This past Tuesday, September 4, was opening day for《The Expendables 2》in China, an event much-anticipated by many filmgoers there. This was not only because mindless Hollywood action films are as popular there as elsewhere in the world (I suspect such films are made with the overseas proceeds uppermost in mind), but also because of the casting of well-regarded Chinese actress Yu Nan as the first female "Expendable." (We recently posted a translation of an interview with the actress on her experiences making the film.)
《The Expendables 2》has been retitled《Gansidui 2》敢死队 for mainland release, a title more indicative of the movie's content for Chinese audiences. Translated into English, that means either "Death Squad" or implicitly,"Suicide Squad". In Taiwan, the release title will be《Yuxue Renwu 2》浴血任务, which translates as "Bloody Mission."
Unlike in the U.S., where Friday is the usual day for major new releases, Tuesday is the common day in China, since Tuesday is also half-price ticket day, and a common marketing strategy is to release films on that day in order to attract a good first-day box office then use that as a loss-leader, relying on word of mouth to promote later sales. I haven't been able to find the total number of screens showing it nationwide, but it opened on 92 screens in Beijing alone. Chinese critics, both professional and amateur, have given it mostly good reviews. At Mtime.com, the most comprehensive of the various Chinese movie websites, 2,844 subscribers contributed ratings, giving it an average of 7.9 out of a possible 10; at douban.com, another popular review site, out of 6,155 ratings, the average was 3.5 out of a possible 5. In both cases, the highest rating by category was 8.1 for imagery, while the lowest was 6.4 for plot (no argument there). The two most common criticisms, which I have also seen expressed in western movie blogs and forums: 1) the advanced ages of some of the action heroes demanded from viewers a bit of what in theater appreciation classes is called "suspension of disbelief," and 2) disappointment at the brevity of Jet Li's appearance, little more than a cameo, or in Chinese slang, "soy sauce."
One cast member whose career will probably get a major boost from this is Yu Nan. (The Chinese release posters -- two of them reproduced here -- include her with the men.) In addition to the natural pride Chinese audiences would take in seeing one of their own in an important, non-villainous role, critics also noted the poise and demeanor of her character: as one put it, showing the "wisdom and calm of the Chinese woman." Decades of being portrayed by Hollywood as evil stereotypes (e.g.《The Thief of Baghdad》and《Welcome Danger》) with the Charlie Chan movies being welcome exceptions, have made the Chinese a bit sensitive in that regard. In addition, critics expressed approval of Yu Nan's having a significant role, not just a decorative "flower vase," the Chinese equivalent of what Americans call "eye candy." The day after this film's release was the actress's birthday, and its success in her home country was probably a welcome present.
[With the US release this weekend of《The Expendables 2》, in which Chinese actress Yu Nan (余男) plays the first female expendable, a closer look at the actress and her career to date might be of interest. The following is a slightly abridged translation of an article that originally appeared in the Shanghai magazine The Bund Pictorial earlier this summer. Comments in brackets, like this paragraph, are those of this site's editor, added where he thought clarification or additional information was desirable.]
Yu Nan: an artistic woman wields a submachine gun
When this reporter encountered Yu Nan looking for her gate at the Beijing airport, she was dressed in black, not wearing sunglasses or makeup, her hair tied casually at the back of her head. She looked nothing like a career actress, and her plain and simple appearance made her look even less like a fashionable young woman.
However, there is a considerable gap between the on-screen image and the real person. On the big screen, the 34-year-old is always featured with her sexy lips and a strong air of Eastern beauty; while in real life, she is just an ordinary girl from northern China. "In the movies, I need to be the focus, but in life, it is not necessary at all," said Yu.
[left, Yu Nan in paramilitary uniform in 《The Expendables 2》
Yu Nan is also known for taking up a diverse variety of roles. In《Tuya's Marriage》,which won the Berlin Golden Bear, she played a Mongolian woman who agrees to divorce her disabled husband so that she can remarry a man willing to take care of both of them and their children. In《Design of Death》released this April, she plays a mute widow, using only her eyes and hands to express her character's deep down sexiness; and in the movie《The Expendables 2》, to be released this summer, she will take up a machine gun and fight side by side with the elite group of men known as the best mercenaries in the world.
"Guns Aren't Sexist"
When Yu Nan was selected for《The Expendables 2》, a report in the foreign media said, "No matter whether you believe women are no match for men in the world of violence, they can still wield a gun against bad guys. Guns aren't sexist."
