[Since Chinese film authorities lifted the two-year ban on Tang Wei (汤唯) from filmmaking, which actually resulted in her disappearing from movie screens for three years, the promising young actress is back. With one movie released very recently (to good reviews) and a second now in post-production, she has naturally been the subject of numerous interviews in the Chinese entertainment media. The following is a translation of one of the longer (and I think best) of these, an interview Tang Wei gave to the Shanghai magazine Bund Pictorial in March, and published in Bund's print edition of April, 2010. The article is online at the magazine's site, as well as reprinted in other Chinese online news sources. Comments in brackets, like this one, are the translator's, added where it was thought more detail or clarification was desirable. Tang Wei's character in "Crossing Hennessey" is named Oi-lin, but some Chinese sources say the character has the Western name Eleonora; that is the one used here, and if that turns out not to be true, it will be corrected. Tang Wei's preliminary remarks upon meeting the interviewer refer to an earlier Bund interview which was also translated in The Chinese Mirror.]
Text: Li Jun (李俊). Photography: Xiao Wu (小武). Ms. Tang's apparel by Ling Yun (凌云). Interview venue provided by the Kangxi Star Photographic Studio in Beijing.
What's the most popular word in the 2010 movie world? "Comeback." With their sex tape scandal faded from the news, Edison Chan and Gillian Chung have surfaced again, with non-stop commercials and filming. But the Chinese movie comeback that will undoubtedly shine the brightest is that of Tang Wei. Her high-profile appearance on the red carpet at the premier of her new film "Crossing Hennessy" was also a declaration of her own comeback, signifying that the star of Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" was back on the big screen after two years of exile. Her new movie will be released in [mainland] theaters nationwide on April 2, and comments after advance screenings generally said that Tang Wei lights up the box office.
In just four short years, 31-year-old Tang Wei has gone through a roller coaster of life's ups and downs. Since early 2006 she has gone from being just one of more than 10,000 aspiring young Chinese actresses, most of them acting in various small theaters throughout the country. Her life changed completely when director Ang Lee selected her as Wang Jiazhi [her character in "Lust, Caution"]. Overnight she became famous and her family moved north. But fame is a two-edged sword, and at the same time she was wounded by its sharper edge, resulting in her sudden disappearance from public view. Now, Tang Wei is back.
A dark blue commercial vehicle pulls up in front of the studio, and Tang Wei is the first to jump out. It is early March in Beijing. Tang Wei is wearing a black jacket, a white shirt and jeans, her hair pulled back in a pony tail.
"I just returned to Beijing late yesterday, and I didn't sleep well. I didn't get jet lag going over [to the US] but I did coming back, that's why my eyes are swollen," she explains, rubbing her eyes.
Tang Wei had just concluded the filming of her next movie "Late Autumn" in the United States. The day filming wrapped, she stayed up all night packing, and the next morning was on the first flight back to Beijing from Seattle.
"We finally meet, but actually have to continue speaking into space, because I can't open my eyes to see you!" (Laughs) Tang Wei, sitting before a mirror, closes her eyes as mascara is applied.
"The last time I talked with you was by phone, in January 2008," says the reporter.
"When we were on the phone back in 2008, can you tell me what question you asked me at that time? What the situation was then?" Tang Wei turns things around and starts the questioning.
"It was like, what time is it there? Where are you? It seemed you were very mysterious, and didn't answer, and you sounded very far away."
"I remember that. I was in a foreign country then, sitting at a table in an office, and watching the rain fall outside the window."
"You said back then that your ideal life was to live in your own house with your family and a big dog."
"Well, I haven't realized that ideal so far," Tang Wei said.
Tang Wei is back. On March 21, the Tang Wei-Jacky Cheung film "Crossing Hennessy" was shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and Tang Wei set foot on the red carpet, dressed in a simple flowered short dress. Tang Wei was out of movies for fully three years, and disappeared completely from various commercial involvements. Her last production was also her first, Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."
"Everyone has a Hennessey"
At the Hong Kong premiere showing of "Crossing Hennessey," Tang Wei presented a very casual appearance on the red carpet, with her hair in a ponytail, no sexy clothes, no bling, no jewelry, no makeup. The film is written and directed by Ivy Ho, who has written the screenplays for many movies, including such classic love stories as "Comrades: Almost a Love Story" and "July Rhapsody," and made her first directing effort in 2008's "Claustrophobia." Ivy Ho accompanied Tang Wei at each [Hong Kong] interview, and whenever the media besieged the actress [with questions unrelated to the film], the director would smile broadly and change the topic.
