’,” recounted Nelson, who is the Artistic Director of Nine Years Theatre. As for Audrey, she says she has always been given “a lot of freedom to do a lot of things”, including acting, and that the only thing the stage doyenne’s mum still nags her about is “Why are you still single ah?”
Similarly, Michelle’s parents were fine with her showbiz ambitions, even allowing her to study theatre in the States. However, when she dropped out of the National University of Singapore to focus on her acting career, her dad “made a bit of noise”. “He said, ‘The Chong family can’t have someone without a diploma!’” mimicked Michelle. “But my mum told me to do whatever I thought was right and believed in, which I have always done.”
One of the enterprising multi-hyphenate’s latest ventures is Mischief, the bar she recently opened with Cynthia Koh. “It’s been fun owning a restaurant!” Michelle exclaimed excitedly when we brought up her little business baby. “Cynthia is much more hands-on than I am. I haven’t been going there that much because I’ve been too busy with The Noose and Lulu the Movie.”
Speaking of Lulu the Movie, which was announced in early 2014 and began filming late last year (and is still being shot), are we ever going to see the finished product?
“I know it’s taking some time, but Boyhood took 12 years to complete, right? And Wong Kar-wai usually takes an average of 10 [years] to finish his movies,” quipped Michelle, who is directing the “mockumentary” and starring as everybody’s favourite sassy China KTV hostess. But don’t worry – she assured us that it won’t actually take that long. “It will be out in the first half of next year.”
However, Lulu’s delay is not caused by a desire for time-accurate authenticity or artistic perfectionism. “The Noose is taking up quite a lot of my time as I’m not only acting, but also writing, producing and directing as well, so I can only do Lulu when I’m freer,” she shared.
She added that having to be extra cautious with certain sensitive issues in the plot slows down the process as well. “(At least) Sacha Baron Cohen (Ed’s note: known for his wild, sometimes offensive antics and films like Borat and Brüno) had a whole legal team behind him. (laughs)”
There’s also the issue of finances. Unfortunately, with Mischief still on its way to breaking even, its earnings won’t be able to help its boss in this area. “It’s hard to do a film all by myself without big studios or investors behind me. Funding is always a problem, so I’m now in the midst of talking to sponsors. [Turns to camera] I’m very good to my sponsors!”
“My friends tell me that I’m always doing things that don’t make money,” Michelle chuckled. “But I do it anyway because I live for my passions – just like Mambo!”
My Sister Mambo is in cinemas July 15.