The Wild Boar
Can Karena Lam find her primitive side for Olivia Yan’s new drama? Edmund Lee meets the duo ahead of their Arts Festival premiere.
It’s slightly past noon on a Monday morning and Karena Lam Ka-yan, dressed in an eye-catching carroty sweater that nonetheless fails to take our attention off her signature heart-stopping smile, is greeting us in Olivia Yan Wing-Pui’s private room in PIP Theatre’s office premise. In more ways than one, the 33-year-old is herself an unusual sight in this very place at this very time – and not just because the beloved film actress has been in semi-retirement mode since she quietly got married and gave birth to a daughter in 2010.
Lam’s involvement in The Wild Boar – the Candace Chong Mui-ngam-scripted, Olivia Yan-directed Cantonese play co-starring Dayo Wong Tze-wah and Liu Kai-chi, to be premiered this week as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival – is also surprising in that it’s only the actress’s second play in a career that began in her early teens. (Her first stage experience came with a Jimmy Lao adaptation for children.) Whatever its reason, it’s not down to the greater devotion that theatre – rather than film – asks of her memory: immediately upon seeing me, Lam recalls the last time we met. “I remember asking you if I had to speak English,” she says of our chat back in January 2009, giggling.
In the new play which essentially depicts the scattered, primitive voices against a civilised society’s progress towards democracy, Lam plays a small but vital role that… well, Yan prefers not to clearly spell that out before the performances. Suffice to say that Lam’s character represents a voice from the masses – standing on the shifting boundary between ideals of freedom and economic development, as well as being all-too-ready to flip to a shockingly determined side ‘that will give people the creeps’. In the course of our one-hour conversation, this atypical character setting has become a running joke between Yan and Lam, who can’t resist alluding to the latter’s ‘evil side’, leading the director to jokingly nickname her star actress ‘Lam Ka-mean’ at the end.
Incidentally, watching the bantering of these two ladies – who first got to know each other in 2004, when Lam participated in an acting workshop by Yan and her husband, celebrity comedian Jim Chim – is as much fun as contemplating the nuanced rhetorical process behind their serious-minded play. At one point, Yan turns to Lam and exclaims: “I see you grow up and I see you turn bad!” To which the latter replies: “And I get married and become a mommy!” Only to be concluded by the director, now turning to me: “But she’s looking exactly the same over the years. It’s scary.” At another point, after Lam relates sincerely about how Yan often reassures her with the line: “Don’t fret, I’m here.” The director quips: “That’s already my best line.”
But don’t be fooled by their jokey demeanours – or, indeed, the casting of stand-up comedy star Dayo Wong – into thinking that The Wild Boar is some light-hearted fare. Set in an unidentified, contemporary city similar to Hong Kong, the story begins with a publication’s editor-in-chief (played by Liu) going on an investigation into the disappearance of his friend, a socially and historically conscious writer. With the help of a former student and colleague (Wong), the two soon come across a torrent of conflicted ideas shaping the city – from macroscopic considerations like economic growth and social conscience to personal experiences like grief and desire – that will eventually tear them apart.
For Yan, whose directorial style tends to impress with its physicality and emphasis on the visual aspects, the chance to give Candace Chong ‘a shock to the system’ was simply too good to pass up. “Chong wanted someone to take her out of her comfort zone – and I love taking people out of their comfort zone.” The director chuckles, before elaborating further on the playwright of such acclaimed pieces as Murder in San José and The French Kiss: “Chong is more of a realist than me and her new play reads a bit like a novel. Although we have different styles, our concerns are actually very close: we are both reflecting on human existence and its various phases, including the most vulnerable ones.”
The settings of her works may sometimes be fantastic, but, the director insists, ‘the emotions are definitely real’. Anyhow, Yan is bemused whenever her work is described as ‘dreamy’. “I once heard someone say my works are dreamy, but they’re not. They are quite harsh [in their observations] on humanity and existence. It’s about the current society.” And then, that ‘evil’ joke comes back. “So, all in all, the talk that I do dreamy stuff is just an illusion. Same for Karena Lam: you think she’s a nice person?” The actress and director then break into hearty laughter together. “It’s just an illusion!”
The Wild Boar 野豬 is performed at APA’s Drama Theatre from Feb 3-19, in Cantonese with English surtitles. Tickets: 2734 9009; www.urbtix.hk.