Ex-TVB star Fala Chen making presence felt in Hollywood


Fala Chen is currently starring in Irma Vep as a Hong Kong actress who has been cast in a French television show to appeal to the Chinese market. Photo: Handout

A star of Hong Kong TVB shows such as acclaimed period drama No Regrets (2010), Fala Chen crossed over to Hollywood only a few years ago

But the 40-year-old actress' first American projects have made quite the splash.

There was Marvel's superhero blockbuster, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021), in which she played the hero's mother; and Emmy-nominated psychological thriller The Undoing (2020), which co-starred Oscar winner Nicole Kidman.

Now the China-born, Juilliard-trained actress – who was 14 when she and her family emigrated from Chengdu to Atlanta, Georgia – is in a new English-language drama, Irma Vep, French director Olivier Assayas' self-referential satire of show business.

Starring Alicia Vikander, Irma Vep has Chen playing Hong Kong actress Cynthia Keng, who has been cast in a French television show to appeal to the Chinese market.

Chen tells the press in a Zoom interview that, despite her success, she has occasionally wondered if she herself has been the token Asian, cast mainly for her ethnicity.

"I was very lucky when I started my acting career. It was in Hong Kong, so I never felt like I was 'the other' and I looked like everyone else on set," says the star, who also appeared in the TVB hits Steps (2007) and Moonlight Resonance (2008).

"But once I started (working elsewhere) and even during drama school in New York, I always had the feeling, like, 'Why did they cast me in this particular role?'"

Usually, she would get roles written as Asian, as opposed to those where the ethnicity is not specified.

"Which is fine – I am Asian, or Asian-American. But it does feel like there is still a limit to a lot of people's imaginations when it comes to what an actor is capable of beyond the colour of their skin," says the actress, who is married to French technology entrepreneur Emmanuel Straschnov, 39, and has a four-month-old daughter.

And she feels like that even now.

"Even though I just came out of an all-Asian-cast Marvel film, it sometimes feels like, after Shang-Chi, my agents are getting more calls about me playing an Asian character who speaks only Chinese or things like that. That's unfortunately still a work in progress in this industry."

The Irma Vep series – Assayas' remake of his cult film Irma Vep (1996) starring Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung – offers a commentary on that industry, which captures many such contradictions.

Chen says: "It's sometimes crazy and chaotic, but sometimes you feel like everything transcends the moment, and it's meaningful and touches your heart."

She sees her career in Hollywood not as separate from, but a continuation of, the one she began in Hong Kong in 2005, when she signed a contract with broadcaster TVB and hosted variety shows before landing her first acting roles.

"I didn't really want to start working in a different place (from Hong Kong) until after I graduated from drama school," she says.

But being accepted into a four-year master's programme at the prestigious Juilliard School – regarded as one of the world's leading performing arts institutions – brought her back to the United States from Hong Kong, and things took off from there.

Chen is grateful to find meaningful work regardless of where it is. "I feel like it's tough as an actor to work anywhere anyway, and every project is a brand new start and challenge.

"I'm ambitious in that I'm always looking for the next level, the next big project that I want to do, and that isn't limited to anywhere." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Irma Vep airs every Tuesday at 9am on HBO (Astro Ch 411). It is also available on HBO Go.

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