Beginning with Gong Li, a typical route to success for Chinese actresses has been to forge long-term alliances with powerful directors, and Gong Li's alliance was with director Zhang Yimou. For Yu Nan, this was supposed to be with Wang Quan'an, one of the best-known sixth-generation directors. But to everyone's surprise, Yu did not follow Gong's path, and instead struck out on her own.
Her feature film debut in Wang's《Lunar Eclipse》(1999) earned her the Best Actress award at the Deauville Asian Film Festival. She made three more films directed by Wang: 《The Story of Ermei》, which gained her the Best Actress Golden Rooster Award and the Best Actress prize at the Paris International Film Festival in 2003;《Tuya's Marriage》for which she won the Golden Bear prize in 2007 at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Actress prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; and《Weaving Girl》, which won the Jury Special Grand prix and the FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival.
Yu has also worked with other major Chinese directors, including Wang Xiaoshuai in 2008's《In Love We Trust》, which won the Best Screenplay Silver Bear prize at the Berlin International Film Festival the same year, and Ning Hao, in his Chinese Western film《Western Sunshine》in 2010.
[right, back home in Beijing, Yu Nan presents a more civilian look]
This year, Yu Nan has made seven films, including《Design of Death》,《The Expendables 2》and the Tsui Hark-directed《Zhua Hou》(抓猴) [literal English title《Catching Monkey》, official English release title not set]. After that, she immediately left for South Africa to join the crew of《Black South-easter》, a crime film from South Africa-born female director Carey McKenzie. Although they had agreed two years ago to work together, the actress and the director had never met, but after having seen each other's work they discussed the possibility online.
Doing Her Own Stunts
《The Expendables》movie franchise is known for its all-star cast of strong male leads. While the first movie saw the role of women confined to that of damsels in distress, the sequel will see Yu standing side by side with her male team members and wielding her own weapons. She plays Maggie from China, assisting the character Bruce Willis plays.
The story behind her casting is a little unusual, not least because she landed the role unprepared. When she was notified that she would be auditioning for the part, she was shooting another movie in Thailand [action film《The Five》]. At this time, another Hollywood studio also sought her out, for《Resident Evil: Retribution》, which [Chinese actress] Li Bingbing is now making.
Exhausted from her work in Thailand, Yu was extremely reluctant to audition for the role. When she landed in Beijing at one in the morning, her agent told her, "You have to try out for《The Expendables 2》. If you land the part, you'll start shooting in three days." So less than ten hours after she had arrived, she found herself once more at the Beijing airport with her bags, headed to the United States. As soon as she arrived in Los Angeles, she was handed over 10 pages of script for the audition.
After going through several lines with Yu, director Simon West realized that she was completely unprepared and asked if she had even read the script, which led to an argument between the producers and Yu's agent, each blaming the other. In the end, Yu had to act as peacemaker, saying: "Let's have the audition right now. What do you need?" After it was all over, Yu went to her hotel room and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next morning her agent phoned to awaken her, saying "Pack your bags, you'll be leaving for Bulgaria tomorrow." She had landed the role.
When Yu Nan arrived at the set in Bulgaria, she found that it had been transformed into a 1940s New York street littered with debris from many things blown to pieces. She went to introduce herself to Sylvester Stallone, who was sitting in a truck with its motor running, surrounded by people carrying guns, getting ready to shoot a scene. Yu said to him, "Hey, hello!" Stallone replied, "Hello. I'll talk to you tomorrow, but right now I have to go "kill" a few people." After saying this, he started the truck and drove off. Yu Nan stood there laughing, feeling that the serious-faced Stallone had quite a sense of humor.
For an actor to win the respect of others ultimately relies on performance. Yu Nan stayed on the set for two months. The first month was spent training for her action scenes, and the second filming the actual scenes. One of her few previous action films was《Diamond Dogs》, and arriving on the set in Bulgaria she was surprised to see a familiar face, as the action director was the same director she had worked with in《Diamond Dogs》. "I told you that you can fight. Remember that?" he said.
