HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL Singapore Press Conference

Unlike some of his peers, acclaimed Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung never wanted to be in the director’s seat. Indeed, as Cheung explains, he never had intended to be the director of ‘Hungry Ghost Ritual’, the seventh-month based horror mystery which he also stars in.

“I was approached by some investors with the script for a detective movie, but I wasn’t really interested in it. When they asked me what it would take for me to act in the movie, I casually remarked that they should make it into a horror movie,” explained Cheung. “Little did I know that they would actually go and revise the script, and by that time, I was obliged to accept the role.” Besides playing the lead, Cheung was also asked to direct the movie, and out of goodwill, decided to take up the challenge as well.

Since entering the filmmaking business after quitting the Royal Hong Kong Police Force more than 20 years ago, Cheung has built up accolades for being an actor not afraid to push himself to the limits. Nowhere is this more evident than for his role as an MMA boxer in Dante Lam’s ‘Unbeatable’ last year, where the 46-year-old actor spent nine months building up a chiselled physique by keeping to a strict diet of egg whites for breakfast, chicken and eggs for lunch, and steamed fish or boiled chicken and salad for dinner as well as gruelling training that actors half his age might have quitted very much earlier on. 

 Here in town to promote the movie which was filmed in Malaysia, Cheung says that directing this movie was a breeze compared to the regime he had to subject himself to for ‘Unbeatable’. Instead of focusing on himself, he said that his priority as a director was to ensure that he could get the best out of his fellow actors, including veteran Hong Kong actress Carrie Ng who was his first choice for a supporting but crucial part of the film.

Best known for her award-winning performance in the Category III movie ‘Remains of a Woman’, Ng was also in Singapore with Cheung to add to the movie’s buzz. Cheung said that Ng was his first choice for her role in the movie, even though this was the first time that he was working with her. In turn, Ng said that it was her honour to be able to star in Cheung’s first movie. “He has very high expectations of his actors. But that’s to be expected because he is an actor first and foremost!” said Ng. “In one scene, I had to scold my assistant, and he kept pushing me to be fiercer and fiercer even though I couldn’t bear myself to.”

But Cheung refuses any praise of his maiden outing as a director, proving himself to be as humble an actor as he is a director. Indeed, he says that he is nowhere near the leagues of Tsui Hark and Wong Kar Wai, calling them icons whose statuses he shall never be able to reach; instead, when pressed to rate his own performance as a director, Cheung would only say that he thinks he did okay. 

 “I think I have much more to learn and pick up as a director,” he says, “But I was very clear in my head what sort of horror movie I wanted to make.” Lamenting the dearth of horror movies in his native Hong Kong, he explains that one of the reasons he was keen to make ‘Hungry Ghost Ritual’ was to recapture the flavour of some of these classic examples which he had grown up with as a child. Even then, he confesses that he isn’t a particularly brave moviegoer. “When I was young, my mother brought me to a movie that really freaked me out!” he adds. “It was only until much later that I dared to walk into a cinema alone to watch a horror movie, but now I do enjoy the experience of a good scare!”

Cheung however is quick to clarify that there were no supernatural occurrences on the set itself. Besides the usual prayer ceremony to mark the start and end of filming, he says that no other precautions were taken during filming itself. Recalling a particular scene in ‘The White Storm’ where the crew hired the services of a local ‘bomoh’ to bless the grounds before filming in an abandoned car park in Thailand, he says that he did not have to conduct any such ritual prior to shooting - that said, he did keep the fact that their outdoor set was in a space that used to have a mortuary from the cast and the rest of the crew until after filming so as not to spook them unnecessarily. 

On the other hand, Ng is less sure that there wasn’t anything spooky going on. She specifically recalls one episode where she had to change into a pair of red heels for filming. “When I needed to retrieve the heels, I realised that one side was missing. I asked the crew to help me look for it, even though I was very sure that I left both sides right next to me,” she said. “In the end, someone found it really quite far away right next to a dumpster. I was really quite shaken because I could never have left it there! I didn’t tell Nick [Cheung] until now because I didn’t want him to think I was alarming everyone else for nothing!”

“I had no time to be scared!” says Cheung. “I am responsible for everything that happens on the set, so I can’t afford to be afraid in the first place.” Rather, he hopes to engender that fear in the hearts and minds of his audience, revealing in the process his way of seeing just how viewers take to his movies. “I would usually put on a pair of fake teeth and a wig and buy a ticket to watch the movie just to gauge what the audience liked and disliked,” he says. “There was once I was in such a disguise for the movie ‘The Beast Stalker’ and I totally gave [director] Wong Jing a shock who could not recognise me when I stood right next to him!” And oh, in case you’re wondering, he intends to do likewise for ‘Hungry Ghost Ritual”.

 Even so, he is realistic about the box office expectations for the movie. “Horror is a very unique genre. There are some people who just won’t watch a horror movie. It’s not like other genres, where if you tell people that it’s a good movie they might actually go and watch it,” he says. “In fact the more you tell these people that the movie was scary, the more they are not likely to watch that movie!” He also knows that ‘Hungry Ghost Ritual’ won’t do as well as his last few movies, simply because it will not get a release in China due to its subject matter.

Cheung also thinks it will be quite some time before he does another horror movie. He will next be seen in a rom-com with Sammi Cheng, and is prepping for the shoot of ‘From Vegas to Macau 2’ with Wong Jing next to Chow Yun-Fat. As for directing, he says he may come back to it eventually.

“I do have a number of ideas in my head,” he adds. “But the next time I direct a movie, I won’t want to act in it. I just want to focus on directing.”

Text and Photos by Gabriel Chong

Our review of HUNGRY GHOST RITUAL right here.