Yek Keak
by Yek Keak

Michelle Chong, arguably Singapore's busiest showbiz personality, likes to be everything, such as director, writer, producer, ad infinitum, in her movies. Make that “showbiz personalities” in view of the many memorable characters – Lulu, Barberella, Leticia Bongnino – she has also created on the TV show, The Noose. However, for 2015's enjoyable family comedy, Our Sister Mambo, she took on a lighter load as she played the lead role, Mambo, one of four unmarried sisters who tries to get her other sisters hitched. Chong tells us about her state of, er, relative under-employment in the movie and how she's very excited that she finally has a channel on YouTube to throw in all her zany ideas.   

Our Sister Mambo

Tell us about your experience in making Our Sister Mambo. What was it like being part of an ensemble film?
Very fun because I felt like I was hanging out with like-minded people who love music and movies. All four of us playing the sisters – Ethel Yap, Oon Shun An, Joey Leong and I – were really like actual sisters just chatting with each other. The film had a good script inspired by a much-loved classic, Our Sister Hedy, and it was a film for Cathay's 80th anniversary. How could I say no to that?

What was it like having Moses Lim play your dad?
Strange, yet familiar, because I've always thought that Moses reminds me a lot of my own father. The way they talk and walk; especially the way they speak English. I've hosted shows where Moses has performed, but I've never really worked with him before.  

You were acting in a movie not scripted, directed or produced by you. In other words, you were not in charge of everything. Was that a relief or did you feel too free?
It was a luxury for me because for once, I didn't need to multitask. I didn't have to think about anything other than just playing my role. It felt very different and liberating because I could finally take a real break in between takes. But to tell you the truth, I generally don't like to be in front of the camera anymore.

Huh? Michelle Chong, who lit up the screen in Lulu The Movie, doesn't wish to act anymore?  
In a sense, yes. Because I prefer to be part of the creative process.That's why I left MediaCorp to tell my own stories. I like to create characters, come up with concepts, do the storytelling and see it come to fruition, ideally behind the camera instead of in front of it.    

Our Sister Mambo is more of a mainstream comedy. In The Noose, and Lulu The Movie, you seem a lot wackier, rebellious, even subversive by nature. Did you feel too restricted by the role?  
No, not restricted at all. Actually Mambo is quite a rebellious character. She's a lawyer wanting to do her own thing. Pretty much the story of my life too. I've always taken the road less travelled against my parents' wishes. I studied theatre. That was really unconventional at the time. I also left the TV station to start a new life making movies, which was something I'd never done before. So, in a lot of ways, I could relate to Mambo. She didn't seem so out of the norm for me.    

You play a sister who tries to get her other sisters hitched in the movie. Are you such a kaypoh (“busybody” in Hokkien) in real life?
No! Not at all! I try not to get involved in other people's love affairs or matters of the heart because I don't want to be blamed for anything in case it all goes wrong. I mean, love is such a big deal, right? It's a huge thing for a lifetime. Leave me out of it. I don't want to take responsibility for someone else's love life.

But on the set of your own films, you aren't just a busybody, you are a major control freak, right?
Yes. Very, very much. If I'm involved in the process, I really like to be absolutely involved, like a micro manager. I want to know everything and do everything. I have a problem trusting people. I worked with a very good team in Our Sister Mambo because I think they had a bigger budget than on my own films. It's nice to have everything organised and working smoothly when you have the resources to hire many people, especially the right ones. But for an independent filmmaker like myself, that set was a luxury. I pao kar liao (“do everything” in Hokkien) in my films – writer, producer, director, kopi lady, etc. But if Hollywood calls and wants to engage me to do something and just that thing, of course I'd be like “Sure why not?”   

Now that you have won the Best Director award at the Canada International Film Festival for Lulu The Movie, how has this inspired you?
Now that I know how much film festivals mean to Singaporeans, I'm very inspired to do a non-commercial arthouse film. Maybe my next movie will be Lulu: The True Story. Just kidding. But I'm game for a serious film. It's just that you really need to find time to do them. Plus it would be very hard to get sponsorship and investors. So it has to be a pet project where I take time off my usual money-making projects to do it. I'll do it. I promise.    

Do you think that the many kooky personas you have created in The Noose have typecast you, in that people expect you to make them laugh all the time? Has The Noose been a curse or a blessing? 
No, I'm very grateful for The Noose. It was a great platform for people to get to know me. They saw that I could be versatile when I did all those different characters. My first two movies – Already Famous (2011) and 3 Peas In A Pod (2013) – had nothing to do with anything Noose-y. This may surprise you but not everybody thinks of The Noose when they see me. You know, when I go for facials and the aunties ask what's my next project and I say Lulu, they're like, who's Lulu? Then when they see a photo of Lulu on my phone, they'll go, oh yah, actually, this scary curly hairstyle quite suits you.    

You can never sit still. What are you up to now?
Right now, I'm doing my own channel on YouTube called The Michelle Chong Channel. It's a great platform for me to feature all kinds of stuff and introduce funny new characters. I've got two now. One is a sort of RGS schoolgirl. She's the top girl in a top school, who teaches Singaporeans how to speak proper English in her segment called #OWAAT. The other character is a 1980s-style aerobics instructor in Venus Seow Fitness. She teaches Zumba, Masala Bhangra etc, in cheesy neon-coloured leotards stolen from Jane Fonda's workout days. Check them out! Even my dad is cooking on the show!

Venus Seow Fitness Ep 1

You are truly the Energiser Bunny of entertainment. Satisfied with everything so far?   
No. My big regret is that I'm a bit late into this YouTube game. I’m really kicking myself for not starting earlier. Those young kids on YouTube today have like about 600,000 subscribers and I have 3,000. I was pitching exactly this type of show back when I was on TV. But it wasn't easy to do that as an actor. Producers produce; writers write; actors act. You don't step out of those labels. But, hey, better late than never, right?

#OWAAT with Ying Wen Ep 1

Why not go the whole hog and unleash the hidden Michelle on YouTube? Like, make a weepie or a horror movie with Lulu in it?
Know what? I really wouldn't want to have anything to do with Lulu ever again. Because I'm sick of that wig. I’m sick of playing Lulu. Lulu needs to die. Ha ha.