Ivy Ho has steadily denied that "Hennessey" was tailor-made for Tang Wei. She wrote the script some years ago, and it was only when several directors had read it but showed no interest that she decided to film it herself. Jacky Cheung was the first actor she cast for a part; he had acted the lead in "July Rhapsody," and impressed her with his touching performance.
When she was looking around for the female lead, Edko studio head Bill Kong (江志强) suggested, "Do you want to meet with Tang Wei?" Ivy Ho's initial reaction was, "She's a mainlander. I'm making a Cantonese movie." But Bill Kong insisted, saying "Meet her, then decide."
Ivy Ho met with Tang Wei three times, then decided to cast her in the female lead. At that time, she felt Tang Wei's Cantonese was pretty good, and she was very stubborn, much like the character she would portray. The only downside was their [the leads] age difference, almost a generation, so that required modifying the script.
Hennessey Road is one of the main thoroughfares of Hong Kong's Wan Chai district, and splits it into two sections: the northern is newer, built on reclaimed land, and includes high-class hotels and an international convention and exhibition center; the southern is older, consisting mostly of old houses and various kinds of shops. The latter is the film's setting, and Tang Wei spent more than two months there during production, spending the day preparing and shooting the scene, then eating at neighborhood restaurants in the evening.
"Every individual and everyone around them has a Hennessey Road; it may be tolerable, it may be unbearable," Ivy Ho has said. In the movie, Eleonora (Tang) and Ah-lai (Cheung) live along Hennessey; each has their own definition of love, but family pressures force them to move from initial resistance to becoming good friends, and ultimately to a decision to join hands as life partners.
While the film continues Ivy Ho's style of love and warmth, it does not focus completely on Tang Wei, in fact her character in the script is not a particularly strong woman. The photographing of Tang Wei was very low key this time, showing her with almost no makeup, dressed in very ordinary T-shirts and jeans, pouting, grimacing, laughing heartily, crying…emotions of sorrow and joy were always present. In its review of "Crossing Hennessey," the Hollywood Reporter referred to Tang Wei as the "girl next door." After completing filming, Ivy Ho remarked that "Tang Wei was so cute, I thought of her as my daughter."
Tang Wei turned into the director's "naughty kid sister." When taking pictures in the studio, Tang Wei, wearing a leather jacket, put on an expression of some cool, prompting Ivy Ho to call out from the side, "Wow, you are so punk!" In fluent Cantonese, Tang engaged in some banter with the director, then exaggerated her expressions even more.
[left, Tang Wei with writer/director Ivy Ho]When the photo shoot turned to pictures of the two women together, Tang warmly embraced the director from the back, putting her chin on her head. Ivy Ho cried out, "Oh, you're going to squeeze my white hair out!"
A couple of years ago at a "Lust, Caution" press conference in Shanghai, although it stopped everything, Tang Wei spent fully a minute helping director Ang Lee zip up his overcoat. The next day, she was all over the media.
"I'm not used to wearing high heels"
When posing for pictures, Tang Wei has a habit of standing with her arms folded and legs crossed.
"That's a very defensive posture," said a reporter.
"Yes, they say it shows the lack of a sense of security. But it's really comfortable. These double-high heels are too high, so I stand in a way that's more stable."
Tang Wei said she is only 171cm [5'7"] tall, and used to wear only flats. When she put on 7cm high heels, she walked swaying like a penguin, and spread her arms to steady herself, but found it difficult walking forward. While walking, she made fun of this, saying "I feel like a little girl wearing her mother's high heels."
Tang Wei is the same age as Zhang Ziyi, but Tang is more like the sweet girl next door. At the photo session, Tang Wei was accompanied by only a make-up artist, a hair stylist and her agent. She doesn't have a life assistant; she is used to doing things independently, but considers the views of others in making decisions.
On meeting with reporters, her first question was, "What do you want me to do?"
"Can you remove the necklace? someone suggested. She quickly took the necklace off. She had some trouble removing her boots, and told her agent, "You'll have to help me, these are hard to get off." Looking at the clothes she planned to wear [for the photo shoot], her agent exclaimed, "That's what we're wearing?" He looked somewhat embarrassed, so Tang Wei came over to him and expressed her regrets, saying "I'm sorry, but I got back too late, and was up late the night before that, so there was no time to try these on earlier."
As she was being made up, Tang deliberately made faces that made everyone laugh. When the shoot began, she went before the camera, then took a piece of candy from her pocket, walked over to the photographer and asked, innocently, "Can I eat this?"