Yu Nan's training sessions began at eight in the morning with a two-hour warm-up followed by running, kungfu and side kicks. After she completed her training for the day, she would have to sit and rest for more than an hour. However, despite the difficulty of her training, it was nothing compared to the actual grueling filming itself. Jet Li once remarked that making《The Expendables》had been like a holiday for him, because he received the best treatment, and could hang out with the other action stars, eating and drinking and having a good time bragging about their movies. But the demands on Yu Nan were different. Stallone expected her to do her own action stunts because her stunt double was not able to do them as well as he wanted. So the others all said to Yu, "You're young, and we're old, so you shouldn't need a stand-in." And that is how Yu Nan came to perform all her own action stunts.
Although she had wielded handguns in other movies, Yu Nan had no training with a submachine gun, in fact had never even touched one. When it came time for her to use one, the director handed it to her and said, "There are 12 rounds in it. Shoot when you are ready." The first time she held it, she staggered underneath its weight. At first she thought it would be too difficult, but she kept very calm, aware that the male actors were watching her, a bit amused at her nervousness. When she was done firing, the director came up to her and asked, "Why didn't you blink at all when you were shooting?" Yu Nan replied, "I didn't? Really, I didn't even notice. The gun was shaking so much I just concentrated on holding it steady." Yu Nan thought there was nothing unusual about this, but later, a crew member told her, "Do you know, very few people can shoot without blinking, especially not a woman."
Foreign Languages Open Foreign Doors
On the set of《The Expendables 2》, all the principal cast members had their own individual shed to rest in on breaks from filming. Initially, most of the others were unacquainted with Yu Nan. As she sat in her shed, she could hear others outside, whispering, "This actress just sits there all day, and never says anything." So Yu Nan took the initiative to approach the others and say hello and "How are you today?" Gradually, everyone got to know each other.
Yu Nan's work ethic and relative fluency in English made it easy for her to make friends with the other lead actors. However, unlike most Chinese actresses who began studying English only after becoming famous, she learned it when she was young from her grandmother who had been an English teacher. It was always expected that her English abilities would lead to her studying at a general, comprehensive university, but she surprised most who knew her by enrolling at the Beijing Film Academy instead.
When Yu Nan first entered the Film Academy, there were very few students in her dormitory on weekends, and often she was the only one there. When she would have nothing else to do, she would listen to foreign music or take a favorite book down from the shelves to read. She had a cousin who was studying at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, who found a female foreign student with whom Yu Nan could exchange English-Chinese conversation practice. The two girls hit it off, and began spending their free time together. Studying English became a major spare time pursuit for Yu Nan, and when other dorm residents would stop by to see her hard at learning the language, they would ask: "What are you doing? Preparing to go abroad?"
Her mastery of French came later, after she had graduated. 《Fureur》, her second movie, was made in France, and required she learn some French. After returning to Beijing, she rented a house with an American girl who couldn't speak a word of Chinese, so all their conversations had to be conducted in English. Later, another girl joined them, an Italian who spoke French fluently. The three young women lived together for a few years, and it was through her everyday interactions with her housemates that Yu Nan gained her own fluency in the two languages.
Her multilingual abilities have been an asset in landing her roles in foreign movies. At the same time, making artistic films has honed her performing skills and shaped her very distinctive personality and image. But in 2008 she experienced a low in her career and in her personal life when she parted ways with her long-time collaborator, director Wang Quan'an. It was Yu Nan who made the break, saying at the time that she chose to leave because, "I want more freedom." [In the following year she was twice quoted as saying her decision was due to "aesthetic fatigue." In other words, she had tired of making art house movies, Wang's specialty.]
After that, Yu Nan began appearing in commercial films, paired with Francis Ng in《Deadly Delicious》and in Ning Hao's《Western Sunshine》, then in Gao Qunshu's《Wind Blast》and Tsui Hark's《Catch Monkey》. Her performance in these films was nothing surprisingly different, but seemed rather a natural adjustment to the different atmosphere of the commercial film.
"Maybe this is growth. I never thought I could do these things before. But if you don't give it a shot, you'll never realize your true potential," said Yu Nan.
"I'm Someone Who's Always Adjusting"
Reporter: You really surprised me by becoming a hit woman. You're still an artistic young woman, what led you to make this career move?
Yu Nan: It's very interesting, but action movies actually found me, and I'm not the least surprised. It was not because I had a foundation in kungfu, but I found I could do it, although I don't know why. It might be because I love sports, or it might be related to my personality, I like doing things that are tough. But even my family asked why did I suddenly want to switch from making purely artistic movies to doing fight scenes.
Reporter: Many people who ordinarily make artistic films, and then turn to making commercial films, find it feels strange to them. But you go between commercial films and art films almost without a hitch. How did you bring off such a conversion?
