Nick Cheung, the accidental director

In Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung (left) plays a man who takes over his father's Cantonese opera troupe and begins to see supernatural things as it prepares to open for the Hungry Ghost Festival. Award-winning actor Nick Cheung (centre) both directs and
In Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung (left) plays a man who takes over his father's Cantonese opera troupe and begins to see supernatural things as it prepares to open for the Hungry Ghost Festival. Award-winning actor Nick Cheung (centre) both directs and stars in Hungry Ghost Ritual.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
In Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung (left) plays a man who takes over his father's Cantonese opera troupe and begins to see supernatural things as it prepares to open for the Hungry Ghost Festival. Award-winning actor Nick Cheung (centre) both directs and
In Hungry Ghost Ritual, Cheung (left) plays a man who takes over his father's Cantonese opera troupe and begins to see supernatural things as it prepares to open for the Hungry Ghost Festival. Award-winning actor Nick Cheung (centre) both directs and stars in Hungry Ghost Ritual.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

When investors agreed to his suggestion to make a ghost flick, actor Nick Cheung realised he had to wear the director's hat

Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung is someone who knows how to roll with the punches - and not just for the mixed-martial arts flick Unbeatable for which he was crowned Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards in April, playing an over-the-hill fighter who gets a second chance to prove his worth.

In real life, he has just stumbled into making his directorial debut with the horror flick Hungry Ghost Ritual, which opens in cinemas tomorrow.

Cheung, 46, tells Life! nonchalantly in a recent interview: "I've never had the ambition to be a director and I didn't seek out this opportunity. Neither do I think I'll head onto a directing path in the future. I don't resist the idea of directing again but I'm not too ambitious about it - I'll just take things as they come."

Any time an established actor decides to sit in the director's chair, whispers of it being a vanity project are bound to follow. So perhaps it is a smart move for him to downplay expectations but it does not seem like an act coming from the affable gentleman.

Cheung was initially approached by investors to direct a cop flick.

His interest was not piqued, perhaps because he had already starred in quite a few of them, including Breaking News (2004), Connected (2008) and The Stool Pigeon (2010). In fact, he was a Royal Hong Kong Police officer for four years in the 1980s.

Asked what kind of film he would like to make instead, he casually tossed out the idea of a ghost flick to investors.

As horror films are technically banned in China, their box-office potential is greatly reduced. But after some consideration, the investors decided to go ahead. "Since they were willing to take the risk and I was the one who came up with the idea, I couldn't really turn it down after that."

Neither was casting himself as the star in Hungry Ghost Ritual an ego trip.

In the film, which is about the supernatural events that occur as a Cantonese opera troupe gets ready for its opening show for the Hungry Ghost Festival, he plays the lead role of Zonghua, the prodigal son who returns home and takes over his father's opera troupe.

Rather, he was thinking of the investors who were shelling out HK$15 million (S$2.4 million) for the production cost of a film which will not screen in China.

"If I didn't act, the risk would be extremely great for them."

His is indeed a marquee name when it comes to acting, with plenty of accolades under his belt. His turn in Beast Stalker (2008) is one of his best-known roles and it bagged him the Golden Horse Award and Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor.

Having stumbled into directing in the first place, he is also not too stressed over how well the film will do at the box office. As he puts it: "I don't think too much about it. The box office, like awards, are not within one's control."

His main aim is to scare the audience and he is looking forward to getting viewer feedback.

How well does he think he did as director? "It was a so-so job. I've met too many good directors and they're all like martial arts experts. As a director, I'm nothing compared to them," he says candidly.

If he had another chance to do this, he says he would be "more focused and stick with just being an actor or director".

While top directors he had previously worked with, such as Dante Lam, Johnnie To and Benny Chan, had offered to look over his work, Cheung turned them down.

"They are top directors and, maybe what they want from me, I wouldn't be able to achieve anyway. Maybe next time," he says.

Part of the challenge as a director for him stems from the fact that Cheung feels he has a personality that is more suited to be an actor. He sighs and says: "I'm not too good at balancing so many things. As a director, you have to juggle different departments, things and people. You have to be the decision-maker.

"As an actor, I need to communicate only with the director. As long as we're on the same page, we can make a good film."

His familiarity with acting did mean the cast could not afford to slacken.

Actress Carrie Ng, 50, who plays a Cantonese opera star in the movie, says with a laugh that Cheung was very fierce on set. "He has very high expectations of the cast as he is also an actor himself."

She was in Singapore with him to promote the film.

He has a different take on this: "I wanted the focus to be on the other actors because I wanted them to look good in their roles, even when the drama was meant to be realistic. I didn't pay much attention to myself."

Still, he has inspired her to try her hand at directing and her murder thriller is slated for release next year. The greatest gain for her from Hungry Ghost Ritual is "realising how an actor turns into a good director".

As an actor, Cheung has, of late, done mostly intense thrillers and dramas. But he had made his name in the late 1990s starring in gambling comedies such as The Conman (1998) and The Tricky Master (1999) directed by Wong Jing.

In person, he can be funny as well.

Asked if he still retains the buff bod he showed off in Unbeatable and he says: "Forget it. If it were not for work, I would never train again like that even if you bashed me up. That was Mission: Impossible 1, 2 and 3 in their entirety."

But the horror genre is one he enjoyed watching when he was growing up and he laments the fact that few such films are being made nowadays.

It so happens, though, that singer-turned- director Juno Mak and actor-turned-director Simon Yam also ventured into similar territory for their debuts. Mak helmed the vampire-themed Rigor Mortis (2013), while Yam directed the segment Stolen Goods in Tales From The Dark 1 (2013).

Cheung says Rigor Mortis focused on aesthetics and was about the feelings of vampires, whereas Stolen Goods was less about scares and more satirical. In other words, "everyone's direction is different" and there is no need for comparisons.

He muses: "When it comes to comparisons, you are your own greatest enemy. Are you happy? Many are happier than you. Are you badly off? Many are worse off than you. There's no point in comparing.

"Just follow your path according to what you think and don't bother with what others say. Just do the best you can and that's it."

Has he thought about directing his actress wife Esther Kwan? The answer is a flat-out no.

"The moment I hear this question, my selfishness comes to the fore. How can I let her go and leave our home bereft of a mother and wife? I don't want to wreck my own home."

The couple have an eight-year-old daughter.

In the near term, his focus is still on acting and it might be a year before he starts to think about directing again. Although he looks positively on his directing debut for giving him "the opportunity to look at a movie from different angles", he adds: "There is too much room for improvement."

bchan@sph.com.sg

Hungry Ghost Ritual opens in cinemas tomorrow.

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