When the interview concluded, she said "Thank you" to everyone. As her staff began leaving, she sat on a bench, hurriedly putting her boots back on.
"She and I are not much alike," says veteran Hong Kong actress Nina Paw (鲍起静) [who plays Jacky Cheung's mother in "Hennessey"]. "I thought that after she had become a big movie star, she would change in a big way. But when you meet her on the set she is still like a little girl, very simple."
On the set, Nina Paw, Jacky Cheung and other cast members would often eat food that Tang Wei brought in. But these were not things obtained from fast food restaurants; rather, Tang Wei would have her agent buy ingredients from neighborhood food markets and small vendors. Afterwards, Tang Wei would prepare dishes at home herself, then bring these to the set the following day.
In Beijing, when she and her family go out, they always take public transport, like the subway or a bus. Regarding riding the subway with Tang Wei, playwright Yuan Hong (袁鸿), her close friend and uncle, says, "She's really a part of city life."
"My ideal is to keep a large dog"
After interviewing Tang Wei, a Hong Kong reporter commented "For a mature woman, Tang Wei is quite complicated." While outwardly she appears vivacious, lucid and elegant, her "innermost being often reveals a woman with a mature and yet somewhat pessimistic view of the world."
In just four short years, 31-year-old Tang Wei has gone through a roller coaster of life's ups and downs. Her life changed completely in early 2006 when director Ang Lee selected her to be Wang Jiazhi [her character in "Lust, Caution"] from more than 10,000 young Chinese actresses drawn mostly from various small theaters throughout the country. Overnight she became famous and her family moved north; but fame is a two-edged sword, and at the same time she was wounded by its sharper edge, resulting in her sudden disappearance from public view.
"In the last few years Tang Wei has been in Hong Kong, Mainland China and London. Actually her time in Hong Kong was the shortest of the three places, so it was not easy to meet with her off the set," said director Ivy Ho.
In the last three years, Tang Wei has mainly been in the three bustling cities of Hong Kong, London and Beijing. In London, she systematically took courses in drama, but also worked hard at studying English.
In 2009, Yuan Hong met Tang Wei in London. "She had a very comfortable situation, going to classes every day." Tang Wei at that time was rehearsing a Shakespeare play being performed in Old English. Other than her and a Taiwanese, the rest of the actors and the director were British. "She must have spent a lot of her spare time working on the language."
Tang Wei has said her ideal is to keep a large dog. Since leaving Hangzhou, she and her parents have lived in Beijing, but she rarely gets to go home and stay with them. When meeting with journalists, the thing she stressed most is, "My home is in Beijing, I love Beijing."
While filming "Late Autumn" in Seattle, Tang Wei picked up a stray dog, and named it after one of the local place names. She wanted to adopt the forlorn, poor little dog, and take it back to Beijing with her after filming ended. But friends convinced her that idea was "unrealistic," so she had to endure the pain of giving the dog up for adoption by a local crew member.
"I believe that raising an animal requires a sense of responsibility, the ability to be with it on a regular basis; otherwise, if a dog is always kept in the house, it will become depressed." Tang Wei said she had always had small animals before, and as a child once had a 2-month-old kitten and a 4-year-old dog. But in the past three years, she has been roaming so much she couldn't take on the responsibility of a small animal.
The production team for "Late Autumn," which had just finished shooting in Seattle, was truly international, starting with famous Korean director Kim Tae-yong, and Tang Wei's leading man, Korean star Hyeon Bin. Tang Wei speaks English in the film, and a little Chinese.
"Late Autumn" is a remake of the 1966 [Korean] classic of the same title. The original drew rave reviews on its release, and has been remade twice: in Japan in 1972 and again in Korea in 1975. In "Late Autumn," Tang Wei plays a Chinese-American woman raised in Seattle, and now a convict. She is granted special permission to return home for her mother's funeral, and on the trip she meets Hyeon Bin, a troubled Korean man.
When making the film, Tang Wei was required to cry every day. When interviewed by reporters about "Late Autumn," she clearly was still in character, and in discussing it she kept her head down, with a look of sadness.
"Her vision is to be a creative actor, not a star. So she definitely will not blindly pursue her next big movie production," says Yuan Hong. He also said recently that Tang Wei is closest to what Laozi's "Daodejing"《道德经》says, that the highest excellence "is like the excellence of water, which appears in its benefitting all things without struggle."
"I want to be like grass, it won't be trampled to death"
During her three years out of the public eye, Tang Wei's only acting was in some UK stage performances while she was studying English and drama. Her UK experience has grown her. "One has to be very strong-minded, strongly self-protecting. You must be perennial, like grass: it stubbornly keeps growing, and won't be trampled to death."