Yu Nan: I have to approach my work wholeheartedly, regardless of ability, or what the motives of others might be. In fact, I'm someone who's always adjusting, and the moment I'm not acting I relax myself. At those times I restrain myself.
When I first [changed genres], it created some personality problems for me, but I didn't know it then. Nothing is certain in this world, and we must always be aware of our surroundings, the world we are living in. I slowly came to realize that while you might want things to go a certain way, they will follow their own direction, not yours. You can strive to achieve little things, and with some success, but not necessarily with the big things. And I've become a bit more comfortable with that. You know, we can't control our own lives and deaths, but we can control our relaxing on the road from home to workplace.
Reporter: It can't be easy for an actor filming in someone else's movie culture. Do you agree with that?
Yu Nan: It's true in my case. I've been fortunate in that there's been nothing in my work that I had to do, which would be especially difficult for me. Agencies can sometimes be tough, finding some difficult roles that they think you have to play, for example in《The Expendables 2》, but in the end it all turns out OK. I really dread having others pressuring me, pushing me. But when I go to do the job, I feel like it's fully in my control. I don't want to get up early, but I have to get up early to make movies, these are the choices you make in work and life.
In 1928, Ruan Lingyu left the Mingxing company in protest of Zhang Shichuan's decision to make Hu Die the studio's principal leading lady and relegate Ruan to supporting roles, often negative characters. Between that time and 1930, when she joined the newly-formed Lianhua studio as its principal leading lady, Ruan made six films for the Da Zhonghua Baihe studio. Formed a few years earlier by a merger of the Da Zhonghua (Greater China) and Baihe (Lily) studios, Da Zhonghua Baihe (hereinafter DZB) had flourished in the late 1920s, and in 1929 had the largest production output of the major Shanghai studios. But by 1929 it had entered a state of decline. This was due in part to audiences tiring of martial arts fantasies, an important part of the studio's output, and in part to a general economic downturn which hurt the whole industry at the box office. Until it merged into Lianhua in early 1930, DZB survived by making films aimed primarily at the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. We have already discussed one of Ruan's DZB films, which written records show was exhibited in Singapore, but not shown in Shanghai until a 1935 Ruan movie retrospective was held there after the actress's suicide. Only one of these DZB films is known to have been shown in Shanghai during Ruan's lifetime.
In addition to the previously discussed《A Woman's Heart》(1930), Ruan's five other DZB films were: 《Passion's Precious Mirror》(1929),《Flower of the Silver Screen》(1929),《Nine Dragons Mountain》(1930),《The Pearl Cap》(1930) and《A Lonely Swan's Calamity》(1931). I have added these directly to the appropriate filmographies in the sidebar to the right. Chinese sources list two of them as being 1929 releases, two as 1930 releases, and one as 1931. For the sake of consistency I have gone along with that, although with one exception there is no surviving evidence as to the actual release dates. Regardless of release date, however, it is certain that all were actually made in 1929.
[left, the author out of costume]
[In the winter of 2011-12, the Chinese magazine Times Online ran a series of articles in which Chinese who had distinguished themselves during the latter part of the 20th century reviewed their careers, and how they remembered those years now. The writers were from various areas, including government, politics, business, etc. One of the contributors was from motion pictures, including a favorite of the author, the actress Brigitte Lin Qingxia 林青霞. The following is a translation of that article. Comments in brackets, like this one, are the editor's, added where he thought clarifcation might be useful.]
One hundred years ago, the comedy short《Stealing the Roast Duck》initiated Hong Kong filmmaking, and from that initial step onto the road, we have gone from silent to sound, from black-and-white to color and widescreen, and now these are coupled with computer graphics. Along the way, movies have emerged from Hong Kong, from Taiwan, from the Chinese mainland, and then gone out to many corners of the world where they have taken home numerous international awards. As a Chinese filmmaker, what do I feel truly proud of?
I entered show business right off the street in 1972, with my first movie《Outside the Window》, and it changed my life forever. If I averaged, say, one film a year, my career would have stretched out for 100 years. That career spanned three decades, the 70s, 80s and 90s, and in addition to a film career, it covered three stages of my life.
In the 1970s it was aesthetic romances. The 1980s saw social realism and witty comedies. In the 1990s it martials arts sword films.
