Hong Kong Icon Brigitte Lin on Her Career, Wuxia and #MeToo: "It Cleanses the Film Industry"

Courtesy of HKIFF taken at the The Mira Hotel, Hong Kong

Retired for over 20 years, the cinema legend returned to the spotlight to be feted by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and she tells THR the secrets to her gender-transcending performances.

Brigitte Lin was an Asian superstar in a very literal sense. Born in Taiwan, Lin made her name during Hong Kong cinema's golden age, with her fame spreading right across the continent thanks to a three-decade career.

A versatile performer with an uncanny ability to adapt to the times and genre, Lin had a film career that encompassed everything from the Taiwanese romantic dramas of the '70s — of which she made a startling 55 in the period between 1972 and 1979 — to the Hong Kong box-office fare of the '80s, and finally to the pioneering gender-transcending roles in the now classic wuxia films of the early '90s that brought her global acclaim. Lin has done it all.  

At the height of her fame, Lin was commonly known as "the greatest beauty in all of China," but she retired from the industry in 1994 after making exactly 100 films. Arguably no female star has enjoyed the level of pan-Asian critical and commercial success since Lin left the business.

Despite her decades in retirement, Lin has not been forgotten and at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, which coincided with the 45th anniversary of her screen debut in Outside the Window, she was the subject of the festival's Filmmaker in Focus section. Later this month, Lin will be feted at the 20th Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, where she will receive the Golden Mulberry Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Temporarily back in the public eye, Lin talked to The Hollywood Reporter about her long glittering career, her trailblazing gender-fluid roles, why she never returned to the big screen as well as the cleansing effects of the #MeToo movement on the film industry in Asia. 

Although this is the 45th anniversary of your screen debut, you have been retired for over 20 years now. What made you come back into the spotlight, albeit temporarily?

I have a number of reasons. Before I declined every invitation because I thought I didn't have anything worthy of exhibition — my films weren't art films. But now I have a strong feeling of wanting to share with people how it was like in my time, how it was different from today. It was rarely written about what I call the "warlike era" of our moviemaking. It was like going to battle when we made movies. The environment of filmmaking in the 1970s was so different — now it is more systematic, actors have their own teams, managers, stylists and they have trailers…. The actors might enjoy it more. But when we made films, it was like guerrilla warfare. Those days were hard, but now I think about them, they make me smile. I also want to encourage the younger generation to be more resilient, and send the message that if you do something that you love and that is your dream, you wouldn't fear any hardships. It wouldn't matter if you don't eat, drink, or sleep. When I used to walk into the shooting locations, I would never think about finishing work; filmmaking is the biggest thing. These are precious memories to me.

You were 17 when you started your career in Taiwan and hit it big instantly with dozens of romantic films. Could you talk a little about the early part of your career?

After I graduated from high school, I had only worked in the film industry, and have never ventured out into society. I became famous overnight — my first film, Outside the Window, wasn't allowed to be released in Taiwan [for copyright reasons], but it was a big hit in Hong Kong. And my first film released in Taiwan, Gone With the Cloud, was also a hit. Before I knew what was going on, I had already entered into a very complicated industry. I was 17, I didn't know anything, didn't understand anything, and the film industry was made up of so many different kinds of people. Not only that, I also had to react to how the public saw me, how the media reported about me, every word I said was then printed in black and white. So I had to be tremendously careful. It was enormous pressure for a teenage girl.

I grew up in the film industry. The only thing I knew was to make films, other than that I didn't even have enough time to sleep. From 1972 to 1979, I barely had a good night's sleep. My whole life was scheduled and arranged by producers, I didn't even know how to think for myself. So my life had been my roles, and during that time all my roles were romantic heroines in love stories. After seven years and 55 films, I was adamant that I had to leave the film industry. I was near a breakdown. So I left for the U.S. in 1979 for a year and a half, to study and relax. I only began to ponder my life when I went to the U.S. Before, I was very passive; after I returned from the U.S., I decided I have to be more active — to be actively kind to others, to greet people, to smile. Because I didn't have the opportunity to be active before; I was approached by people, I chose, chose, and chose, and declined, declined, declined — I had too many choices.

You became one of the biggest martial arts heroines in Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. How did your mentality change from being a romantic lead to a wuxia superstar?

Before I took on my biggest role in the martial arts genre, Asia the Invincible [Dongfang Bubai in The Swordsman II], I did a stage play in 1991, The Peach Blossom Land [which was adapted into a film in 1992]. I learned from being in the play some acting techniques, which helped my acting to become more mature. Before, I only learned as I went along. By the time I was in the play, I had been in the business for some time, and had more life experiences. I had a lot of emotions inside me that I wanted to express, which I could, through the character of Asia. Since the character was so bold, I could shed all my inhibitions and unleash my wild side.

I remember the last film I did was Ashes of Time. In one scene, I put my arms around a tree and squealed. After one take, [the famed art director and film editor] William Cheung said to me, "You scared me." I asked him if the performance was no good, and he told me it was spot-on. Then I said to him, "When I screeched, I put all my repressed emotions, all my sadness, my grief and pain over my life time into it." Before, I was very, very shy. When I was a schoolgirl, I was so shy that I was always pushed to one side by other students when we got onto the school bus. I wouldn't fight for my place. But acting gave me a chance to become another person. I would express my own emotions through a character. So I always say, it's the hardest to be Brigitte Lin because I am so shy by nature.