In the following interview, B=Bund Pictorial, T=Tang Wei
"I really wanted to try going on a blind date, but didn't get the chance"
B: Ivy Ho had you speaking in Cantonese for 90 minutes. Few people not born in Hong Kong can do that and sound authentic. How did you manage to do that?
T: Honestly, I don't think I spoke that well, especially a great many words I didn't understand. But I'm not a Hong Kong person, and regardless of whether I understand what was said, I try to pronounce [my lines] correctly. When I first read the script, and learned the entire film would be in Cantonese, I was a bit nervous. So I deliberately went to Hong Kong one month before shooting started, and took Cantonese lessons. The classes I took weren't in stage language, but typical slang, listening to the teacher telling stories. I also talked as much as I could with Hong Kong colleagues, bought my favorite foods at local markets, haggled prices with shopkeepers, asked sales clerks if I sounded authentic, etc. To truly integrate into the local life, one has to sound natural in the local language.
The director had to remind me not to practice speaking fluent Cantonese, or train for that, because my character wasn't a native of Hong Kong. She also deliberately brought in Lam Wai (林威) to play my uncle, because his Cantonese is less pure. She also feels the great majority of Hong Kong people don't speak pure Cantonese, that's how precise she is about authenticity.
B: There's no question about your fluency in Cantonese, but Hong Kong circles are very particular. Can you get used to Hong Kong entertainment circles? Do you think you can rapidly integrate into so different a region?
T: I didn’t have that many contacts in Hong Kong with [entertainment] people, just the ones I was working with. I'm an adaptable person, and can live anywhere.
B: In the movie "Crossing Hennessey," you play Eleonora with almost no makeup or hair care, were you comfortable doing that before the camera?
T: There actually was a little makeup. I thought at first there wouldn't be a minute in the movie where I'd need any, but then I realized I'd need at least a little. But the hair. I had never had bangs like that, but after the haircut, I looked in the mirror and thought: wow, that's good. I thought before that my publicity portraits were very cool, but I never expected the new haircut would turn out so well.
[right, Tang Wei in "Crossing Hennessey"]
B: Ivy Ho has said that you are "cute, and make people around you happy." Did this side of your personality make the movie's comedy scenes less difficult to do?
T: I don't often tell jokes, no innate sense of humor. But I have a lot of little actions in real life that the director found interesting and asked me to show in the movie, like pouting, grimacing, and like that. I thought to myself, these would be too magnified on the big screen, so there was no way after that I would dare do them. (Laughs)
B: The first scene has you and Jacky on a blind date. How do you view this method of getting acquainted with someone? Have you tried it yourself?
T: I don't know if young Hong Kong people date this way, the director said it was a possibility, but there was no one in our crew who could tell us for certain. I do know that many people on the mainland date that way, especially around Zhejiang where my parents are from. Our society today is getting busier all the time, people are striving more and more for success, their ambitions are getting higher and higher, and so many good men and women don't have the opportunity to get to know each other. They can't just go out and say to someone on the street, "Hi! I'm looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend." So finding a suitable match may require some way like this to get to know someone.
Before we started filming, I really wanted to try going on a blind date, but didn't get the chance. I would have liked to learn how one feels meeting someone this way. Would your heart be pounding? What if you liked them, what if you didn't? Would you be disappointed, or excited? Should you tell your family? I would have liked to know.
"My experiences have helped me to grow"
B: Mainland audiences haven't seen you on screen for a long time. Did it feel strange standing on the set on the first day of filming "Crossing Hennessey"?
T: Actually, I'd been acting all along on stage, including in London. And sometimes, I was preparing for the role in my mind. In London, for example, I would spend some time studying, and at other times I would prepare for the role of Eleonora. I peformed Eleonora in my mind many times.
B: Ivy Ho has said that the characteristic you and Eleonora have most in common is "temper." Do you accept that view? And if so, please give some examples.
T: That's an outsider's view, and it might be true. When I was small, a teacher once said I was wayward. If the director said it, it must be so. Next time you'd have to ask her. (Laughs)
B: "Crossing Hennessey" tells the story of a "surplus" man and woman who in their lives deal with pressures, growth and sincerity. Our cities now see more and more women who are looking for love; could you have any suggestions for them? [The terms "sheng nan" (剩男) and "sheng nü" (剩女), i.e. "surplus man" and "surplus woman" refer to people who have passed normal marriage age without finding a mate.]
