Mok-A-Bye Baby

6 minute read

Karen Mok comes at you in sections. It’s partly a result of her gallimaufry of genes: Chinese, Welsh, German, Persian, a heady hereditary cocktail. She looks and speaks Chinese, but when she palavers in English, out pours E.M. Forster starchy Brit-speak. She does “yah,” she does “-ish” and she’ll use the word ‘prat’ or ‘ponce’ with intuitive aplomb. Not to mention the bodywork: Mok’s put together like an E-type Jaguar, curvaceous, sinuous, pantheresque. She’s got legs Lara Croft wouldn’t mind and a brain Angelina Jolie wouldn’t recognize.

The girl’s certainly putting it all to work. She’s shooting with Chinese director Zhang Jianya on a yet-to-be-titled natural-disaster flick full of avalanches and mudslides. (Filming is under way in Shanghai and Tibet.) Opening soon around the region is All the Way, a mainland road movie she made for Shi Runjiu. It’s Mok and a muddle of guys in a vehicle custom-made for her. And for later this year, she talks of a comedy with Hong Kong’s prolific producer Wong Jin.

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)But the role that will set tongues unraveling like red carpets comes in Corey Yuen’s Virtual Twilight, a sort of Charlie’s Angels-goes-to-China co-funded by Columbia Asia. Mok plays a sophisticated plainclothes cop chasing two killers, dishes Shu Qi and Zhao Wei. It’s the up-and-comer vs. the two It-girls of current Chinese cinema. Says mainland actress Zhao: “Karen Mok’s cosmopolitan, smart, sexyand always now.”

Mok wasn’t always hotter-than-Potter. She went to Hong Kong’s Diocesan Girls’ School, a hoity-toity institution for little ladies in the making. Classmate and designer Johanna Ho, who schooled with Mok before going on to London to study with Stella McCartney, remembers Mok the modest: “She always wore glasses, was a straight-A student, had short hair and braces.” Mok’s happy to admit she was a nerd, an academic junkie. She won a scholarship to study Italian literature in Trieste and followed it with three years at the University of London. There she met Hong Kong music student Mark Lui, who now writes for Canto-pop royalty Kelly Chen and Leon Lai. Together they formed a group that performed on-campus concerts. Johanna Ho recalls the first time she saw Mok perform: “I could hardly recognize her. Suddenly, there she was on stage with curly long hairshe was sex on legsand I thought … yeah … okay.”

It was music, not movies, that brought Mok back to Hong Kong. She made an album with Lui and was signed by Taiwan’s Rock Records, which put out an album that made its own bit of minihistory. In the land of Canto-candy, where head shots of saccharine stars filled record covers, Mok appeared lying face down naked on a sun bed.

The heat was on. After two minor films, Wong Kar-wai knocked on Mok’s door for the Chungking Express follow-up, Fallen Angels, in which she wore a wig and played Punkie, a semicrazed jilted girlfriend. That won Mok a best supporting actress award from the Hong Kong Film Academy. “She’s not one of us and nobody knows what to do with her,” says Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s bard of nihilism and neon. “The Hong Kong Cantonese look at a young Maggie Cheung and see her as the girl next door. They look at Karen and can’t identify.” Mok has a monopoly on marginality in Hong Kong movies and she’s adamant about its benefits: “Hong Kong directors want me to do roles they can’t think of anyone else to play.”

No kidding. In her 23-film careerone of the rare Hong Kong actresses whose age, 31, exceeds the number of her moviesshe has uglied-up, gotten disfigured, played a schizophrenic, a tomboy, a killer, a lesbian, and the plain old-fashioned bitch. In First Love: The Litter on the Breeze, she’s described by one character as having “Satan’s eyes.” Few actresses would jump at a chance to play a female character named Turkey but she did, in Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery. She tucked away her plumage to create a visually impaired, bucktoothed, kick-ass noodle vendor, for which she was again nominated by the Academy. She was back in psycho mode for Four Faces of Eve, a movie in four dislocated parts shot by Kar-wai’s noted cinematographer Chris Doyle. And in Sylvia Chang’s Tempting Heart, she plays a bisexual with yearnings for both Hong Kong actress Gigi Leung and Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro. Mok may not get marquee roles but the technical precision and spontaneity she summons within her performances ensure she often ends up stealing a film.

Chinese director Yonfan reckons he has Mok’s fan base down. “She’s been in all these strange parts, sometimes triad related, and yet yuppies love her. She has a very upmarket following.” Evidently. Urbane avant-garde British director Peter Greenaway, who has made a career from persuading yuppie actresses like Joely Richardson and Amanda Plummer to take their kit off, came knocking on Mok’s door in 1997 suggesting a part in his forthcoming film, 8 1/2 Women. Mok turned him down: despite the lunacy of the characters she had played; she feared that full-frontal nudity and on-screen sex was something she wouldn’t be comfortable with. What she means perhaps is that a director other than Greenaway might have let her find that comfort zone.

This is part of the Mok mystique. Aloof means allure, and combined they make the star quality that defines an artist’s relationship with the public. And she consciously pushes the puerility, especially in a recent series of Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong concerts. “I get away with murder,” she revels. “I mean, those shorts must have been the shortest in Hong Kong history. And then leaping into a bathtub … ” Shorts? They were more like a belt. Her legs were painted gold from the groin down, like something out of a James Bond credit sequence. At one point she stepped into a foaming bath and was sponged down by four scantily clad coryphes. She lifted her feet in the air for them to admire and soap. Same-sex kink, fetish worship, an abundant and exuberant naughtiness without consummationMok loves to tease. “That was completely over the top,” she reflects. “We knew the Hong Kong audience wasn’t really ready for it, but we thought, ‘So what?'”

And when Karen Mok says “So what?” she sounds to the manor born. In one marvelous moment in Young and Dangerous 3, she gets hit by a car while rollerblading down a busy street. As four hip Hong Kong lads clamber out of the car to check if she’s O.K., Mok adjusts herself, stands back up on the blades and calls them “a bunch of f____ing d___heads.” They stare gormlessly at the Chinese beauty who stands before them delivering a beautifully intonated insultin English. It’s a scene that defines Mok, soign with plenty of street. The girl plays both, with aplomb.

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