SCMP Tuesday, June 19, 2001


Roles of Fat

VIVIENNE CHOW

Two expensive cars brake outside a warehouse in a rundown industrial area in Kwun Tong. The doors open. A slender, feminine leg emerges from one car.
She's here at last. The slim woman with sunglasses is Canto-pop queen Sammi Cheng Sau-man. Then the super-fit Canto-pop king Andy Lau Tak-wah gets out of the other car. They enter a nondescript industrial building, discreetly followed by their assistants, afraid of stirring up the ubiquitous paparazzi.
Almost an hour passes. Finally, people start to reappear. The assistants lead the way, followed by two enormously fat people. The man weighs about 130kg while the woman appears to be about 120kg. They sport heavy jowls and double chins. Rolls of fat hang around their necks and spare tyres encircle their waists. Their arms and legs are so bloated they look like they're about to burst. But where are Lau and Cheng?
These obese people surely can't be them. Lau normally weighs in at a trim 68kg while Cheng, a shade taller than 1.65 metres, tips the scales at 50kg. But the man's nose resembles Lau's, known for its hooked shape.
Thanks to the magic of make-up and padding, the weight of the two stars is almost doubled for their latest movie, Love On A Diet. In the film, Cheng and Lau have to lose weight to please their lovers, trying diets, exercise and even acupuncture to reach their goals.
Loading slim actors with padding is not new and follows the lead of Hollywood hits such as Big Momma's House and The Nutty Professor. But the film's director, Johnny To Kei-fung, says he had the idea three years ago. ''Weight loss is a hot topic among Hong Kong people. Considering the huge amount of dieting products that are sold and the popularity of gyms, it seems that people's confidence and self-esteem are increasingly based on the shape of their bodies.''
His decision to put Lau and Cheng together was based on their on-screen chemistry and box-office pulling power. Lau and Cheng have worked together previously with To on Needing You.
To and his crew inspected the work of Hollywood special effects make-up companies before choosing XFX, which worked on Charlie's Angels, Amistad and Species 2.
James Rohland and Scott Wheeler are the special effects make-up artists assigned by XFX. Rohland is responsible for Lau while Wheeler takes care of Cheng.
Rohland and Wheeler joined the crew in April, immediately after finishing work on the Star Trek TV series. ''We have spent US$1 million [HK$7.8 million] just on the make-up and costumes,'' To says. The total budget for the film is US$3.8 million, at least six times the average cost of a local production. The old warehouse is their temporary office, and Lau and Cheng spend two hours here putting on weight before each shoot. ''All the equipment is shipped from the United States,'' says Rohland, indicating the 13 boxes of make-up, tools and rubber parts.
The first thing they need to do is make moulds to exactly match the stars' features. From there they create custom-made costumes or ''appliances'' from foam rubber and silicon.
Asked how he knows what the stars would look like if they got fat, Rohland says imagination is the key. ''This is just how a person might look if he keeps eating chips and pizzas for six months,'' he says.
Rohland and Wheeler are in charge of faces while the bodies are handled by the costume designer. The fat suit is a soft, thick jacket filled with cotton and beans. There are also fleshy limbs made of silicon, again derived from moulds of Lau and Cheng. Lubricant is spread on their arms and legs and body parts are pulled on like gloves.
Skin-coloured foam rubber covers the face, chin, neck and part of the chest and shoulders. The initial step for stars to gain 45kg in appearance is to pull the 14kg fat suit over their heads, like wearing a pullover. Lau and Cheng then have to sit completely still throughout the body make-up process.
''This is the most challenging,'' Cheng says. ''I was worried about the future shooting because I had to sit still for five hours the first time I tried the make-up. I cried because of the emotional pain.''
Lau says: ''I felt that I had become another person. It felt so weird but funny. The fat suit was extremely heavy and my body felt like it was wrapped in an incredibly thick duvet.''
Cheng hopes she can portray a better image of fat people through this film. ''Just because somebody is fat doesn't mean they're unpopular or ugly,'' she says.
When Lau and Cheng are ready, Rohland and Wheeler display their expertise. They use medical adhesive silicon specially made for the skin to fix the fat pads to their faces.
''I had an allegic reaction to the glue after we did the first trial,'' says Cheng. The same happened to Lau. ''My skin is allergic to the make-up and has become very dry,'' he says.
But the more often they do it the quicker they become and, since the first eight-hour session, Rohland has it down to two hours. Bored Cheng cannot do anything but sit straight. She occasionally chats with the crew and jokes around, but mostly she remains silent.
''Both Cheng and Lau are very nice people and easy to work with,'' says Rohland. ''They help us work efficiently.'' After fitting the chubby foam cheeks, the next step is colouring. Before coating their faces with special foundation, Rohland and Wheeler apply a colourless face powder with a sponge. The Hollywood make-up artists then use an air-compresser to spray colours on.
''First we need to put on some Vaseline,'' Rohland explains while working. ''I am going to apply it on their eyebrows and under their eyes, so that we can just wipe it off if we accidentally get colours on those areas.''
The final stage of the ''handsome fat-man face'' is the hair. Because the rubber covers the back of the neck, they need to attach bits of wig to it.
Cheng says that it is the toughest film she has made and cautions the audience to treat it purely as comedy. Lau says he will never forget the time-consuming make-up process. For him, the most challenging aspect is moving about while wearing 14kg of padding. Cheng adds: ''I really cannot imagine myself being this fat. I wouldn't let it happen.''
Love On A Diet opens on Thursday at AMC Festival Walk and on the Broadway GV and UA circuits
Email Vivienne Chow at
vivchow@scmp.com .