She has fronted languid arthouse films, become one of Chinese cinema’s most popular stars and even beaten Angelina Jolie to the title of ‘the world’s sexiest lips’. What more does Shu Qi want? The actress opens up about the modest ambitions for her ‘lucky’ career. Interview by Edmund Lee
If you’re a Best Actress nominee at the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards, an arthouse favourite who’s been a jury member for both Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals and a leading lady who’s regularly working with some of Chinese cinema’s greatest directors, how would you react when a journalist says he likes your latest film? “Yeeeeaaah!” exclaims Shu Qi goofily when I tell her exactly that, before adding: “That’s great!” And the scariest part of all? She really means it.
When we caught up for this early-March interview, the 35-year-old actress – ever adorably genuine in conversation – had yet to see her latest film, the Carol Lai-directed The Second Woman, hence her elation about my opinion on the film. In the psychological thriller, Shu plays a pair of twin sisters who may be switching identities at times, and who both happen to have an interest in acting – think two characters exponentially complicated by a web of imitation and artistic improvisation. It is, in other words, just what she needs as her latest acting challenge.
To start with, how many different characters did it feel like you were playing in The Second Woman?
When I was filming I treated myself as a seriously schizophrenic person: I had 12 personalities in my body. I brought out the elder sister when the director wanted to film that part of me and I brought out the younger sister when it’s her turn. Each of them were split into [the four emotions of] joy, anger, sadness and happiness – as well as the story-within-a-story aspect of the film. During that period, I was… how should I put it… close to a breakdown. I learned that schizophrenia isn’t much of an enjoyable experience. [Laughs]
Since your two characters often appear in the same shot, you must’ve been performing to an empty space in quite a number of scenes. What was that like?
It actually felt weirder when we were rehearsing the scenes because I would be looking at a stand-in or a green ball or a fist – I couldn’t help but feel like a mental patient on those occasions. When we were really filming, however, I wouldn’t see the ball – I would see the face of my elder sister or my younger sister then. I would react to what I’d done as my opponent [in earlier takes], or I would imagine what her reactions would be like. It’s all in my mind. I was acting with a person projected from inside my mind. It’s a little crazy. [Laughs]
Were you familiar with director Carol Lai before making this film? Have you seen any of her previous works?
I’ve seen The Floating Landscape (2003). There aren’t many female directors in our film industry nowadays and I also seldom have the chance to work with female directors. I’ve worked with Mabel Cheung, Ann Hui and a Taiwanese female director, and this is only my fourth time working with a female director. One of the major reasons I really enjoy collaborating with them is that they’re all a bit crazy. Male directors tend to be more ‘manly’…
You mean male directors are less fun-loving?
No, but rather they tend to look at women from a male’s point of view – from your performance to your inner world. But when it’s a female director, she would enter your world. When you also consider the fact that [Lai] wrote the script for this film as well… she imagined everything. So practically speaking she’s a little crazy as well. That’s why you’d often find on the set these two crazy ladies arguing over stuff. We’re bound to have more [creative] sparks together.
It’s probably fair to say that your role in The Second Woman is anything but typical. How did Lai prepare you before the shoot?
Actually, we did a lot of homework before the shoot. She showed me a film of [the Japanese singer-actress] Momoe Yamaguchi, [director Kon Ichikawa’s Koto (1980)], in which she played a pair of [long-separated twin] sisters. The special effects at that time were already pretty good. I also learned quite a bit about theatre as preparation for the story-within-a-story part of the film; that’s why I had a lot of inspirations for the theatre performance in the film. During the shoot, the makeup artist, the hair stylist and William Chang all helped me a lot; put it simply, [in the early parts of the film] I was playing the elder sister when my hair was down and the younger sister when my hair was tied up. That helps me to distinguish between different parts of myself. I also try to ‘hypnotise’ myself in front of the mirror. The director was great in that she’s given considerable liberty to me to play my role. Sometimes she’d point out the finer details, such as the higher pitch that the younger sister speaks in.
Which of the two sisters is closer to you in terms of their mannerisms?
Both are [close to me]… because they’re both me. [Laughs] They’re both created from my mind. When I’m enjoying myself in the company of my good friends, when I don’t need to hide my [true] self, when I can just totally relax in the drinking and chatting, I’d behave in a similar way to the younger sister [character]. On the other hand, when I’m having dinner and chatting with children or younger people, I’ll behave in a more mature way, just as the elder sister [character] does. The truth is, each person has many different personalities inside his body.
You mentioned just now that theatre also constitutes a significant part to the film. Did you have any previous experience with the stage?
Not at all, not at all. So when we were filming, we had Cantonese opera teachers who guide us through the performances, and we had theatre teachers who told us what theatre is all about. The movement and physical expression [of theatre] is totally different from what we’re used to in filmmaking. We spent more than a month practising those but… to be honest, it didn’t help much in our final performance. [Laughs] As the saying goes, you need 10 years of practice offstage before delivering that one minute of performance onstage. We’re only hoping to be able to imitate the looks of it in the shortest time possible.
Did this experience make you want to try your hands in theatre someday?
Uh, I don’t think… um… it’s possible – several years later – but not now. At the end, theatre is an entirely different mode of performance. Its emphasis in voice and body control has to be trained, I think.
The film also shows the competitive side of the entertainment business – complete with the occasional backstabbing. Have you experienced similar things in your career?