With Jia Baoyu in The Dream of the Red Chamber (1977), Asia in The Swordsman II &III (1992 and '93), and Yin/Yang in Ashes of Time (1994), you have blazed a trail for women playing male characters. What made you take on these gender-fluid roles, and how did you approach them?

My ancestry is from Shandong, China; we as a people are known to be direct and forthright. And I think I have some male characteristics in me. I'm not very feminine; I don't know how to be coy. So I thought I have it in me to play male characters. The first was Jia Baoyu, who was an underage adolescent boy, so his maleness was not very defined. As for Asia in The Swordsman II, I had to look very masculine. I remember I tried on the first day of filming, but the director thought there was something missing and it didn't look right. Eventually [series producer] Tsui Hark realized that men have stiffer necks, their necks wouldn't move around as much. So I explored this trait to make my portrayal appear more masculine. (Laughs.)

You have said previously that The Swordsman II was a very tough shoot for you. Although the character became such a cinematic icon as well as your favorite in your career, it came out very close to your retirement. Were the difficulties of that shoot one of the causes for your decision to retire?

At the time I felt I could no longer manage. There was a scene we shot on The Peak in Hong Kong — Joey Wong and I had to sit in the middle of the road in the pouring rain. I got so cold. I turned and asked Joey, "Are you cold?" She told me she wasn't cold at all! I gasped, and thought to myself, "No way, am I really that old already? That I can't even cope?" But the film came out and it was a blockbuster. I already thought about retiring so I made one more and tried to save some money for my retirement.

Given that acting and the film industry were all you knew up to that point, how did it feel to leave it all behind?

I left it all willingly. I felt I had enough. And deep in my heart, I have always known that I would change my life completely once I reach 40 years old. I knew I must not do the same thing anymore. Fate arranged for me to get married at 40. I have been very happy that I do not have to face the camera again, that I no longer have to socialize, do not have to force myself to do anything I do not want to do. And I was very busy after I got married, I had my children, and I was busy for about 10 years after that. So it was very easy for me to settle into my retirement. I didn't feel it was a pity at all. But I still love to watch movies. Sometimes when I see a good film, I would have the urge to act; and when I see a very bad film and performance, I would also have the urge to act, because I think I would have done it differently.

You must have seen a lot during your three decades making films, and your place as a strong leading lady as well as those gender-transcending performances are very empowering. Looking to the present day, how do you feel about movements such as the #MeToo movement?

I think it serves as a very good warning to some of the bad wolves in the film industry to not do anything that forces women to sacrifice themselves. And this movement will help cleanse the film industry. I feel that this movement is very hard to come by and very worthwhile.

I have been very lucky. All the people I met in the film industry were good people. If I had met some bad people, I wouldn't know if I could keep my promise to my parents [who were against her film career] that I would keep my nose clean. Because I am righteous and my fame had been substantial, less decent people were intimidated by me. And I had been lucky that my circumstances didn't make it necessary for me to sacrifice myself. The heavens have been very kind to me.

You were one of the biggest stars in Greater China. How do you feel about Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, respectively?

I will never forget that I started my career in Taiwan, where I had been nurtured. So I will always call myself a daughter of Taiwan. Then I came to make films in Hong Kong, where I grew up and grew strong. Hong Kong had given me a lot of opportunities, and it never treated me as an outsider or foreigner. So that's why I became a wife of Hong Kong. And I had been lucky that I could make films in China, where my father and mother were born. I still have family there. So I am a relative of China.

You have been a superstar in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. After the 1990s, there seem to be very few superstars emerging in the Hong Kong film industry. Is it no longer the place where stars are born?

Everything has become instantly gratifying. Stars emerge, become big, but they don't last long. The ones who last are those from our generation. Andy Lau, Jackie Chan, Tony Leung Chiu-wai…they've been superstars for decades. And the films nowadays are closer to the masses; the advance in technology also means that anyone can take a photo of a star in their living environment at any time. It is too close [now] to create superstars. When I was a kid, superstars were someone from the heavens, someone that we would never ever meet in our entire lives.

You concluded your career with two classic roles in director Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Ashes of Time, as the drug smuggler in a blonde wig and the schizophrenic/androgynous yin-yang, respectively. Did you have any special spark with Wong?

I wouldn't describe it as a spark, but I put my whole person into his hands. As he didn't have scripts, I couldn't help it, he made me lose all my confidence. So I might as well place everything in his hands. But I don't have any regrets that I made my last films in my career with him.

Although you've left the big screen over 20 years ago, you're still one of Hong Kong cinema's biggest stars and your fans are still so devoted to you. And there are young filmmakers who dream of working with you. Have you ever thought about coming back?

No, I would rather leave a good impression. When I did my third film, Ghost of the Mirror, a co-star said to me on the first day of shooting, "Brigitte, quit while you're ahead." He said the same thing to me on the second and third day. But it took me 22 years to quit. So when people ask me why I got married and retired when my career was at its peak, I tell them, "I quit while I was ahead." (Laughs.)