Heeding the call to connect

Veteran actress Sylvia Chang (above, with scarf) in Why We Chat?, which is directed by award-winning Hong Kong director Edward Lam.
Veteran actress Sylvia Chang (above, with scarf) in Why We Chat?, which is directed by award-winning Hong Kong director Edward Lam.PHOTO: ESPLANADE - THEATRES ON THE BAY

In the age of dating apps and the casual hook-up, award-winning Hong Kong director Edward Lam fears that love has become "uncool".

"Love is becoming something very much in the past," says the 58-year-old, who will be bringing Why We Chat?, his take on modern relationships through the lens of ghost stories, to this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts.

He quotes a saying: "True love is like ghosts - you hear of them a lot, but few are those who actually come across one."

In the all-too-interconnected world of today, says Lam over the telephone from Hong Kong, people struggle to communicate even when they are sitting in front of one another.

"The phone is a very cold medium," he says. "But a human being has a temperature. You'll feel neglected, misunderstood and unfulfilled if you just have a mobile phone as your best friend."

In Why We Chat?, a bored businessman in a hotel room answers a call from a mysterious woman who claims to be calling at random.

They challenge each other to a cat-and-mouse game of storytelling: Whoever can tell a story that piques the other's interest will win the reward of seeing the other person.

The play, written by playwright-actress Wong Wing Sze, is loosely inspired by the Qing dynasty supernatural story collection Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio).

Lam sums up the nearly 500 stories in Liaozhai Zhiyi in one word: loser. Their author Pu Songling, he says, was a low-level civil servant whose life was marked by failure, which enabled him to see society's problems more clearly.

"There are numerous people who think they are losers in modern society," he says. "The audience will be able to connect with the frustration and anxiety of my interpretation of the book."

The three-hour play reunites veteran actress Sylvia Chang with fellow Taiwanese actor David Wang, whom she first worked with 10 years ago in her play Design For Living.

Lam is full of praise for the chemistry between his leads, especially in a scene where they meet, court, have a baby and divorce, all in less than 10 minutes.

"Everything has to happen in the blink of eye, but they can make it very convincing every time.

"Sylvia can convince you she is not 64, but in her 20s, then her 30s, all the ups and downs. That's a chemistry I can rarely find in actors onstage."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2018, with the headline 'Heeding the call to connect'. Print Edition | Subscribe