Award-winning actress Li Bingbing might not be a household name in North America, but in her native China she’s one of the country’s brightest stars. Best known there for her work the romantic comedy “Waiting Alone,” China’s 2008 bid for the Best Foreign Film Oscar “The Knot” and “The Forbidden Kingdom” starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, Bingbing made a splash Stateside this year in her English debut “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” based on the best-selling novel by Lisa See and directed by Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”). The Fox Searchlight release comes out on DVD/Blu-ray today and it’s our pick of the week.
The drama opens in modern day Shanghai where heroine Nina (Bingbing) is forced to reconsider the bond between her and her estranged friend Sophia (Gianna Jun). Using the same actresses, the film jumps back to the 19th century to follow the two girls’ ancestors navigating similar emotional terrain under different circumstances.
Bingbing answered some questions via Email from China about the film and her quick rise to fame in her home country.
So you originally had no intention to become an actress, correct?
Right, I started out as a music teacher; I never planned on becoming an actress. I got into the Shanghai Drama Institute because my parents, like all parents, want their children to have good grades and to go to a good college. I became a college student because of them. Of course, when I got there, I had no idea I would become an actress one day. I thought I was fulfilling my parents’ dream for me just by being there. Everything that happened afterwards was just a matter of time. I started shooting TV shows and eventually got into the film crowd. The whole time, I gave it everything I got. Slowly, I realized that being an actress actually suited me pretty well. Not only that, I’m actually pretty passionate about my work. When I think about it now, everything I did before was to prepare me for what I’m doing now – I just didn’t know it at the time.
Your feature film debut was no easy part for a newcomer. How did you acquit yourself on set?
My first time playing a main character was in “Seventeen Years.” It was directed by famous Sixth Generation director Zhang Yuan, but it wasn’t a large commercial film. Nevertheless, he won the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival and I, playing a main character for the first time, won Best Actress at the Singapore International Film Festival! Honestly, I think I was really silly then, I didn’t know anything about anything. Zhang Yuan sat me down in a street-side dumpling restaurant and asked me how I felt about the idea of “home.” Who knew he would use what I said to him that day in the movie! I told him something I’ll always remember.
There was one year when I couldn’t come home for the Chinese New Year celebrations because I was on set shooting a TV show. At that point in my career, shooting shows was purely to make enough to pay off my tuition. That year, my dad left a seat for me at the dinner table on the night of the big dinner. But when it came to toasting in the New Year, my dad thought of me and couldn’t go on. Instead, he left the table and went to go cry in the bathroom. Of course, he didn’t tell me this story – he’s usually got a heart of steel – my mother told me when I got home, it broke my heart. That year, my mother just had surgery and it cost what would be equivalent to today’s $5,000 US. On top of that, my parents only made about $60 a month and were trying to put me through college. It was so difficult on us all that we had two family meetings just to talk about it all. In the end, my dad said, in the Chinese tradition: “She’ll go to college, even if it means selling the iron from our pots and pans!” It really meant a lot to me.
Were you surprised by how quickly you garnered attention as a performer?
I’m not one of those actors that became famous overnight. So I guess it’s safe to say that the way I think about fame in general has gradually and naturally changed overtime.
You appear in two high profile films this year, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” and “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” two very different projects. What appealed to you about both films?
The first thing that attracted me to shooting “Detective Dee” was director Hark Tsui. There was one time, about four to five years ago, when he was in Beijing promoting “The Iron Triangle,” he said to me: “You have a special look; only a special part will do for you.” At the time, I thought, has he really been paying attention to my work, my growth, my progress? So I said to him, “Maybe you’ve had too much to drink, because we were all at having a meal, drinking some.” I clearly remember him responding: “Nope, not at all.” So I shot back, “Do you even know who I am?” He said, “Of course! Li Bingbing!” I said: “Have you seen any of my movies?” “Of course I’ve seen them! What are you getting at?” It sounded as though I doubted him. But actually, I didn’t doubt him. I was actually very moved that he could, from a director’s point of view, tell me what I could and should do in the future. Very few people are so frank with me.
Not long after, there was “Detective Dee” and there was Shangguan Jinger, the main character. I’m still very thankful for Tsui Hark’s kindness, especially over the course of the movie. I saw his love for Shangguan Jinger grow, as shooting went on. So, whether or not I had scenes to shoot that day, no matter what time it was, I would try to be there to sit by the monitor with him to watch and discuss the shots that day.
The same thing happened again while shooting “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” maybe because one of the producers was Wendi Deng. We started out not knowing each other at all. One day, out of the blue, when I was shooting a commercial in Taiwan, she called me up and said: “Hi, I’m Wendi Deng. I have a movie for you, would you like to be in it?” I immediately thought: “What? This is too sudden!” So I told her that she’d have to let me read the script first. So she replied “That’s fine, I’ll give you 15 minutes”. I thought, are you kidding me? If she called me 15 minutes later, I wouldn’t have finished reading the script anyways so what was the point of calling again? Fifteen minutes later, she really did call me. She said: “I really need you right now. If you agree, then come and we’ll start shooting. You’d really be helping me out. I have a crew of 200 people, all waiting to start. If you don’t accept this, we’d all be going back to the States.” I had never met anyone so direct! So frank! When I hung up the phone, all I could think was: what just happened? To get me to do the movie, she hunted me down in Hong Kong. Seeing her there really touched me. Before I knew it, I accepted. After reading the script, which turned out to be really interesting, I signed on immediately.
