Recalling her long cinematic career, Hong Kong actress Kara Hui says she is proud of what she has achieved.
Dubbed the martial arts goddess of Hong Kong’s Shaw Studios in the 1980s, she was talent-spotted at the age of 15 while working as a dancer in a nightclub.
A disciple of renowned Hong Kong action choreographer Lau Kar-leung, Hui (also known as Wai Ying-hung and Kara Wai) won the best actress award in the first Hong Kong Film Awards in 1982 for her action-filled performance in My Young Auntie.
The veteran actress – currently starring in Chinese streaming series Marvelous Women – would go on to win many more awards, including the best actress prizes in the 2017 Hong Kong Film Awards, for playing a dementia patient in Happiness, and in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards the same year, for her performance as a cunning antique dealer in The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful.
“I am very satisfied with my body of work. I am happy that many people recognise my performances. I admire my grit and constant urge to keep abreast of the times,” she says.
Hui, 61, says she fell in love with Chinese cultural heritage when she starred in Hong Kong director Li Han-hsiang’s period movies in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Li liked to base plot details on historical facts,” she says. “I learned a lot from him then.”
The period setting of Marvelous Women is one of the reasons she enjoyed making the television series. Her passion for embroidery, painting and antiques is another.
The drama, about the ups and downs of a family running a Chinese silk tapestry business in the Qing dynasty, has been showing on Youku, iQiyi and Tencent Video since Nov 8.
The 35-episode series was produced by Huanyu TV, which created Story of Yanxi Palace. The period drama was a global sensation when it was screened in 2018.
Hui says that like Li, Huanyu TV paid meticulous attention to accurately portraying the making of kesi, or silk tapestry.
A traditional craft from Suzhou in Jiangsu province, kesi was recognised by Unesco as intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
“I saw many fast-disappearing crafts on set,” the actress says.
Playing the role of Chen Xiaohong, an ignorant concubine and an indulgent mother in a Suzhou family that has run a kesi business for several generations, Hui says she spent a lot of time figuring out how to portray the character’s complex personality.
“She is illiterate,” she says. “She was divorced when she married into the family, which makes her so humble that she treats people in the family with reverence.
“Her son is the only person in the family who is on an equal footing with her. She is a tragic character who is unable to handle complex situations.”
Viewers and critics have praised Hui for capturing both the comedic and tragic sides of Chen, with a number of scenes including antics such as faking a stroke to get her disobedient and bumbling son to behave himself.
Hui says she used intense body language to present the essence of her character, citing a scene where she, like any indulgent Chinese mother with a wayward son, has to slap him in a seemingly forceful way but also with solicitous care.
“Many real-life mothers are ambivalent like Chen towards their children,” she says.
“Viewers find that scene funny. But I spent a lot of time to figure out how to perform that scene.”
While Chen Xiaohong is a craven character, Hui says the drama tells an inspirational story celebrating women’s bravery and determination.
“The role of the matriarch of the family played by Jiang Qinqin contrasts sharply with mine. She lives in a society where men take precedence over women.
“However, she makes a breakthrough in advancing women’s status because of her strength and solidarity with other women.”
As for her future career, Hui is keeping an open mind. “I don’t know what the future will hold, but I want to keep my mind active by working,” she says.
“If I feel tired in future I will draw more, as holding an exhibition of my paintings has always been my dream.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.