Living in the moment, for Michele Reis, is an unerring modus operandi. It’s how the former beauty queen-model-actress chooses to live her life – and how she chooses her roles of a lifetime.
Words JOEY WONG
Creative Direction and Styling ALVIN GOH
Photography REUBEN FOONG
Hair NICHOL YIP
Make-up Designer ALVIN GOH
Make-up PINKY KU
Photography Assistants THEODORIC WONG, KIT LAI AND MING YUEN
Styling Assistants RENUS WAN AND SUSANA YEW
A Moment with Michele
Michele Reis has never had much of a plan. That isn’t to say the once-ago actress is devoid of ambition; in fact, the opposite is demonstrably true. But Reis, who’s still, to this day, considered the loveliest of the ever-expanding cadre of Miss Hong Kong triumphants that have since come and gone, has always seen her impressive successes with a wide-eyed sense of unending wonderment.
But before Reis the philanthropist, Reis the designer, Reis the mother, the wife, the actress, the beauty queen, Reis was a student, who just so happened to be very beautiful. Scouts, she recalled, would often stop her and offer her parts for commercials, for catalogues. “At that time, I did some casting,” she reminisces, “and I always thought: ‘Is this my path? Should I be doing this?’ But then, I’ve always thought perhaps it’s not the right timing.”
The right timing came, as it often did, at the tail-end of high school when, for the first time in any young person’s life, a decision all their own must be made. And Michele Reis, armed with superb grades that could rival any serious university applicant, walked down Broadcast Drive just as they were handing out application forms for Miss Hong Kong hopefuls. It was serendipitous. “I just took the application form,” she says, “and I thought, OK, maybe I have nothing to lose. I can just try. They needed a sponsor, so I asked my sister.”
The rest is serviceable Hong Kong history. Michele Reis, already a media favourite before the final pageant, went on to win the Miss Hong Kong and Miss Chinese International pageants in 1988, the latter in its inaugural year. But winning the pageants wasn’t something the beauty queen necessarily held very close to her chest. “Then, I didn’t think it was a big deal if I didn’t win Miss Hong Kong,” she says, “and I guess I would have still gained something from the experience just by participating. Because I was still young, you know. I’m not afraid of losing. I could be a secretary; I could still study – there were a lot of things I could’ve still done.”
Earning the title of Miss Hong Kong at the Miss Hong Kong pageant holds a lot more than courtesy bragging rights and a pretty tiara-and- sceptre combo prize. A Miss Hong Kong title, in this city’s insular entertainment industry, has always meant a sure-fire ticket towards a lauded film-and-television career. Reis, who was crowned in the late ‘80s, arrived on the scene just as Hong Kong was plunging head-first in its golden age of cinema. And understandably, Reis’s maybe- secretarial, maybe-academic ambitions had to take a back seat: “Hollywood of the Far East”, as the industry was lovingly known then, beckons – and it’s beckoning incessantly.
“I’m really lucky,” she says expressively, a recurrent word she uses to describe so many of her achievements. “I didn’t have any acting skills, so to speak, but the roles kept coming. And I was so lucky to have received training from the directors I was able to work with. And to, basically, get paid to be trained by these directors!” These directors, which count titans like Wong Kar-wai, Hsiao-Hsien Hou and Tsui Hark, manoeuvred Reis from the beautiful, girl-next-door roles she was once heavily favoured for into the complex, dark, sometimes-misunderstood, sometimes-murderous femme-fatale types she’d later be beloved for.
But none of this came especially easy for Reis, who identifies quite heavily – to the chagrin of her public persona, which often typified her as “cold” – as an introvert. “It was very overwhelming, especially working with Wong Kar-wai and Tsui Hark,” she recalls.
Asked about her most memorable role, Michele Reis is especially proud of her performance in Flowers of Shanghai. “I had to work on my Shanghainese dialect,” she says, “and it’s a period film. On set, it felt more like an on-stage performance with just one take. We can move freely, do whatever it is we feel like doing. It’s just a totally different way of acting.
“Oh, and we smoked a lot,” she chuckles. “A lot of the directors that I worked with will try to prepare you psychologically, and they try to give you characters that are totally opposite to your personality. I’m still an introverted person, but when I’m in front of the camera, and when I get into character, it’s very, very liberating.”
Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels opens on a two-shot of Reis, foregrounded, in a strangely desaturated frame coloured only by the red of her lips, her nails, the cherry of her cigarette. “Are we still partners?” monotones Reis’s character, the nameless Agent to pop-star-co-star Leon Lai’s nameless Assassin, her hands quivering and, thus, betraying her emotional state, as she lifts a loose cigarette, a perpetual prop, to her face.
And so begins a dizzying narrative that sees Reis – whom the director has said to have chosen from his “first impressions of meeting” her, not having seen any of her previous performances – long, sob, pine and scream for the intimacy she so yearns for, for intimacy that escapes her until the very last shot of the film.
In an interview conducted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1995 following the screening of Fallen Angels, Wong pinpointed exactly why the film looks the way it does. “The last scene, which is in the noodle shop, was shot on the first day. It was supposed to be the first day because at the time I wanted to tell the story backwards. And so we went to that noodle shop – it’s so small, the only way you can use it to shoot is with a wide-angle lens – but I felt that a wide-angle lens was quite ordinary. So I asked my cameraman, ‘Do we have an extra-wide-angle?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We have a 6.8. But that will make your actress look terrible. I said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
The actress in question was, of course, Reis, who, while distorted in spades, looked nothing that can ever be remotely chronicled in the realm of terrible. This performance would then thrust the actress into stardom – she was nominated for Best Actress in the 1996 Golden Bauhinia Awards for her part – but Reis, for whom work and opportunities have always felt like chance encounters, is already eyeing her next role. And when Reis’s Fallen Angels character, weary after a day of rummaging through her Assassin’s rubbish just to feel a hit of connection, bemoans, “I’m a practical person. I know how to make myself happy,” it might almost be prophetic.