A year after making《Outside the Window》I went to Hong Kong to promote the film, and I found the people there very welcoming. The media dubbed me the "ingenue". 《Outside the Window》grossed HK$650,000 [US$84,000 at the current exchange rate], a high box office return for an artistic film. I became famous overnight.
This screen adaptation of a novel by [Taiwan woman writer] Qiong Yao 琼瑶 [foreign name Chieung Yao, (1938- )] was popular among both men and women. After obtaining the movie rights, the film producer signed Qin Han, Chin [Qin] Hsiang-lin, Brigitte Lin and Lin Fengjiao to contracts, leading the media to say this was the era of "the two Qins and the two Lins." During the time we were filming, I was shooting as many as six scenes a day, so busy I didn't sleep in my own bed for two weeks. There was one time I fell asleep standing up against a wall, awakened only when the director shouted "Get ready, get ready!", and it was only then I would be startled awake. When I recall those days now I miss them, demanding as they were.
Fame brought pressure and long-term exhaustion, to the point where I couldn't bear it any more, so on December 29, 1979 I left the movie world for California, USA, to further my education and enjoy some freedom to spend my time as I chose.
During the 15 months I was in the United States, I made《Love Massacre》, a movie directed by Patrick Tam. Shot entirely in Los Angeles and San Francisco, this film was distinctive, not only because it was very bloody, but because in order to express feelings of coldness or passion, the director shot all the scenes against a blue or a red background. With this film I entered another stage of my movie career, and my life.
Returning to Taiwan in March, 1983, I found the movie industry had undergone a major shift, and artistic films were no longer popular. Martial law had been lifted, and film censorship had been relaxed to allow a more diversified selection of movies. In the rest of that decade I tried all genres of films, trying to adapt with the changing times and audiences' tastes in motion pictures. At first I tried to maintain a reserved attitude, with a few witty comedies, and then I made director Chu Yen-ping's witty and female-oriented action film《Pink Force Commandos》, which set some records at the box office. From that point on, my movie career left Taiwan and began its roll in Hong Kong.
I made Tsui Hark's《Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain》, and after that I was bonded permanently to Hong Kong. As the times changed, Hong Kong and Taiwan films began doing location shooting on the mainland, and in 1990 I went for the first time to Changchun and Harbin to film《Red Dust》, a love story against a background of the era's turmoil, and this movie brought me my only Golden Horse Best Actress Award.
In 1992 I made《Swordsman II》as "Invincible Asia," and of the 17 movies I made after that, 11 were martial arts sword films. With Tsui Hark I made a succession of successful movies,《Peking Opera Blues》,《Dragon Inn》and《Swordman III: The East Is Red》.
So in the 22 years from 1972 to 1994 I went from being a sweet and innocent teenager to playing a sword-wielding man, and witnessed the fluctuating ups and downs of motion picture trends. I made 100 films, and portrayed 100 characters, but actually Brigitte Lin's most difficult role was playing that of Brigitte Lin.
In the history of martial arts films, the name Fen Juhua 粉菊花 is little known outside of Asia, if at all. Yet while her own movie acting career was limited to a handful of films many years ago, she had a massive and long-term impact on Chinese movie history, particularly that of Hong Kong.
[left, a rare surviving photo of the young Fen Juhua]
Fen Juhua's precise birthplace is unrecorded, but it is known that she was a Cantonese, raised in Shanghai and originally surnamed Sun 孙. Trained from childhood in classical Peking opera, she specialized in playing wudan (a female martial type, a role that demands performing difficult acrobatics). She was already a major stage star when she made her first film in 1925, acting the title role in《Heroine Li Feifei》, which related the story of a female Robin Hood type. It created a sensation among the public, in part because of its casting: Fen Juhua and her male lead Lin Yongrong (林雍容）were two major stars of the Shanghai stage, both now making their first screen appearance. Also, while the use of wires to simulate flying (a technique which later became known in the West as "wire fu") was nothing new in Chinese film, and while heroic swordswomen were not unknown, this movie is believed to be the first in which an actress performed flying roles.
[right, program notes for《Heroine Li Feifei》. Fen Juhua is at the center, with Wu Suxin directly above her (12 O'clock); co-star Lin Yongrong is at 1:00. Click on any image to view full size.]
