Set in 1930s Shanghai, the HBO Asia Original series “Miss S” (旗袍美探) stars award-winning actress Ma Yili (马伊琍) as the eponymous protagonist known as Su Wenli (苏雯丽), a beautiful and witty socialite who forms an unlikely crime-solving duo with the righteous and serious inspector Luo Qiuheng (罗秋恒) played by Vengo Gao Weiguang (高伟光).
Despite their opposing personalities, they manage to crack numerous cases together and share an undeniable chemistry. But the mysterious disappearance of Su Wenli’s younger sister a decade ago continues to haunt her and she will not rest until she finds the truth.
In this exclusive interview, the 44-year-old entertainer delves deep into her leading role as Su Wenli, the comparisons between her and her character, her co-stars, fashion choices, and so much more.
1. On The Role of Su Wenli
Q: What attracted you to the role? Have you ever tried a role like Su Wenli?
A: I was so intrigued by the character Su Wenli, I fell in love with the script. I’ve never tried a role like this, that’s why I was attracted to it. Su Wenli is a happy, easy-going woman who exudes positivity. She isn’t perfect. At times, she uses emotional reasoning when solving crimes. She’s a very real person, that’s what I really like about her.
Q: You play a coquettish detective, who has a love for form-fitting qipaos. How do you differ from your character? How did you prepare for the role?
A: This character is an ideal woman in my heart. She’s easygoing, genuine and brave. Some of her character traits are similar to mine — her humour and steadfastness in achieving her goals. But I’m not as brave as her.
I didn’t do much to prepare for this role because I had two years to digest the script. During the two years, I fleshed out the character in my mind and visualised her multiple times. By the time filming started, I was very certain how I would portray the character.
Q: You had a number of action scenes, from dancing to chasing after the villains with a gun. Which scenes were a challenge?
A: The dance scene, we improvised on the spot. We had multiple takes, so it was tiring. The original script had more action scenes, but I suggested to the director that we remove them. Because I felt that Miss S shouldn’t be perfect. To make her real, she can’t be good at everything. If not, why would she need Detective Luo’s help? She’s in charge of the fun. Detective Luo is in charge of protecting her.
Q: What was your biggest challenge during filming?
A: I almost couldn’t finish reading the crime-solving script because it scared me. When I read scripts, I imagine the scenarios in my head. I had to muster my courage to finish reading the script. It took me a long time. That was my biggest challenge.
Q: How did you manage to go through the entire script?
A: I had no choice. I have to act, so I had to force myself to finish reading the script. I tried not to think about the corpses, how the victims died, and the frightening scenes. The scenarios aren’t that scary, but I could picture them vividly in my mind.
Q: You’ve portrayed strong female characters, such as in the dramas “The First Half of My Life” and “Swan Dive For Love”. Su Wenli is a woman, who uses her feminine charms to get her way. How do you think Su Wenli compares to the strong woman roles you’ve played in the past?
A: The biggest difference is that Su Wenli knows when to feign weakness or flirt playfully to get her way. She knows how to use her womanly charms to achieve her goal. I find this trait of hers adorable, it shows that she’s herself. In real life, I’m not a tease. So it’s pretty thrilling playing her.
Q: Your character Su Wenli returned to Shanghai after spending some time in Paris. Did you do any research on these overseas-based Shanghainese who returned to their hometown?
A: I’m a true Shanghai native, I was born and bred there. Since I became an actress, I craved to play the role of a lady living in the 1930s Shanghai. By far, this is my favourite portrayal of such a character. I didn’t have to do much research because Shanghai was where I spent a large portion of my life. I grew up with a plethora of media content from the 1930s – movies, women’s literature and news reports. The literary culture and artistry hold a special place in my heart.
Q: There are comments that say your acting was over-the-top in “Miss S”. What do you have to say?
A: I chose to portray my role in a dramatic fashion. To me, my character is magical and ideal. The Shanghai of the 1930s was known as the Paris of the East. It was a magical era. The people of that time spoke, acted and dressed in a formal manner. That’s why I had to act in dramatic fashion. It’s not your typical detective show.
2. Ma Yili vs Su Wenli
Q: Su Wenli is extremely calm when solving a crime. What would you do if you were in her shoes?
A: I’m timid. I became scared while reading the script and found it hard to continue reading on as I visualised the scenario vividly in my head. I rarely take on such genres. Luckily the romance between Detective Luo and Miss Su took up a significant part of the plot. I’m afraid of suspenseful thrillers.
Q: What are the similarities and differences between you and your character, Su Wenli?
A: I’m not good at flirting. Su Wenli is a natural at using her feminine charms on people. She knows when to apologise. She’s good at reading situations and acting accordingly. I’m a little more rigid. I’m not as smooth and slick.
Q: Which traits of Su Wenli did you wish you had?
A: Su Wenli handles matters with ease. She is rarely affected by her emotions. She’s a woman with a strong heart. I wish I could be like her.
Q: If Ma Yili could have a conversation with Su Wenli, what’s the one sentence you’d say to her?
A: I would say: “Su Wenli, what do you have to say to Ma Yili?”
