Rotterdam: China’s Huang Lu on Being an International Arthouse Favorite

The actress talks about starring in prize-winning films at A-list European festivals, while remaining below the radar back home.

ROTTERDAM -- For someone who has walked the tapis rouges carpets at Cannes, Venice, Locarno and Thessaloniki, Huang Lu cuts a very down to earth figure – and she admits gleefully that she can still blend in with the crowd at home when she’s not being feted by programmers, filmmakers and critics on the international festival circuit.

“I've gone to film festivals, walked red carpets and had all sorts of jewelry put on me, but after that I go back to being myself, going to markets in Beijing to buy things and cook for myself,” Huang told The Hollywood Reporter at the De Doelen cultural complex at Rotterdam.

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“I realized you can’t always live in that dream where you are a star everybody likes; you have to have your real life if you want to be a good actress. You can also enjoy five-star treatment, but you have to lead a normal life and observe people on subways -- because mostly you play normal people, and if you are far away from them, how can you play them naturally?”

Indeed, playing naturally is what defines Huang’s work. While Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing and Li Bingbing have become global media juggernauts with high-profile blockbusters, Huang has slipped into the role of go-to Chinese actress for international arthouse directors when they want a face to represent modern-day Chinese challenges in their films. Ever since her big break with Li Yang’s Blind Mountain -- in which she plays an urban university student abducted and forced into marriage in a rural village -- she has delivered outstanding turns for Cai Shangjun (Thessaloniki prize-winner The Red Awn),Vimukthi Jayasundra (Venice entry Between Two Worlds) and Guo Xiaolu (She, A Chinese, a Golden Leopard nominee at Locarno).

She’s at the International Film Festival Rotterdam this year with two films: She plays a Taiwanese musician confronting her rural roots in David Verbeek’s How to Describe A Cloud, and a Dubai-based Chinese migrant worker in Conrad Clark’s A Fallible Girl. She has also just finished filming Lou Ye’s latest China-French co-production Massage, in addition to the Taiwanese film Unpolitical Romance.

Making Lou’s film is akin to realizing a youthful dream, Huang said. “When I was a student I really loved films like Lou Ye’s -- when I went to high school I saw Suzhou River [from 2000] and I thought, 'this is what I want to do.' That time I even didn’t know I could be an actress but I really liked that movie.”

REVIEW: Between Two Worlds

Huang studied science in high-school, but enrolled for a broadcasting degree at Sichuan Normal University. “And after one year I felt bored and I thought I wanted to change my life,” she recalled. “So I quit, prepared for half a year and entered the Beijing Film Academy. My father was crazy at me during that time: You know how Chinese parents want you to study math, computer or business, so they couldn’t understand my decision at the time. Now my father is happy, seeing me travel to European film festivals all the time.”

Like many of her classmates at the academy’s performance department, Huang began acting well before graduation -- and she had already played supporting roles in a few high-profile productions (such as Zhang Jiarui’s The Road and Yang Fudong’s Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove) when she got the call from Li Yang, who saw some footage Huang shot of herself playing around and acting out multiple characters for the camera.

“After he saw that he thought I was what he wanted -- so he flew to an island where I was making Yang’s movie, and after meeting for 10 minutes he decided I was to be in his movie.” Huang said. “He sent me the script, and after reading it I called him and said yes. I watched Blind Shaft and I liked it very much, so before reading his script I already wanted to enjoy his film. At that time I was a third-year student so I think it’s a good chance for me.”

Huang was still writing her graduate thesis when she flew to Cannes, where Blind Mountain premiered in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It was indeed a game-changer for the young actress: It was on the strength of that film – which drew critical acclaim and also controversy for its depiction of violence in China’s rural hinterlands -- that Huang signed to CAA (she left after two years and is now signed to an independent mainland Chinese agent).

It was also at a party that Huang met Sri Lankan filmmaker Jayasundra, who approached her later for a role of a Chinese girl caught in social meltdown in Sri Lanka in Between Two Worlds. “I think it’s more like a cycle -- you shoot this kind of movie and then more and more this kind of director finds you, especially in Europe,” she said. “I think more of my films have been distributed in Europe than in China or in America.”

Huang has no doubt become a darling for budding and established auteurs -- and being open to challenges allowed her to take chances. In 2010, she got an email from her New York agent that a second-year NYU student wanted her to play a part -- of a woman falling for a gay man and wanting to bear a child with him -- in a short film. She read the script and agreed to do it -- and the result is Jordan Schiele’s After Ten Years; it was through Schiele that she knew Hsieh Chinyi, with whom she made Unpolitical Romance.

REVIEW: Blind Mountain

While very much an indie poster-girl for most of her career, Huang will soon make her first foray into full-blown commercial cinema later this month with the release of Lucky Dog, a comedy in which she plays the girlfriend of a private investigator looking for a missing tycoon and his fortunes in a man-made stone-age-like labyrinth. “I’m opposite Hayama Go, you know, the guy from the 3D sex movie [Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy],” Huang said, laughing. “We had a lot of CGI and did a lot of green-screen -- it’s more about using your body for that work.”

Huang said she feels “a bit stupid” when making mainstream fare like Lucky DogBut I can also get used to it -- it’s more relaxed,” she said.” There’s no need to drain too many emotions on set, it’s like a game.”

“I’m not refusing to do commercial movies,” she said. “Just like [Korean heist caper] The Thieves -- I’m also interested in doing that kind of movie, it’s cool, I’ve never tried doing that. And I've always wanted to play a lesbian -- I think two girls together is very beautiful. I really like movies with women in the lead.”

It’s not something she could regularly find in commercial Chinese cinema, she said, where actresses “only got to play vases -- there aren't that many interesting female characters.” The challenge remains elsewhere, she added, with foreign productions offering more prominent roles for women.

While she admits to having been a bit chastened when she was younger by the lack of acknowledgement for her work in China, she said she has made peace with that. “I enjoyed all the films I did, as I've had good experiences with directors who are very pure in their vision and not concerned with larger complications, like in China,” she said. “The happiest thing is you enjoy what you do -- and you get to travel the world to do that. That’s something I wouldn’t have imagined being able to do when I was in high school!”