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Exploration of the Self

Sin Lok-yan of School of Drama and Smile Pang of School of Film and Television

30 Sep 2021

Sin Lok-yan was a financial programme presenter, while Smile Pang Ka-ho worked as a multimedia producer. Now both are students of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, with Sin pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Drama, and Smile working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Film and Television.


Back when they were fresh graduates, both were confused about their purpose in life. They tried to search for direction in the workplace. Then one day, they decided to follow their hearts. They determined to take a leap of faith by enrolling at the Academy, hoping to rediscover themselves through learning and campus life. Sometimes taking a step back opens up multiple routes to success.


Sin undertook the two-year Professional Physical Theatre Youth Training Programme at the Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio while she was studying at Hong Kong Baptist University.  After graduating, she hosted a show on financial news while continuing with her theatre course at the weekend. Her schedule was hectic, especially before a performance.


"When you have a lot on your plate, you realise what you really enjoy," Sin says. "Even when I was exhausted after work, I would blissfully go to rehearsals every single day. No matter how depleted I felt, I desired to give my all."


Sin never experienced much of a struggle between life, with all its practical demands, and her dream. "We are young only once. We should do what we love," she urges. To live life with no regrets, she sent an application to the School of Drama of the Academy.


Every year, the School of Drama receives several hundred applications. It accepts only around 20 candidates. As someone who got in on her first attempt, Sin thanks her lucky stars, and encourages students with similar interests to try. "If you really want something, be brave to try," she says. "Even if you have doubts about this path, step up and give it a shot. Four years is a long time and you'll find your answers here eventually."


Pure of Heart


With Sin changing her pathway from a career in journalism as a programme presenter back to school as a full-time drama student, her parents were understandably concerned. But after two years of proving herself, Sin saw the reservations of her parents melt away, and they became very supportive. "I invite my family to my performances so they can witness my growth," she says. "My parents are reserved by nature, but their joy is palpable. They are proud to see me on stage."


The Academy's programmes are known for two things: comprehensive training and abundant performance opportunities. Sin quips that she is busier attending lectures than she ever was working; she has to learn singing, dancing, physical action, script analysis, theatrical skills, among a plethora of things. The School stages four large-scale productions every year, in addition to experimental-theatre creations and workshops. Through repeat practice and application, students can grasp the essence of whatever they are learning by performing.


"I always thought that drama is about the acquisition of acting skills," Sin says. "In the end, I realise it's a process of reduction. No matter how consummate your technique, you have to project yourself completely into the performance, and not just show off the skills you've mastered through rehearsals. To move the audience, your own heart needs to be throbbing."


Sin is only halfway through her four-year undergraduate studies, she does not harbour preconceptions about her career prospects. She only hopes to "not forget why I chose this path in the first place," she says.


Sin sees Chan Suk-yi, the Head of Actor's Training of the School of Drama, as a role model. He once stated in an interview that he hopes theatre education will let students understand that, even if they stop acting one day, they will find their bearings in life, and discover their real selves, that they will learn to get along with the world and choose to live life to the fullest by feeling deeply.


"We don't know how society and the profession will look after two years," Sin says. "We can only keep our hearts pure, and tell the stories we want to tell.  Anyone can be a performer, anywhere a stage."


Growth Amid Chaos


Smile Pang, a screenwriting major in the School of Film and Television, admits that he was disoriented personally and professionally before enrolling at the Academy.


"After graduating from secondary school, I studied for a higher diploma in multimedia design," he explains. "Then I joined a startup where I made videos for two years. I had no motivation or direction in that job. I felt it was time to return to campus and start learning again."


The Academy's Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) in Film and Television is a four-year programme. Smile recalls being asked in the admission interview whether he was willing to "put ego aside and learn afresh." The words "learn afresh" hit the bull's-eye. He vowed to change his attitude to learning. "Throughout secondary school, I only read one book, but after entering the Academy, I have been proactively buying reference books and actually sitting down to read them," he notes.


Smile's family is supportive of his decision, which has deepened his father-son bond. "One time, after getting home from my film-history class, I mentioned the actress Grace Chang to my dad. To my surprise, he's a movie buff, and one who knows much more about early film history than me."


Power of the Image


Film and television productions are application-centred, and emphasise team work. In the first and second years at the Academy, students do shooting assignments in groups. In the third year, they move on to larger productions. Then in the final year, they complete their graduation projects.


Smile's Year 2 assignment saw him working for six months on his documentary about an ailing mother and her son, a movie that harbours personal confessions from Smile himself.


"There was a period in my childhood when my mother was ill," he says. "While I knew she was unwell, I didn't have strong feelings about it. When I got the chance to make this documentary, I felt I could re-live that experience again."


That said, self-projection had to be measured because the documentary was the story of other people. "I couldn't dump my feelings on the work," he concedes. "Whatever I wanted to express would come out naturally during the storytelling. I appear as a third person in the protagonist's life, and we interact. Journeying together was fascinating. Shooting every section of the documentary was a process of re-acquaintance with myself."


Smile is excelling in his studies, how does he overcome academic challenges? 


"The assignments are very difficult," he says after pondering the point. "But that's how they should be, right? It's when you find the work difficult that you give your best. The easier the assignments, the more you're likely to be careless."


He is grateful that his teachers of the School of Film and Television take the time to gain some understanding of each student. The instructors also strive to inspire at all times.


"The teachers are extremely perceptive," Smile says. "Rather than stating the obvious, they analyse the way we handle matters from day to day, allowing us to adjust our learning approach and speed. They enlighten us all the time. Sometimes we may think we have considered all facets of a problem, but after discussing with a teacher, we realise there's room to go deeper. Similar situations have happened time and again over the last two years."


Every year, the School of Film and Television selects a few student films for public screening. Smile's documentary made the selection this year, giving him his first taste of the power of the image.


"Film comes from life," he says. "I've always hoped that my images would strike a chord with viewers. During the premiere, I was surprised to hear the audience laugh. They also asked me a lot of questions after the screening. I could really feel the power of film. It was empowering."


The article was published in the October 2021 issue of Academy NewsClick here to read the original story.)


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