Ajoomma v Hunkle: Celebrity couple Hong Huifang and Zheng Geping rule S’pore’s silver screen
Veteran actress Hong Huifang’s much-hyped drama film Ajoomma is now showing in theatres.
One week later, her husband and fellow actor Zheng Geping’s action movie Deleted will hit cinemas too.
The local celebrity couple and Mediacorp artistes did not anticipate their movies launching in swift succession.
“It was a complete coincidence,” says Zheng, 58, at an interview with The Straits Times last week.
Hong, 61, adds: “It’s quite rare, no? A couple having separate movies released within a week of each other. But we’re not worried about competing with each other. The movies’ genres are so different and I believe the demographic that will watch our films will differ too. I just hope that when his movie premieres, he won’t knock me off the box-office charts.”
A long-time television star, Hong is a first-time leading lady on the big screen.
In Ajoomma, she plays a middle-aged Singaporean widow who takes a trip to South Korea on her own. Her performance has earned her a Golden Horse Award nomination for best actress and the film is also Singapore’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film in 2023.
Hong originally thought the role would be like her usual supporting parts – such as the mother of a lead character – and was shocked when she received a full script after a successful audition that centred entirely on her character, who is referred to in the movie only as Auntie.
“I thought I really have to do my best to play this part well since it’s so rare to have a leading role for a woman of my age. Honestly, if the reception to the film was bad, I would be so embarrassed that I might have stopped acting entirely and just go dark on social media,” she says.
In response, Zheng cheekily says: “Heng ah (Hokkien for ‘luckily’), you didn’t have to do that.”
Like Hong, Deleted is Zheng’s first leading role in a film. He is also executive producer and one of the creators of the film’s original story. He stars as a determined father who infiltrates a criminal syndicate in order to investigate his daughter’s kidnapping at the hands of human traffickers.
He says: “I love action movies, but looking at Singapore’s local film history, how many action films can you name? It’s hard to even think of one because it’s really expensive to shoot and you need a good team of directors, cameramen and action stars.
“So instead of waiting around, I decided to be proactive and make my own movie while I still can do stunts, before I’m walking around with a stick.”
Indeed, the former taekwondo instructor and resident “hunkle” of Singapore show business sustained bruises doing his own fight scenes alongside former Mediacorp star and wushu instructor Vincent Ng, 46. He also had to flaunt his sinewy physique.
Keeping in shape for that was no easy feat, especially diet-wise.
“It’s a lot of chicken breast and vegetables with no seasoning,” Zheng says. “No salt, too, because that gives you water retention.”
Hong chimes in: “I make the food for him. One time, he asked me to eat it with him and it was so bland-tasting that I added soya sauce for myself.”
When asked if she feels pressure to maintain her figure and looks because of her “hunkle” husband, she says: “No, not at all. Men his age like (Hollywood star) Tom Cruise look like this because a lot of roles still require them to. But for me, if I get plastic surgery or suddenly look very fit, then there may not be roles for me because I’m caught in the middle. You are neither young nor old enough. I want to play roles that are suited to my age now.”
The year 2022 has been a bountiful one for the couple after a long wait.
Both Deleted and Ajoomma faced long delays due to the pandemic, but are finally greeting the world now. The couple even attended Ajoomma’s world premiere together at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival in early October.
Speaking of their experience, Zheng says: “As someone from Singapore, I felt very proud when I heard the cheers that rang out as we stepped out of the car. They made us feel very welcomed.”
Hong adds: “The people there have such a deep respect and appreciation for film, television and the arts. They’re very supportive.”
They managed to catch a glimpse of stars such as Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai and South Korean actor Song Kang-ho at the festival, and shared drinks with Indian actor Anupam Tripathi, who played migrant worker Ali in the hit South Korean series Squid Game (2021).
But Hong’s favourite K-star of all time, Hyun Bin (Crash Landing On You, 2019 to 2020), did not attend.
“If she saw him, I think she would have fainted,” Zheng jests.
The couple – whose two children Tay Ying, 26, and Calvert Tay, 22, are also actors – credit their happy 30-year marriage to having individual space, being accepting of each other and sharing common conversation topics.
“We’re both very busy and having a bit of distance from each other actually helps to keep the spark alive. A lot of couples perhaps run out of things to say about a few years in, but for us, we always have something to talk about because we’re in the same industry,” Hong says.
Zheng adds: “And it is important to accept each other’s flaws. For example, she’s very forgetful. In Busan, after the red-carpet event, there was an afterparty. We mingled, went back to the hotel, washed up and were all ready for bed when she realised she left her handbag at the party. So I ran out and retrieved it for her.”
Both Zheng and Hong still have many career aspirations they want to tick off in middle age.
Zheng, who has executive produced several dramas for Mediacorp such as The Good Fight (2019) and I Want To Be A Towkay (2022), hopes for more collaboration with creators in the region.
“Singapore is a small market, but we occupy a unique place in the world. We’re multicultural and can interact with other cultures and countries. I do love the action and horror genres, and I hope I’ll have more of a chance to do that going forward,” he says.
As for Hong, Ajoomma has rejuvenated her passion for acting.
“During Covid-19, when we were all stuck at home and had a lot of time to think, I actually considered going into semi-retirement because I felt like there was no breakthrough in what I was doing. But after Ajoomma, I feel differently. I feel inspired to keep going.”
Ajoomma opens in cinemas on Oct 27, while Deleted opens on Nov 3.