Mo Lai Yan-chi

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From controversial stage artist to award-winning filmmaker, Mo Lai Yan-chi talks about her decade of unexpected evolution with Edmund Lee.


When Mo Lai Yan-chi first encountered theatre, it wasn’t, as you may expect, through some chance encounter at a local production during childhood. Rather, as she tells it, she was practically ‘forced into it’. “My school teacher thought I talked too much and asked too many weird questions in class,” the actor-director says of the theatre competition she was asked to take part in while she was a secondary one student. “Since I was studying at a band-one school and our pressure from homework was huge enough, it felt as if I was being punished.” And then, surprisingly for her but fortunately for our city’s burgeoning arts scene, Lai couldn’t stop coming back for more.

At present an established theatre artist and an award-winning short film maker, Lai is about to stage a re-run of her fourth one-actor play Women in Red, which first premiered last March, before shifting her creative focus onto filmmaking for the foreseeable future. Serving the particular objective to reaffirm women’s place amid all the stereotypical labelling in our contemporary society – as did Lai’s three previous solo efforts, which all have the word ‘women’ in their titles – the latest work consists of eight stories that she encountered during her years of practising Playback Theatre, a form of improvisational theatre that involves audience members telling their own stories and actors re-enacting them on the stage.

“Playback Theatre is lately gaining popularity in Hong Kong, although we at FM Theatre Power have been doing this for around a decade,” says Lai, referring to the socially conscious company that she joined as an undergraduate student in 2003 and is currently president of. Incidentally, she was also the first member of the group to try and go solo. “The audiences come not just to watch a show but to share their real-life stories. In these 10 years, I must have listened to several hundred stories – many of which have touched me or inspired me in their own ways. I hope they will be heard by a larger audience, because these [storytellers’] lives have influenced mine. As an actress, I hope to bring these stories to more people.”

It is precisely this strong sense of social responsibility – as well as an undergraduate degree in Film and TV – that had assisted Lai in the making of her widely acclaimed short film, 1+1. Following the authentic observations of an elderly man and his granddaughter at the Choi Yuen Village, the 30-minute drama gently condemns the government’s decision to tear down the rural village to make way for the proposed Hong Kong Express Rail Link, before ironically winning both the Best Film Award and the Grand Prize at the Fresh Wave Short Film Competition, which is organised by the Arts Development Council, a government body. “It’s like I’m taking the government’s money to criticise them,” says the amused director.

Considering that she was still perceived by some as one of the ‘troublemakers’ behind FMTP as recently as 2008 – the company was, fairly or not, the subject of intense public hatred for its controversial street performances in Mong Kok’s Sai Yeung Choi Street, at one point attracting a couple of Facebook hate groups whose members totalled almost 40,000 – Lai’s latest turnaround may be considered her most dramatic yet: unconventionally for the annual awards that have been known here for their inclination to recognise the famous and politically correct, she was named as one of Hong Kong’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons in the past year. Lai thinks of her participation as a form of social activism, attributing the unlikely accolade to all her peers at FMTP.

“In the last 10 years, this group of people have been very important to me,” she says. “They have changed my world view and [understanding of] social participation. I think my [honour] is for the group; it’s not just about me. Therefore, I’m not going to give up on theatre even though I’ll be working [mainly] in movies. Film just happens to be a more effective and global tool for me to deliver my message to a wider audience. In the case of 1+1, for example, it was once screened concurrently in different film festivals in Taiwan, Chile and France. That gave me a strangely pleasant feeling.”

Apart from continuing to make short films to address her social concerns, Lai is in talks to take on the writing and/or directing duties of various feature-length film projects. She is also gearing up to finish the works for her painting exhibition – a talent she’s never developed through proper training but is palpable, to say the least, from the glimpse we have of the murals in her JCCAC studio. Lai is not ready – or willing – to leave behind the first ever art form she took up, however. “Theatre allows me to learn about the world, and to learn about myself. It helps me to maintain the three vital factors to a theatre practitioner: mission, vision and passion. They’re all very important to me.”

Women in Red 女兒紅 is performed at Cultural Centre’s Studio Theatre, Wed 20-Sun 24, in Cantonese. Tickets: 2734 9009; urbtix.hk.

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