The 51st HK Arts Festival

Ling Man-lung plays Yat-sen Reflecting upheavals in his journey by Sun Yat-Sen's vulnerability

Text / Eugene Chan

"If each and every one of us holds onto our faith, we can forge our own path." This line, full of aspiration, was delivered by actor Ling Man-lung, in Cantonese, on the platform of the 27th Busan International Film Festival's Asia Contents Awards. The role of Ah Seun in In Geek we Trust won him the Rising Star Award at the fourth edition of the Asia Contents Awards. But behind the glory, he had been living through dark days, left without an income during the pandemic And what helped him through this downturn was landing the lead role of Sun Yat-sen in the musical Yat-Sun. What he sees in Sun Yat-sen is greater than just the will to persist, particularly the way he confronts his own vulnerability.

First time in the lead, twists and turns in and out of the play

In the musical, Ling sings solo as a lead actor for the first time. He recalls the first full rehearsal in September 2022, in which an actor claimed: "We finally did the first run-through of the musical!" "When other actors shouted 'Yeah', I could not bring myself to shout with them," says Ling, who paused in silence to find the right words. "I was a little emotional, having finally accomplished something." In and out of the theatre, the lives of Sun and Ling both experienced unexpected twists and turns.

Yat-sen chronicles a little-known side of the Sun Yat-sen story. During his time studying medicine at the University of Hong Kong, Sun planned a revolution alongside close companions such as Lu Haodong, and attempted to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Initial attempts all failed and his rivals left his side, all scattered. In a series of unfortunate events mirroring Sun's failures, Yat-sen was originally planned to be staged in early 2021. Yet, delayed by the government's COVID restrictions and the temporary closure performance venues, which brought rehearsals to a halt, the official premiere was delayed until early 2023.

Although unlike In Geek We Trust, in which Ling had to rap, taking the lead in the musically placed Ling under enormous pressure. "I have never been the best singer—I would say I'm passable, but to be in the lead role and command the stage… involves more than just hitting the right notes. It is about honing my skills, singing not only with emotions, but beautiful to the ears." To polish his singing ability, following the instructions of music director Peter Kam, Ling undergone rigorous training, taking vocal lessons from experts to strengthen his singing technique. Not only that, he has to dance, act, sing and perform in martial arts scenes simultaneously, putting his body under enormous strain. "I was out of breath after two run-throughs. Other actors, who saw that I had to immediately sing after a fighting scene, told me I was flushing all over. They were worried that I would die from ruptured blood vessels." However, after many practices and gym sessions, he managed to gain a better sense of physical control.

Describing Sun Yat-sen as an important historical figure, Ling admires the vigour and enormous vision of the founder of modern China, who took it upon himself to turn the tide in changing times. "He led and walked with the crowd on a long journey. Failing 10 times, only to make it on the 11th attempt—this is not an easy path to walk. And Sunny Chan set out to write about the very human side of Sun on the road of resistance, his inevitable fear of facing off against a great power." Ling notes that this part of Sun's story has rarely been portrayed in drama, therefore he relied on his power of imagination to get into Sun's character by drawing parallels from his own tough artistic journey.

Jobless in pandemic, staying tough for art

Ling's acting career spans more than a decade and was never a smooth ride. Many may know Ling's name from drama series and films, but perhaps not many know that his starting point was in theatre. After graduating from the School of Drama at Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2008, he joined the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and acted in countless plays. Then in 2018, his performance in the film Tomorrow is Another Day won him the award for Best New Performance at the Hong Kong Film Awards. After a decade with the Repertory Theatre, and seeing many industry peers leaving for studies or a new life, he decided to leave and explore other avenues as a freelancer. Not long after, with the onset of the pandemic, his acting career hit a standstill.

"For over six months, I lived on borrowed money...During that period [in 2020], I had zero income. Some of my peers found work, but there was nothing for me," says Ling, who is realistic about the reason behind this—a lack of followers on Instagram.

He encountered one frustration after the other. He tried to pitch and sell a script to investors, only to see it changed into something unrecognisable. "The things I wanted to achieve were unachievable; the chances I reached for never arrived. During this process, a lot of realities were made crystal clear to me, for example, the vision of an investor can be in stark contrast to mine. I am opinionated—I'd rather not do something if it's not my vision. It might be stubbornness—I think at least let me try to make at least 80 per cent of my piece a reality, and by then I will see whether it is the right or wrong thing to do."

In those dark days without work, Ling was fortunate enough to be invited by his teacher and seasoned theatre performer, multi-award winner Chan Suk-yi, to serve as an assistant teacher with his creative performance group, Radix Troupe. By listening to Chan's teaching and revisiting the learning process, Lin was recharged spiritually, and eventually spent more time working on scripts.

Time to hold on, time to let go

It was not until In Geek We Trust that he secured his first gig since the start of the pandemic. As a "tri-circle star" with acting experience in television, film and theatre, Ling laughs at the question of which medium is his favourite. He points out that a majority of actors internationally do the same, the difference being they don't label actors as such, unlike in Hong Kong. "Of course the acting skills differ, but the core remains the same. I am glad I tried all three… In fact I enjoy being in any positions in a theatre production, including script writing. Although the writing process might be painstaking, I was able to see through my weaknesses and fortes, and the ways in which I see things." To Ling, the magic of theatrical rehearsal is irreplaceable. "There is a unique beauty to a stage play. A bunch of people gather in groups and rehearse together for a few months. And then, they share that experience with the audience, in a certain space, on a certain day—this is unlike anything that happens on screen, be it big or small."

In the musical Yat-sen, Sun's age spans from 17 to 28, but Ling does not place any emphasis on Sun's age; instead, the focus is on the ups and downs of his revolutionary journey. "These M-shaped curves repeatedly appeared over time, yet he was always on an upward trend. All of the failures turned into the basis for his next success." And, at the very least, this story lifted him up.

When asked what he hoped the audience would learn from Yat-sen, Ling contemplated for a while in silence. "Men have persistence and pursuits, which provide the strength to rise up and be happy. However, we need not be afraid of losing the will to keep going, because we are human. In this world, there are countless ideas about moral codes, but humans can be positive or negative, and there is both a bright side and a dark side to humanity. Sun has a vulnerable side, for he is human too. If, at one point, you no longer wish to be in the chase, then let it go. Your happiness is the one thing that matters. Once you let go, something you've never thought of, what you should pursue, will follow. When you choose to hold on, you continue to walk that path, you are merely paying lip service to perseverance. Instead, see yourself for who you are, be honest with your weaknesses. At the end of the day, you choose your own way of living."

Yat-sen Musical

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/yat_sen

Yat-sen Musical was part of the 2021 Jockey Club Local Creative Talents Series