I think it’s down to the different mentalities of different actors. Each person has his own ambition and goal, because everyone has a different personality. In my case, I’ve been showered with affection by many people once I stepped into this business. Throughout my career, the assistance I’ve received is even more than the efforts I’ve myself put in… [laughs] if I have to be honest about it now. I’ve been a very lucky actress.
When watching The Second Woman, I was reminded of the atmosphere of some European arthouse suspense dramas. Do you personally see this as an art film or a mainstream commercial movie?
I knew from the moment I took up this project that it’s not going to be a mainstream movie. It’s definitely not one of those commercial blockbusters and the moment you see what this film is about, you can have a rough idea of its [modest] box office results. But as an actress, I was attracted by the prospect of playing twin sisters. If I could do it well, it’d be a lot of fun. The best part of making this type of movie is that you have a chance to play and try out something new.
Speaking of playing multiple roles in the same movie, you’ve actually already done that in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005). Since you’ve starred in more than a few arthouse movies – including two by Hou – would you say you’re more of an arthouse actress at heart?
I would not say that. [Laughs] Because when I made Three Times… oh wait, you’ve suddenly reminded me what I told myself then! I said I’d rather be beaten to death than play another of these multiple-personalities roles! [I’m not especially into art films] because their mode of expression is rather different. If I were a new actress – or maybe if I were me from five or 10 years ago – I’d be very passionate about acting and want to experiment with everything. I wanted to test my abilities when I was offered the chances to work with Hou and other important directors. I wanted to see whether I was capable of playing this role or that role. I wanted to find out about my potentials. That’s why I was really interested to take up art film projects… to torture myself. But after doing these art films or non-mainstream movies for a while, I felt mentally and physically exhausted. If I kept on doing arthouse movies, I think I’d have cancer or depression! [Laughs] I couldn’t do that all the time. If you’ve paid attention to my films in recent years, they’re all gruelling exercises. Right now, all I want to take part in are happy movies, silly comedies, simple movies, movies in which I just stand around, or movies in which I have only two lines. [Laughs]
But do you still have the ambition as an actress? I mean, your previous participations in arthouse movies have made you a jury member at both Berlin and Cannes, as well as establishing you as a recognisable figure in the international film circuit. I’m afraid those are the films that would cement your star status.
Hmm… as I just said, I recognise that I’ve long been a very lucky actress. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities since my early days in the business. As an actress, [my status] today is already quite unthinkable for the Shu Qi from 15 years ago. I would never imagine myself becoming an actress like this. When I first entered the Hong Kong film industry 15 years ago, I had nothing on my mind. I had no plans, I had no major goals. All I wanted to find out was whether I could step into this movie world, whether I could act, whether I would become a decent actress in the future, whether I could change people’s views about me. Actually, I was only thinking about doing my best – and here I am now. I’ve always been a… I wouldn’t say I have no ambition at all, but my ambition is simply to give my best to what I’m doing. I don’t pay attention to goals that are too far or too high for me, goals that are unreachable, because I believe in destiny. If something belongs to you, it’s yours; you should have done your part before thinking about anything else. As for audience recognition, I feel that it really just depends on each individual viewer; in 100 of them, you can’t ask for all 100 of them to like you. You may find 50, 40 or 90 of them rooting for you. There must be people who don’t like me, but if these people nonetheless think that ‘Shu Qi is quite a decent actress’, I’d already be very happy.
If you think about it, what’s changed most about you in these past 15 years?
The way of living: I’ve turned into a Hongkonger [giggles] from a Taiwanese. Of course, I’ve achieved a lot in many aspects since the beginning; but in terms of my personality and my inner world, it hasn’t really changed much. I’m only getting older, which ‘means’ that I’m more mature, but I’m still a fun-loving person who likes to make more new friends. I might be quite temperamental in the past, when people would think ‘that’s cute! Just let her be – she’s only a little girl’. But I can’t show my tempers so easily today, because I’m at this age already; if I did, people would find me a difficult person to work with. I no longer have the complete freedom to express all my emotions.
Still, you’ve been gradually establishing yourself as one of the best actresses in Chinese cinema. Even in romance movies, such as last year’s A Beautiful Life, your part proves to be unusually eye-catching. Do you often pick your own roles?
[Director] Andrew Lau forced me to do A Beautiful Life. [Laughs] He said I must do it. It’s fun to play a ‘Kong girl’ [in the film]. It’s quite a challenge to me, as a lady who originally came from Taiwan.
Playing a ‘Kong girl’ probably marked your full transformation into a Hongkonger.
Yes, yes. I think it’s quite cool. As for picking my roles, I don’t really have any special ways of doing it. In the past five years or so, I seem to have been working regularly with directors that I’m already familiar with, such as Andrew Lau, Feng Xiaogang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. It depends on my mood at the time and it depends on the dreams and passion of the directors.
So in your opinion, what stage of your career are you currently at?
My career… I think it’s the harvest time. But then I think it’s harvest time every year, after every movie I’ve finished. [The filmmaking process] is still very fresh to me but I’ll probably have to be more careful with the upcoming projects I sign on to. I’ve been thinking exactly this recently: now that I’ve managed to play four characters in The Second Woman, what more can I do afterwards? I’ve been thinking along this line. I’m at once afraid of and excited about [my future].
The Second Woman 情謎 is in cinemas now.