T: I think it would be more appropriate to call it the story of a surplus man and a "house woman." [An adult female still living with her parents] I think it unlikely the two would have met by chance, like Eleonora meeting Ah-Xu [another male character in the film] on a bus, or accidentally getting in a situation where she has to become acquainted with Ah-Lai. I don't think she would have gotten to know them.
B: Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from the entire process of working on the set with a star like Jacky Cheung as your co-lead?
T: The thing that sticks in my mind most didn't happen on the set but rather in an exterior scene. I still remember it very distinctly: it was in the evening, and in the scene he and I were waiting for a bus. I was standing at the side of the station platform, and had waited quite a long time. Suddenly, I heard the sound of him singing. I didn't turn to look at him, just waited until he had finished singing. At that time, the streets had looked deserted, but when the song had finished, I heard many people applauding, and originally I thought I was the only one who heard him. I remember thinking at the time that this was his real self, and when we did scenes together after that I felt I understood him a bit more, it gave me such an amazing feeling.
B: Nina Paw said it is rare nowadays to find young people like you, so obsessed with acting; I'd like to know if you are really that obsessed?
T: People who like to act are all obsessed with it! The ones I've met all are that way.
B: You took your degree [here in China] in directing. What did you study in London?
T: I majored in directing because I had never felt like an actor. So this was the first time I seriously studied acting. All the courses I took in London were summer courses covering all aspects of acting. Summer courses are usually 2 to 3 months in length, and I took a large variety, constantly learning from different teachers, all having their different characteristics. To be honest, because of my work I've been constantly flying around the world, so my longest time in one place was that three months in London.
B: What did you learn abroad that has altered and affected your acting, your views?
T: What I learned shouldn't have any influence on me. What has had an influence is going to more places, coming in contact with more people. I got together with many Chinese, and when I was with other Chinese people I couldn't feel [anything negative], like discrimination.
(You've been discriminated against?)
Of course, there have been many instances of this. But these true-life experiences have helped me to grow, and I carry this into the movie. In England, I was like Eleonora in Hong Kong: one has to be very strong-minded, strongly self-protecting. You must be perennial, like grass: it stubbornly keeps growing, and won't be trampled to death.
"My home is in Beijing"
B: What have you been doing in these two years we haven't seen you?
B: What is the composition of life?
T: Doing what one wants to do.
B: You now have a Hong Kong identity card through the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme; will you be spending more of your time in Hong Kong or the mainland?
T: My home is Beijing. When I arrived in Beijing last night I went straight home and put all my luggage there. Because I wasn't with [my family] at New Year's, and away from home so much, I was very apologetic to them.
B: Many people may think of you as a Hong Kong person, not a mainlander.
T: I'm not [a Hong Kong person]. It's more convenient for travel, and I just like to travel around. Given the opportunity, I'll go to any other country.
B: It's been said you've refused to make movies with a lot of major directors like Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang. True?
T: I never knew they were looking for me. What you just said is the first time I've heard that. Really.
B: Director Ivy Ho has suggested that for your next movie you should do a martial arts film, because you have a heroic air about you.
T: I would be OK with that. I've always wanted to be a boy, and never thought of myself as a girl. (At this point Ivy Ho, who had been sitting by the side, commented "You might not agree, but she's become very much the heroine. I'll tell Ang Lee his next movie should be "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2.")
B: That jacket you are wearing is very attractive.
T: Honestly, I'm someone who becomes what I'm wearing. If I'm wearing a skirt and high heels, I feel I should be regal, ladylike. But if I'm out wearing sneakers, jeans, that's the tomboy I'm going back to.
B: Your father recently had an exhibit of his paintings in Hong Kong which included some of your own work. Do you still paint? And do you have any plans to hold your own exhibit?
T: I don't paint anymore.
B: What sort of role, what sort of movie would you most want to make now?
T: A movie with a great role and a great script would make me very excited, and I'd be very eager to discuss that with a director!
B: Many people find you like a little girl, playful, passionate. How do you maintain that vivaciousness, that cuteness?
T: From my parents! I was born that way! (Laughs)
B: Tell us, of what you've read or seen most recently, what movie or book have you liked the most?
T: The latest movie I've seen was Miyazaki's "Ponyo." It's been a long time since I've seen so simple a story on film, a film with "emotion" at its core, plus I love cartoons. I especially liked the little goldfish princess in the film, her ways of finding things she liked. But I've also read several books during this time, and liked all of them.
(Thanks to Wang Yao (王瑶) and Tang Lung (唐龙) for help with this article)