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'My Best is Yet to Come'
Hong Kong actress and singer Karen Mok is set to star in a new road movie--she describes it as a Chinese version of the cult film Trainspotting--and plans to release an English-language album this year. TIME reporter Stephen Short caught up with Mok in Hong Kong before she set off for Guangxi, China, to begin filming.

Hong Kong Trade Development Council
Hong Kong actress Karen Mok sports a knitted swimsuit, designed by friend Johanna Ho, during a fashion show in Tokyo last year.

TIME: Last time we met you talked about wanting to be in a road movie. What's happening now?
The road movie is finally happening. It's going to be shot in a remote area of Guangxi--as if Guangxi wasn't remote enough already. It's different from all the Hong Kong movies I've done. All the actors are mainland Chinese and I'm apparently the only actress. It's just me and loads of guys.

TIME: Does it have a title?
I'm not 100% sure what the English translation is but I think it's going to be called All The Way. In the movie, I'm just a girl from nowhere, hitchhiking, and get picked up by a guy, then various things happen along the way. My boyfriend keeps beeping me on a pager--I'm meant to meet him--and there's cops and robbers, gunfights, typical road movie stuff. I'm looking forward to it. It should be finished by the end of April, beginning of May, if things go well. The tone of the movie may be something like Trainspotting, rather avant-gardist.

TIME: What's your reaction now to Tempting Heart? Richard Corliss, TIME's movie critic, put it in his ten best films of the year, last year. Would you agree?
That's a little surprising to me. To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the script. I felt it was too one-sided and very subjective. The role that I played--the lesbian friend--could have been much more interesting because she was a complex character. It's a pity. In some ways that made it more challenging to act, but there was so little space for me and I could only do so much. I did raise that point with Sylvia Chang [the director] but I guess there wasn't enough time to fix the script. I thought it was very '70s. It was a bit of a fairytale too. But it still stands up as a good movie.

TIME: You turned down a Peter Greenaway movie last year, 8* Women. Why?
Yes, I met Peter in London and we talked about it. Of course, I'm a big fan of Greenaway but the role would have involved too much nudity and I really didn't want to do that. Shame, but there it is.

TIME: That's mighty impressive. Most people would kill for a shot in a Greenaway movie, but then you seem pretty unusual. That's your appeal. You're an incredible cocktail of East and West. What are your genes like?
My grandfather was Welsh, so my father's half-Welsh, half-Chinese. My mum's also a mix--yet she's a bit more complicated. Her father is half-Persian, half-German, and her mother is Chinese. So if you break it down evenly, I would still be half Chinese--and the rest is just a mish-mash.

TIME: You were in London and Italy right?
Yes. I did a four-year course in London and studied Italian literature for two years at the United World College in Italy It was started by, whoops, I've forgotten. The Duke of something? I think Prince Charles is a patron. There's quite a few of these colleges in the world, one here in Hong Kong in fact. There were 200 students in my college from about 15 different countries. I was really proud of myself for winning a scholarship. You have to win one to go to these places and I was the only person picked from my class. I was really chuffed.


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TIME: Did you grow up really fast over there?
: I think I knew how to take care of myself by the time I went over. My parents had taught us not to rely on them and I had looked forward to leaving home.

TIME: And how did you take to London?
At first I didn't like it at all, I think because the two years in Italy were fabulous. The university in London was bigger, with about 2,000 students, and not exactly what I was expecting. I remember on the third day waking up and thinking, 'God, I've got years of this.'"

TIME: You were 17. How romantic a place did you find Italy?
Well, I didn't go to a very romantic place. It was in Trieste. In fact, that's probably the most unromantic place in all of Italy. Almost more Austrian, than Italian, but the village we were in was very tiny, very quaint. I might be heading back for a reunion later on this year. The place itself was right on the Adriatic Sea and my room used to be part of a castle. There was a little prince and family living next door and my room was right on a cliff overlooking the sea. I was there for two years.

TIME: I've heard that you plan to release an English-language album. Do you feel confined by Hong Kong Canto-pop music?
Sometimes, yes. It's just a vicious cycle. The record companies churn out the same thing because people are used to that. They're certainly not used to churning out innovative music because they're not willing to take the risk. So it's probably going to remain the same way for the next 50 years.

TIME: What will be on the English album--Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries? I know people here say you and Alanis look pretty similar?
Probably something similar to what George Michael recently put out: some cover versions, but very different from the originals. I'd like to do some standard jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald songs. I saw her once at the Royal Albert Hall when I was studying in London. She was about 80-something I think and had to sit all the way through. She sung pretty badly.

TIME: That's strange. I saw Frank Sinatra in the Royal Albert Hall around 1985 and he had to sing his words from an auto cue.
No way?

TIME: Yeah, I never thought I'd see Frank Sinatra doing his own stuff karaoke-style. He was terrible and kept forgetting the words even with the auto cue. It was all very sad. Anyway, what is your following in Hong Kong, men or women?
I honestly wouldn't know. I think I have a lot of men, you know, New Age guys. Not because I'm sexy and good-looking.

TIME: Oh come on, don't be so modest Karen, you're obviously both of those things.
Well, maybe I'm that too, but I think the guys tend to like the comedies I've done.

