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Crystal Kwok- keeping it reel Print

Crystal Kwok, in jeans, flip-flops and a cotton hooded sweatshirt, is just another mother spotted in the Carmel School corridors, picking up and dropping off her children and attending school functions.

She doesn’t act like a movie star, beauty queen, talk show host, radio personality, renowned stage actress or award winning director, yet she is all of these.

Cystal Kwok

She lists her career accomplishment with modesty and almost embarrassment at her immeasurable success in a world that is so far from the life she has built for herself and her family. Crystal claims that, “substance doesn’t go a long way in this industry in Hong Kong.” Yet, she is proof that it does.

Crystal’s career began when as a University of California theater major, she won a beauty pageant. The prize was a trip to Hong Kong where she signed a contract with Golden Harvest films for a one year contract and was cast in her first film opposite Jackie Chan. She complained directly to him regarding the image of her character.  

Immediately he had an idea about her, that she was different from other young girls in film. With the assertion of individuality and her value system, she gained his respect and broke the mold. Furthermore, she made clear her growing desire to create and direct her own films.

This put her behind the camera, assistant directing and following Jackie Chan’s entourage in order to learn the production side of the business.

Her successful screen career did not end here, pairing her with industry giants and gaining her fame and recognition in the Hong Kong film industry. Commitments to her film contracts pushed her into the secret world of Hong Kong’s elite.

While looking the part, she never became part of that world. She states that she is just “not cut out to be the in the glamour world.” It is clear that to Crystal, performing in front of a camera is a comfort zone, yet pretending to be someone who she is not is quite another.

She describes a world of excess, pretence, mistresses, and illusion. A world that is “so fake, it is embarrassing.”

Nevertheless, this world wanted her to play her part. Her success landed her the role of an anchorwoman on a Hong Kong talk show. Once again she asserted her individuality and insisted in controlling her own work, something that she stresses is not done in the local entertainment industry.   

Despite the producer’s protests, she wore jeans and refused to conform to stereotypical roles. She pushed the limits of acceptability to new lengths and the show became a forum for all that is taboo in Asian culture. She opened up areas for discussion that people, especially women had been silent on. The local press could not get enough of her show for its raw honesty and boldness in presenting controversial topics.

Radio offered her an additional forum to make private topics public. She hoped that her ground breaking, sometimes censored interviews, would allow Hong Kong women to become comfortable with their bodies and be able to understand themselves in a “more healthy way”. She admonishes Hong Kong society for placing the sole worth of women based on these images and sum of parts.

When questioned as to the source of this strength of conviction and how she avoided getting caught up in the lifestyle of a movie star, she replies that she “never liked that stuff”. It all comes back to the “jeans issue” with her show. She understood at an early age that she could not compromise who she was to fit someone else’s image.

Crystal also wrote and directed her own film, The Mistress, which with her usual humility, she fails to mention won a People’s Choice Award at the Deauville Film Festival in France. The film is a peek into the world of a mistress and a strong social commentary. Once again, it is bold and daring in its presentation of sensitive topics, something unheard of for female directors.

During this time period, Crystal married Richard Wertheimer, a nice Jewish guy from Brooklyn.  Despite the overwhelming success of her show, she stepped out of the limelight immediately before the birth of her first son.

Prioritisation has been a driving force in her life. Now the mother of three, she has placed her children first and has found balance. She refuses to leave the rearing of her children to someone else. She relates that it is a constant juggling and admits that she has been “blessed with a lot of energy, but unfortunately,” she laughs, “so are my children.”

She insists on maintaining a low profile for her family. Her career and her family life “are entirely separate thing.” But are they?

She admits that her flexibility in terms of acting roles has changed and finds herself examining screen/ stage images from the viewpoint of a wife and a mother.

In her recent major stage play, she told the director that she was uncomfortable with a character and unable to take that role on.

She laughed as she revealed that she couldn’t perform the role and face her husband. Crystal’s behind the scenes work however gives her the freedom to continue to push limits in the manner that she is known for.

As for the future, the success of her recent stage play has beckoned for an encore. She would also love to write and direct a second feature film, but said that she is prevented to by her commitment to her role as a mother. Film production, she explains, requires extended periods of absence, sacrificing her family time. Crystal insists that to do so would “not be fair” to her children.

Once again, in her usual understated manner, she states that she can however direct a stage play and ‘simply’ write a scene a night when it would not interfere with her “most important job of all.” She already received rave reviews for a play she wrote and directed, The Fertility Goddess, a black comedy based on her own difficulties conceiving her second child.

She is also the joint creator of Culture Cubs, an innovative video aimed at teaching English-speaking children Mandarin. Production of a second video is planned.

Overall, she is driven by a love for creating an idea and watching it materialise. For an actress, director and talk show host that has been associated with very intimate and sometimes controversial roles and topics, she seems unconcerned that some people may associate her with her racier images and refuses to read the tabloids.

Crystal continues to make her mark, often from behind the scenes. She sees it as her role to make people more comfortable with themselves and to open up new channels for the discussion of sensitive topics.

She insists that in this image crazed world, to which she was given an entry card to the upper echelon, she just never cared what people thought of her. But it is clear that she does now and they are all waiting for her at home.