Interview: Rene Liu
Ahead of Rene Liu’s star turn in The Doppelgänger (紅娘的異想世界之在西廂) – Edward Lam’s abstract adaptation of Romance of the West Chamber – Edmund Lee meets the Taiwanese pop star and the director who’s making her suffer.
The quiet elegance of Rene Liu is about to crack as she prepares to go berserk in The Doppelgänger, theatre director Edward Lam’s third dip into classical Chinese literature after his reinvention of Water Margin and Journey to the West. Marking the 20th anniversary of Edward Lam Dance Theatre, this modern-day adaptation of the literary classic Romance of the West Chamber seems to suggest Lam at his most philosophical extreme, jumping off the original’s marriage motif to explore the dehumanising impact of mass and social media today.
The production is the second collaboration between the two, and the signs are all there that this isn’t going to be an easy ride for Liu, who’s been leading a distinguished career in both music and film since 1995. As Lam ominously tells me, his current script for The Doppelgänger runs up to 80,000 pages; as a comparison, the 38,000-word script for Lam’s previous work, Design for Living, has ended up as a three-hour-plus production. You can only feel for Liu, who’s sitting opposite me in a VIP lounge at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Having only recently wrapped up her concert tour in China, she starts off by coyly admitting that she still hasn’t finished reading the script for The Doppelgänger.
So what’s your impression of the script so far?
It’s very complicated. I seldom ever come across a script that reads so much like a literary work. Sometimes it reads like a detective novel, and sometimes it reads like a comedy. It’s very schizophrenic [in tone].
Tell me a bit about your character.
She has many faces… it’s fun [to play]! It’s really two characters, which gradually develop into ten personalities.
Does your character resemble you in any way?
Um… [Long pause] She likes to play the matchmaker. [Laughs] She likes to see people fall in love. That gives her great pleasure.
Before The Doppelgänger, you also worked with Edward Lam on 18 Springs back in 2003. His plays are often known for their complexity. Do you agree with that impression?
[Pause] A little bit. But in the case of Lam’s plays, it’s not just difficult for the actors, but the viewers are also required to pay extra attention to grasp the essence [of the story].
Seeing that you’re returning to collaborate with him for a second time, I guess you’re coping with his demands just fine.
That’s true. He’s both my teacher and my friend. He often runs out of ideas about how to deal with me, because I’m such a persistent person. [However,] I’m not sure if the final version [of this play] will be the way I most wanted it to be initially, because Lam changes [his mind] so many times that I’ll simply end up settling on anything. I just want us to start rehearsing soon!
What’s been the most memorable part of working with Lam?
When we were doing 18 Springs, I was supposed to have a 20-minute monologue, and Lam still hadn’t told me what to do two days before the show.
I bet he’s still thinking.
That’s correct. I found a new flower installation on the stage at 5pm, two days before the show. I was like, “Wow, these yellow flowers are so pretty!” And he replied, “Right, you’re going to perform with them for 20 minutes.” [Long pause, smiling] I’ll never forget that. In fact, I’m going to take my revenge this time. I’ll give him a big surprise two days before the show.
The play is based on Romance of the West Chamber. Have you read the original before?
Not really. I only started to read it after taking up this role. Before this, I’ve only checked out how thick the book is – and I found it impossible already. I’d much rather watch the film version.
From what I understand, Lam’s version is borrowing the classical setting to explore how love affairs are shaped by mass opinions nowadays. Since you yourself have been under public scrutiny for so long, how would you evaluate your current relationship with the media?
I feel that we used to be in a mutually beneficial relationship, with each side taking what she wants. But in these couple of years, I’m keeping my distance from them to be on the safe side. [Laughs] That’s because most of the coverage today is entertainment-oriented. I come to promote a movie, and the following day’s news clippings may not even have the film title in them. Then I think: what’s the point? After all, I no longer have to go in the papers just to tell people who Rene Liu is.
I’d say that’s pretty common in our tabloid-oriented media culture…
[Interrupts] But I think there’s one major difference between the situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Maybe because the paparazzi culture has existed in Hong Kong for quite a long time, [the readers] aren’t going to take things too seriously. On the contrary, this is still very new in Taiwan; the readers believe in everything reported. While the Hong Kong journalists take a light-hearted approach, the Taiwanese ones often mistake themselves for legitimate scriptwriters. They’d write: [adopts a serious tone] “It was a sunny day. A guy opened his umbrella. The temperature was at 27 degrees Celsius. A little girl walked past him, looked back, and fell down.” And I’m like: what? In Hong Kong, they may take an upskirt photo of you, and that’s the end of the story. So the difference is there.
What are the questions that you most frequently face?
“Do you have a boyfriend?” “Why haven’t you got married?” “Why don’t you try your hands in directing?”
Um… so why don’t you try your hands in directing?
[Rolls her eyes, then begins in a slow, dramatic tone] Because I want to live a good life. [Laughs] I think it’s a really tough job being a director. Also, you can casually criticise others when you’re not the director – but when you are one yourself, you’re waiting to be criticised. So why bother? [Laughs]
The Doppelgänger 紅娘的異想世界之在西廂 is at Cultural Centre’s Grand Theatre July 21-24. Performed in Putonghua with Chinese surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.