Screen empress Liu returns in '37'

Jiang Wen collaborator 'unrecognizable' as illiterate teacher

HONG KONG -- Once the most celebrated actress in China, award-winning Chinese screen legend Liu Xiaoqing will return to film in Hong Kong director Dennis Chen’s drama “37," in a role that rendered her unrecognizable, Liu told the Hollywood Reporter.
Liu sported a false nose and a set of fake teeth, shaved her eyebrows, altered her posture and learned to speak another language to play a Mongolian matriarch, nurturing a choir of 37 young children.

“It’s a role no one would cast me in. She was an indigenous Mongolian woman who grew up on the back of a horse, and was illiterate, unglamorous and not pretty. I played completely against type. It’s like a butterfly turning into a cocoon,” Liu said, displaying her famous confidence. “The first day I showed up on set in full makeup, nobody realized it was me.”
“The role was the biggest challenge of my career. I had to re-learn how to walk, smile, and talk,” she said.  But Liu admitted the challenges the role brought paled in comparison to her real life drama.  In 2002, Liu was arrested in Beijing for tax evasion and was put in jail for a year while awaiting trial.  She was later acquitted.
Liu has been a household name in China since the late 1970s. She became the biggest actress in the country, at a time when a handful of domestic Chinese productions dominate the theatres, in a series of films such as “The Little Flower” (1980) and “Hibiscus Town” (1986), co-starring Jiang Wen, but the most memorable was as the late Qing Dowager Empress Cixi, a role that she played four times on celluloid through the 1980s.

Famed for portraying strong women on screen and her outspoken self-regard off screen, she was a six-time Hundred Flower/Golden Rooster award winner, and a shrewd businesswoman who appeared on the inaugural Forbes China rich list in 1999.  She has turned to starring in television series in recent years, and has only made one film, “Plastic Flowers” in 2004, after reprising the role of Cixi in “The Last Eunuch” in 1991, opposite frequent collaborator and close friend Jiang Wen, with whom Liu is planning a new project.
In “37," Liu’s character took under her wings a mother and daughter from Hong Kong, played by Charlie Young (“Bangkok Dangerous”) and Lin Miaoke, the 10-year-old child performer spotlighted in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Life on the Mongolian great plains transformed the city dwellers. “It’s a story about a humanist subject, a contrast between the simple lives of the Mongolians and the excess of modern cosmopolitan living. The message in the story and the role appealed to me,” said Liu, who has put her business life to rest and now focuses only on acting.
The US$3.5 million “37," produced by China’s Beijing Stellar MegaMedia and Hong Kong’s Manner Film with a subsidy from the Hong Kong Film Development Fund, marked the first project launched by Hong Kong New Action, a financing platform organized by the Hong Kong Film Development Council to lineup Hong Kong directors with producers and investors in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. 

“The traditional major studios in Hong Kong were not interested in the story, so the Hong Kong New Action platform was useful,” said Dennis Chen, the director and writer of “37” and a Hong Kong film industry veteran in the business for over 30 years. 

Stellar helped lined up Liu in the film, whose name is a draw for Chinese audiences, but Chen said he didn’t specifically make the film for the Hong Kong or China market. “There are a lot of little niche markets to be explored in China, but from my experience, if a director wants to tailor make a film for the China market, it’d fail,” Chen said. “ ‘37’ is a feegood movie about the values in life, from a business point of view, it’s rather low-risk.”
“37” is scheduled for 2010 in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.