Fala Chen is not quite your typical Hong Kong actress.
The 31-year-old is not guarded, chatty, smart, refreshingly fearless and open-minded, and in a phone interview with inSing, she has no problem speaking in English and at times, you even think you’re talking to an American actress.
Oh, and here is one nugget of information about her: In 2002, while studying in America, she represented the US state of Georgia in the Miss Asian America Pageant and won the crown.
It is her wish that she had encountered something spooky.
No, not in the beauty contest, but while acting in ‘Pillow’, the opening tale in the horror movie anthology, ‘Tales From The Dark Part 2’.
The movie is the second instalment of a series of horror stories set in urban Hong Kong written by ‘Farewell My Concubine’ author, Lilian Lee.
In ‘Pillow’, directed by Gordon Chan (‘Painted Skin’, ‘The Four’), Chen plays a nurse who suffers from insomnia after the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend (Gordon Lam).
It is only after she buys a strange, haunted pillow that she can finally sleep, but not without setting off a series of creepy events which may or may not be attributed to dreams.
The other two stories in the movie – one set in a ghostly, abandoned school and the other about a hungry demon – are traditional scare fare.
‘Pillow’ has caused controversy for its brazen sex scenes so steamy and raunchy that the “shock” factor has been matched only by Chen being so blase about doing them.
Born in Chengdu, China, she left for the US at the age of 14. A business degree and a number of beauty competitions later, she ended up in Hong Kong for the Miss Chinese International Pageant in 2005 and later stepped on to a TV career and now, the movies.
On TV, she has starred in ‘Lives Of Omission’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Triumph In The Skies II’ on TV. The actress is totally dedicated to her craft and would go to great lengths to explore it.
What attracted you to ‘Pillow’?
I’ve always been a fan of Lilian Lee’s novels. When I first heard a movie was being made based on her stories, I immediately said yes. After I read the short story of ‘Pillow’, I really liked the character of a woman who’s so lost in her longing for her missing boyfriend she couldn’t sleep. I wanted to challenge myself to play someone who’s in a constant state of insomnia.
This story is very atmospheric with most of it taking place in a modern, brightly lit apartment in Hong Kong. You had to convey the sense of horror with your expressions and behaviour. How difficult was it for you to make it scary?
I didn’t think for a moment to make it scary. Because if a person is in that kind of sleepless state, she must not have felt any fear.
She was facing the sudden loss of her boyfriend and trying to pull herself together at the same time and failing at it because she had this weakness – her overpowering love for him. So, when the spirit from the pillow took advantage of her situation, she gave in willingly.
Most of the scenes took place in the day because when you have insomnia, daylight is scarier than the night. Being by myself in the bright apartment all alone and so rife with strange imaginations, that’s unsettling.
You became quite attached to that apartment?
Yes. I stayed overnight in the apartment when everybody left after shooting. I lived there for quite a few nights.
The plot made a point about the apartment being cold in temperature. At night with just me alone, that was when the air conditioner got really cold. I was able to feel how freezing that place could get with the loneliness and insomnia. We couldn’t do that with 20 people in the film crew during shooting.
I wasn’t really shivering then, but I remembered how uncomfortably cold it was when nobody’s there.
Without giving the story away, tell us about the very bloody scene in the film.
Oh, it was very physical. The toughest part was trying to feel the warmth of the blood.
I had difficulty feeling the blood because there were tubes coming out and sometimes the blood wouldn’t spurt out properly. We had to clean everything up and do it again. The blood was cold because it was fake.
My character was a nurse and I went to YouTube to see how emergency treatment for bleeding in war combat went. But I still ended up like a casualty myself because so many things were happening in that scene. The blood was gushing out, the camera was rolling, I had to do a lot of movements and my knees were all bruised after two days of filming.
Tell us about the sex scenes which will shock some people not used to such graphic depictions.
The graphic part didn’t bother me, but the emotional part did. The boyfriend returned. So all the mixed feelings of missing him, feeling guilty, longing and insomnia came to her.
It became very sexual and she was scared since he was a different person, and there’s a physical fear of being intruded. That required concentration.
At least five basic emotions were needed for those scenes – love, vulnerability, guilt, worry, uncertainty. I had to put all those feelings in and I really couldn’t worry about what was being shown onscreen with my face and my body.
Do you believe in ghosts and are you attached to your pillow?
Haha. Yes, I’m very attached to my pillow in real life because I love to sleep. I can fall asleep in just five seconds. That’s my specialty. So I had some difficulty at first in knowing what it’s like not being able to fall sleep.
As for ghosts, well, I’m an atheist, so I really don’t believe in ghosts.
Part of the reason, though, why I took on this role is because I like to explore more and open up my mind. Sometimes I feel like I have a scholarly-scientist way of thinking. Everything must be scientifically proven to me to make it true.
But these few years, being onscreen portraying so many characters, I think I need to open myself up to more possibilities, including believing in something more supernatural that’s beyond my understanding. You know, to open oneself up to the unknown.
I think this movie has opened that door for me. Not that I’ve seen anything spooky. But I want to believe that there are things there that I’m not so sure about.
The top horror director in America now is Asian – James Wan, born in Malaysia, who directed the current hit ghost film, ‘The Conjuring’. Would we see you in one of his films?
Haha. If you ever meet him, please make a recommendation for me and submit anything that you might have on my behalf. I would love to work with Asian-American or Singaporean directors or people from anywhere.
I grew up in a very diverse environment, you know. Almost every few years, at different stages of my life, I would live in different places in the world and I think that’s just part of my journey. Every time I sign up for a project, I just never know where it’s going to take me.
‘Pillow’ is your first horror film. Would you do another one?
I don’t even think it’s a typical horror film. I think it’s more of a love story. Yes, I don’t mind doing more because I think behind each horror tale, there’s often a deep understanding of uncertainties and the unknown. That’s what’s interesting to me.
Were there any strange happenings during the filming when you were genuinely spooked?
Haha. No, not really. Everything went quite smoothly. We finished filming in seven days. But I wouldn’t mind having some strange stuff happening on set though. Like I said, I’m always looking out for possibilities.