Did you take on “Snow Flower” with the intention to break into the English language film market? Do you want to make a name for yourself in North America and abroad?
Just as how I became an actress accidentally, I don’t have a specific plan for becoming a huge actress. I just think: let it be. Of course getting into the North American market or even the international market would be a good thing; it would mean a chance to play a wider range of characters and gather a larger audience.
To me, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” was a chance for me to express myself in a new sort of paradigm. During the process, I got to know a lot of people from the film industry: Wendi Deng, Florence Sloan, director Wayne Wang. In the past, China only exported martial arts films that were shot from the perspective of Chinese directors. But “Snow Flower” is a film that explores true love from a woman’s perspective. It’s a look at the East from a western perspective, and at the same time, takes into account the western taste. This change gave us actors a chance to explore our own identities.
Culture is a strong catalyst for the economy – the strongest evidence being that China’s box office earnings last year exceeded the billions! “Snow Flower” has been a starting force, coming into the Chinese market to get a taste of its potential and capacity. It’s unsure whether or not China will welcome a “Tang dynasty robe wearing foreign woman,” but from the looks of the current box office numbers, it’s definitely something that is delighting the audiences here. Yet, the Chinese film industry lacks a momentum. It seems like Fox and Wendi are exactly the driving forces it needs. They represent new international efforts, new ideas, and a new style. They’re so new, so energetic that it seems like we can’t just easily dampen their enthusiasm – they’re what will kindle the growth of China’s film industry. If we look at them with admiration and try to hold onto what they can give, we’ll capture an audience for the future. Dreamworks and Disney are both paying attention to Wendi and watching “Snow Flower.” I’ve heard of their plans to enter the Chinese market. As it stands, it doesn’t seem important anymore whether or not one person can enter the international market.
How did you get involved with the upcoming “1911,” starring and directed by Jackie Chan?
This year is a 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911 – the revolution that ended 2000 years of Chinese monarchy. “1911” narrates this part of our history. This was the first movie I’ve ever financially invested in, and ever produced. I also played Xu Zhonghan, the wife of main character, Huang Xin, played by Jackie Chan. This wasn’t my first time working with Jackie. Previously, we played sworn enemies in “The Forbidden Kingdom.” But in “1911,” we went from playing a false couple to playing devoted husband and wife. Jackie is very dedicated and has very high expectations; he cares meticulously about everything on set, no matter how what it is. Privately, he’s thoughtful and a real gentleman. Everyone who knows him calls him “big brother.” a respectful and adoring title. But sometimes, I actually think he forgives and protects his friends like a father and protects them like a mother.
What do you have planned next?
Right now, I’m still reading scripts. I hope to find a good one! I often hear actors say during their interviews: I want to play a crazy person, a murderer, or someone who’s on edge. But that question scares me. I mean, of course there are characters I’d like to play, but I can’t really say specifically who they are. It’s much too hard to play a convincing normal person as it is.
Also on DVD/Blu-ray
Remember the McDonald’s coffee case? How could you not! Susan Saladoff’s entertaining documentary reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck (the woman who spilled scalding hot coffee oh herself and sued McDonald’s) and demystifies why her case garnered so much media attention.
“The Last Mountain”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. plays a part in the film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The doc tracks the battle locals from West Virginia’s Coal River Valley wage against a mining giant, after Coal River Mountain comes under threat. Kennedy Jr. joins the fight in an effort to save the mountain.
Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” is a freewheeling portrait of Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s fabled road trip across America in the legendary Magic Bus. In 1964, Ken Kesey, the famed author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” set off on a legendary, LSD-fuelled cross-country road trip to the New York World’s Fair. He was joined by “The Merry Band of Pranksters,” a renegade group of counterculture truth-seekers, including Neal Cassady, the American icon immortalized in Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and the driver and painter of the psychedelic Magic Bus. Kesey and the Pranksters intended to make a documentary about their trip, shooting footage on 16MM, but the film was never finished and the footage has remained virtually unseen. With “Magic Trip” Gibney and Ellwood were given unprecedented access to this raw footage by the Kesey family.
Academy Award-winner Errol Morris has a firecracker in Joyce McKinney, the main subject of his insanely entertaining new film, “Tabloid.” In it we learn how McKinney became a media darling to rival Princess Diana in the U.K. Her tale is too good to spoil, which is why you must see this film.
And on VOD
This all-star thriller written and directed by David Hare (“The Hours”) stars Bill Nighy as a long-serving M15 officer whose boss dies suddenly, leaving behind a mysterious file that threatens the organization’s stability. Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis and Felicity Jones round out the cast.
Where to Watch: Various.
This stunning HBO doc from director Gemma Atwal concerns Budhia Singh, an Indian slum kid who at age three had already run six 13-mile-half-marathons. When the government discovers that Singh’s trainer is gearing the child up for 42-mile race, they get involved.
Where to Watch: It premieres Thursday, November 3 on HBO.