TIME: Tell me Karen, Hong Kong guys don't seem too crazy about many local actresses. They prefer Japanese actresses I think?
Yeah. That's because they've got big boobs.

TIME: But you're a very attractive lady, big boobs or not.
There's a saying people have in Hong Kong, 'local ginger isn't hot or spicy enough.' Hong Kong people always like things that are not homegrown.

TIME: Why aren't you a bigger draw? You've got a cult following, but do you wonder sometimes why you're not even more popular?
I don't think I've reached my prime yet. I'm pretty happy with what I've done, but the best is yet to come.

TIME: When does your prime start?
Right now.

TIME: Do you like Hong Kong?

TIME: Why are you still here?
I'm only here because of the work. When that finishes I'll leave.

TIME: When will that be?
Maybe five years. But then, the day Disney moves to Hong Kong is the day I get out. I mean, the thought of Mickey Mouse pestering me outside my house or coming near me. Oh God, no thanks!

TIME: Would you ask a famous person for their autograph?
A couple of my friends bumped into (Robert) De Niro in New York, but they didn't dare go up and ask for his autograph. I probably would have.

TIME: Whose autographs have you got?
Sakamoto (musician, actor and award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto). I saw him outside the gents in The Park Hyatt in Tokyo. And when I was a kid I also asked for Robert Lee's autograph, Bruce Lee's brother, but he's out of the picture now.

TIME: Raymond Chow (a Chinese film executive) tells me Cecelia Cheung is the new 'it' girl. Is he right?
Looks like it, yeah. We worked together on her first movie King Of Comedy and then everybody just latched on. Once they discover a young, new person with potential, they use it and squeeze the lemon until the pips pop out. It happens with both male and female actors. If you want to make a quick buck that's fine.

TIME: Did you like her in Fly Me To Polaris? That came out at the same time as your movie Tempting Heart?
She was good, but I wasn't crazy about the movie.

TIME: You didn't cry?
No. I felt the story was a little far-fetched and I don't always like movies that directly appeal to you in that way. It's like they're forcing you to cry, no matter how outlandish the plot.

TIME: Are you still appealing to Hong Kong audiences?
I've never considered myself run of the mill. Nobody ever considered me run of the mill. I think a lot of people here think I'm not really one of them. I took off very slowly, so to speak, which I consider a good thing. I think that's the reason I have lasted so long, well it seems pretty long. I've never really had a specific plan for my career, but the path I took was the right one for me. I'd hate to have been hip for two years and then forgotten. That's not what I want from being in showbiz. I want to enjoy it possibly for a few more years and as I said, my prime is yet to come.

TIME: But we'll never see a 65-year-old Karen Mok singing from an auto cue in The Albert Hall?
God no! That would be too cruel. Cruel for me and the fans.

TIME: Do you get depressed in this 'chew-up, spit-out' marketplace?
Not so much, but I do get bored very easily. For the past few years I've been doing nonstop records in Taiwan and I've just released my fourth Mandarin album and thought to myself, 'this is becoming too much like routine.' That's dangerous. But it's great that I'm doing the film in China, then later on this year I'll be staging my tour in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and I hope to do Japan as well. Possibly a few spots in China too.

TIME: How is performing. Do you still get nervous?
Yes. I still get butterflies. I don't get them to the extent of feeling sick. But the adrenaline pumps up and down and that's the great thing about performing.

TIME: Do you find performing very sensual?
It should be sensual. I think the audience should be so enraptured by your presence on stage and they should have fantasies about whatever, not necessarily about you. But you should bring them to some state of arousal.

TIME: You don't write your own songs do you?
No. I haven't recorded any. I have written a few songs but the stuff I write is not terribly suited to singing in Chinese, so on the English album I'll have a couple of songs of my own.

TIME: Are you a very forceful character, do you give people a hard time?
No, I'm not a bitch. Sometimes I get very worked up about things I strongly believe in. I think I'm learning to control myself.

TIME: What things do you care about?
How the album should be packaged, how I'm being presented, or the words in a song. Sometimes it's better if you're working with someone creative, then you get a positive frisson.

TIME: You're far from the stereotypical Hong Kong lady. Do you shop and stuff?
Not really, no. I get sponsored and stuff. I'm very good. I always wear what they give me.

TIME: Are you a Vivienne Tam girl, Kookie girl, or flea market grunge babe?
I was flea market at some point. I'm not that bothered what people wear. The limelight should be on you, not the clothes you wear. I've got a good friend, Johanna Ho, who is a designer. I'm a great fan of hers. She calls me her muse. We get inspiration off one another. I started modeling for her way back in England. She's designed clothes specifically for me.

TIME: Do you have any interest in stocks, shares, Richard Li or Pacific Century CyberWorks?
No, no, no. I'm not very good with money. I was never good at math. I leave it all to my mum. I don't gamble either. Never have any luck that way.

TIME: Have you backpacked?
Yeah, in Europe. We slept on trains. I don't think we'd do that again. I did a few dangerous things like sleeping on platforms when we couldn't find a youth hostel or if they were full. We weren't willing to spend any money at all and we'd be sleeping next to very strange people. It's something I think everyone should do at some point in their lives. It's a challenge.

TIME: I agree. So where would you like to live, if not Hong Kong?
Well, my ideal is to retire to somewhere like France and Italy and have a vineyard, and some cats and dogs.

TIME: Can I come?

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