3. On 1930s Shanghai
Q: Miss S is from Shanghai, you are a native of Shanghai. What are the qualities of an ideal Shanghainese woman?
A: People have the impression that Shanghainese women are coquettish. But there’s a line which we toe. If it’s too much, it’s an overkill. If it’s too little, it isn’t enough. It’s all about balance.
Since young, we’ve been educated to be independent women. Women’s status in society is equal to that of men — be it at work or at home. I’m really glad that I live in a society where men and women are regarded as equals.
4. On Co-Stars and Cameos
Q: Did anything fun happen on set with your co-star Vengo Gao?
A: When we started filming, Vengo was shy and nervous. But within a few days, he warmed up quickly. A lot of the scenes between us were improvised, we ad-libbed a lot. It was loads of fun. There were many times when we laughed so hard, we couldn’t continue acting and had many outtakes.
Q: It’s the first time you’re playing lovers with actor Vengo Gao. What was your most memorable scene between the on-screen lovers?
A: There was this particular ad-libbed scene. My character sprained her ankle. Vengo carried me and placed me on a cabinet. He asked how I entered this room, and I replied: “I flew in through the window, like a hardworking bee.” When we were about to leave, I asked him to carry me. He quipped: “Aren’t you a bee? Why don’t you fly out?”
That was when I felt that he had truly settled into the role. Our on-screen chemistry flourished, filming went smoothly.
Q: How was it like working with the male lead, actor Vengo Gao? Have you worked together before? Off-screen, did you discover an interesting side to him?
A: This is our maiden collaboration. During the first few days, he was a little nervous because we didn’t really know each other. My initial impression of him is that he’s a man of few words. But after we became more familiar with each other, I realised that he is really fun to hang out with! He’s hilarious, genuine and kind.
During filming, we had a lot of ad-libs in order to portray a mature romantic relationship. It’s very different from puppy love. You need two mature, stable individuals to play our characters. Vengo excelled in the role.
Q: Out of over 100 cameos, which actor left an impression on you? Is there an actor who you’d wish to work with again?
A: There were a lot of great actors on the show. There were so many, I can’t name one. It was such a great opportunity to work with so many actors. I really respect them even though they didn’t have many scenes. If there’s a sequel, I hope all of them can return to the set.
If I had to name one cameo, it’d be Yu Xinhe, who plays Ru Yue, the daughter in the train murder mystery case. Her acting was very natural.
5. On the Fashion
Q: Did you diet or exercise to fit into the form-fitting qipaos?
A: I didn’t. I’m someone who has a high metabolism. I get hungry easily. During the filming last year, I happened to be at my slimmest at about 42kg. There isn’t an ideal body shape, as long as you think you’re beautiful that’s what is important.
Q: The show is set in the 1930s. Why do you love the outfits from that era?
A: I love qipaos, not the modified modern qipaos with western influences. I love the traditional qipaos. When we were tailoring, I wanted the qipaos to be as traditional as possible. For instance, I insisted on grown-on sleeves, with no shoulder seams. Grown-on sleeves can show off a woman’s charm.
I’m in love with the 1930s era. I’ve watched dramas and movies set in the 1930s, but none of the Shanghai lady characters fits the image I have in my heart. I want to show audiences how a true-blue Shanghai native portrays a Shanghai lady from the 1930s.
Q: Did you count how many outfit changes you had throughout the show? Out of all the outfits, which were the pieces you loved or hated?
A: I couldn’t keep track because the costume department was constantly making new outfits throughout the filming. I liked every outfit because each was unique. The production team let me pick outfits to bring home, and I chose three pieces. I regret not bringing them all home.
Q: Which are the three outfits you took home?
A: I kept three qipaos — a red sleeveless piece, a green one with transparent lace at the back, and a black lace piece embellished with pearls.
Q You wear many qipaos in this show. In the movie “In The Mood for Love”, Maggie Cheung is remembered for her iconic qipaos. How would you compare the two of you?
A: I educate my daughter to not compare herself to others, but to only compete with herself. Similarly, I don’t wish to draw comparisons. Maggie Cheung is an awesome actress. She’s my senior.
Everyone has their unique characteristics. Be it an actress or any woman, she’ll exude a unique charm when donning a qipao.
6. On The Drama, “Miss S”
Q: What can audiences anticipate from this drama?
A: I’m confident this drama will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s an easy watch. We had lots of fun filming, and we hope audiences feel the same way. Female audiences can have fun imagining themselves as Su Wenli.
Our story is set in the 1930s in Shanghai. The magical city became known as the “Paris of the East”. It was a definitive era for Shanghai, what was in vogue then is still trendy today. I believe audiences would be curious about that period. The 1930s was a very modern era.
7. On The Pandemic
Q: With the pandemic, 2020 has been a gloomy year. For you, what are some bright spots this year?
A: I’ve been pretty happy during this pandemic. I can spend plenty of time at home with my children, doing housework. It has been a good break for me. I’m also really glad that I still can do what I love, acting. That’s really important to me.
Catch Ma Yili in “Miss S (旗袍美探)”, available on HBO GO via Astro or at https://www.hbogoasia.com/.