Unlike the majority of humanity, for whom “living in the moment” has always felt too onerous a task to attend to with any real commitment, Reis, who lives by a different beating drum, takes to staying present with seemingly no effort exerted whatsoever. And for a woman whose various titles – beauty queen, actress, model – are so often prefixed with “former”, existing in the present, with no plans for the future, seems to come preternaturally for Reis, who jumps from role to role to role without a backwards glance. For some, it would be sacrilegious to dwindle down a career at its peak, as the ingénue, as the fresh new face of a Wong Kar-wai feature, but for Reis, who did exactly that in favour of commitments more social and charitable, it made perfect sense. On to the next. Fallen Angels would continue to be Reis’s most popular performance in her filmography.
“Never say never,” she supposes, of a possible entertainment- industry comeback. “But I think there are different stages in life and, right now, I have different priorities that are things I enjoy more than acting. But I do miss acting sometimes.”
Reis has since been the face of beauty campaigns, designed watches and served as a co-creator for a new property in Malaysia named The M Tower. But her number-one priority, the one role that’s held tight with some longevity for the once-actress, wasn’t something Michele Reis originally had ambitions into becoming, despite her now-famous hyper-focus on the lifetime role she’s been dealt. (Not unlike her forever attitude towards becoming a model; becoming Miss Hong Kong; becoming an actress. Plans, again, were not Reis’s forte.)
Today, Jayden, Reis’s 11-year-old son, is a name that never leaves her lips for too long at a time. He came up as she muses over how she loves being challenged – “I’m not just preaching it. I like to learn new things. I’ve taken up boxing and Spanish; my son and I are learning together” – and again as our conversation delves into motherhood, what seemingly is her favourite, most dedicated role yet and, again, when her most recent project, the JMJ Children’s Charitable Foundation, is bought up in conversation.
“Actually, when we got married, we weren’t too sure whether we wanted to be parents or not,” Reis says, speaking, too, for her husband Julian Hui. “We’ve been so used to just being the two of us and being, I guess, selfish that way.
“But we decided we really wanted to try give it a try,” she continues, mentioning briefly her later-age pregnancy that made Jayden’s arrival an even greater blessing, “and if we do have a kid, then we’d feel very blessed. And if we don’t, that’s fine too. But we tried and then we were very, very lucky.”
Jayden has, quite understandably, become something of a North Star for Reis. It should come as no surprise, then, that her son’s birth inspired the foundation that takes after her name, her husband’s name and, of course, her son’s name. “At the very beginning, when I gave birth to Jayden, a lot of our friends were showering Jayden with gifts and red packets,” Reis admits, quite seriously, “and we were just thinking he’s very lucky and he doesn’t even know it. I thought it could be quite meaningful to donate and set up a charity for children of the underprivileged to have a better education. That’s why we set up JMJ Children’s Charitable Foundation.”
From setting up libraries, classrooms and learning centres in China to this past September’s A Million Dreams Charity Concert, in which stars such as Tyson Yoshi and Gin Lee performed at the Hong Kong Coliseum, JMJ Children’s Charitable Foundation was a cause borne out of a love for her son that’s already rippled into millions of dollars raised – 3 million, to be exact, for both Make-A-Wish and Josephine Siao’s End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation – so other people’s sons, daughters and loved ones can also hope to live a better tomorrow.
“There are a lot of kids who really want to perform in the Hong Kong Coliseum,” says Michele Reis, “but they don’t and may never have the chance to do that. That’s why we collaborated with Make-A-Wish Foundation to raise money, so that the children can be a part of this concert.”
And despite all the happiness that’s come from Reis’s unabating role-jumping, earlier this year, Lady Luck wasn’t much on her side when she was rushed into the hospital in the dead of the night, an impromptu heart surgery scarily becoming necessary – her heartbeat sprinting at 260 beats per minute, her kidneys failing, her liver failing. “It was really scary,” she says sombrely. “They couldn’t measure my blood pressure. Then they rushed me into the intensive care unit.”
To others, a terrifying health scare might’ve been an important lesson. To Reis, it just reaffirmed to her what she’s already known; reaffirmed to her the motto she’s already lived by as an 18-year-old girl with a written application for Miss Hong Kong in hand, with nothing to lose.
“I’ve always been the person who lives in the present,” she says, thinking back on the ordeal that she’s since, luckily, completely recovered from. “But I think that experience also made me feel like I have to live in the present even more. I try not to let the future bother me today. Because everything can change so quickly.”
These days, the roles Michele Reis is attentive to continue to be myriad. She’s working. She’s playing ping-pong with Jayden on Saturdays (“It’s become very competitive,” she says, laughing). She’s learning Spanish. She might start watching Andor, at my request, after she’s finished up Extraordinary Attorney Woo, which she’s enjoying profusely. She’s packing for Japan, her first trip in what seems like forever. (She didn’t have to plan a thing. Husband Julian has arranged the entire itinerary, from restaurant bookings to activities.) She wants to get into something called Gyrotonic training. She’s, all at once, a nameless Agent, clutched behind an almost-stranger speeding through one of Hong Kong’s many, many underground pass-ways – on to the next. She’s living. She’s living, now.