Following that initial success, Fen Juhua went on to make a few more silent films based on Chinese folk tales or historical novels, but after that she concentrated exclusively on stage work for the rest of her mainland career. In 1949, she left Shanghai and relocated to Hong Kong, where she at last fulfilled a dream she had held for some time. This was an acting school, the Chun Chow 春秋 School of Drama, which aimed to revitalize classic Chinese opera by preparing young performers to carry on the tradition. In the years to come, her school became legendary for the number of HK stage and screen actors and actresses it trained. One area of particular excellence for her school was in teaching aspiring young performers the art of what is known as "acrobatic fighting" (武打) (the use of movements which simulate actual combat by actors and actresses who are not actually martial artists). This became an important source of talent for Hong Kong action films, especially women, for while there was a plentiful supply of young men who had martial arts training, often from childhood, relatively few aspiring actresses had undergone actual martial arts training. So a school that could turn out a pool of female "fighting" talent would be a major contributor to the fast-growing Hong Kong action film industry. Numerous future movie, stage, opera and TV stars owed their success in large measure to Fen Juhua's training. Among her disciples are names which would be recognized by any Hong Kong film fan, such as Ching-Ying Lam, Josephine Siao, Panpan Yeung, Austin Wai, John Lone ... as well as many others perhaps not as famous but eventually to become mainstays of Hong Kong action films.
[right, Fen Juhua with Li Lihua in 1956's《Blood on the Snow》]
In the 1950s and 1960s, Fen Juhua still made occasional screen appearances, but was more involved with motion pictures as an advisor/consultant, sometiimes well down in the credits, if credited at all. In 1961, she and Peking opera impresario Li Guoxiang (李国祥) co-founded the Chun Chow Film Company to make a film which would showcase Fen Juhua's apprentices from her acting school. This production, released February 14, 1962, was《The Capture of the Evil Demons》, which introduced such future talents as Chi-wah Sum, Connie Chan Po-chu and Lulu Zhang to the screen. We don't know if it gave Fen Juhua the inspiration, but it is reminiscent of the Shanghai Mingxing studio's 1922 comedy short《The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai》, which provided a role of some sort to every student in the studio's acting school.
In 1990, Fen Juhua relocated (along with her son and his family) to her ancestral home of Guangzhou. She lived out her days there, dying in 1994.
Filmography (credited roles only; all as actress, unless noted):
Heroine Li Feifei ... Li Feifei
The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl ... Sister Hua
Princess Lotus, pts. I-III ... Princess Lotus
Three Kingdoms: Seven Captures ...
Sorrowful Glory ... bride's counselor
General Chai and Lady Balsam (guest asst. director)
Beauty Contest ... contest judge
Blood in the Snow ... Wen Yanmi
The Story of Lu Siniang (Li Lihua's personal trainer)
Les Belles (dance director)
The Invincible Yeung Generals (action director))
(aka The Conqueress; aka Female General Mrs. Yeung)
The Capture of the Evil Demons ... Madame Chiu (also executive producer)
(aka Battle of Sizhou)
The Magic Sword of Tianshan (martial arts consultant)
Nüxia Li Feifei (1925) 女侠李飞飞 (Swordswoman Li Feifei)
Tianyi. B&W. Silent. 10 reels. Premiered: December 16, 1925 at the Palace Theater in Shanghai. Direction: Shao Zuiweng. Screenplay: Shao Cunren, Gao Lihen. Cinematography: Xu Shaoyu. Principal cast: Fen Juhua (Li Feifei), Lin Yongrong (Hong Yulin), Wu Suxin (Hui Zhu), Wei Pengfei (Zhang Shen), Gao Lihen (Chen Shu'an), Tan Zhiyuan (Guo Houzhai).
Swordswoman Li Feifei is beloved by the common people for her Robin Hood persona, i.e. protecting them from tyrannical landlords, etc.
Hu Ping 胡萍 was one of the more unique Chinese stars of the 1930s. In addition to her acting ability, she was also a talented writer, and published several stories and essays, and several screenplays, although only one went into production. She was also somewhat reclusive for a top star, consenting to interviews but never revealing much about herself or her personal life. The mystery that surrounded her is only complicated by the uncertainty regarding what became of her after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
We know for certain that Hu Ping was born and raised in the city of Changsha, Hunan. Her family owned and operated a coffee house where she was working as a server when by chance writer-director Tian Han came in as a customer, and recruited her for his Shanghai theater. Although she had never acted in a production at any level and never had any theatrical training, she showed considerable promise in several major stage productions, including "Street People," a popular success at the time.
In 1931, Hu Ping joined the movie industry, appearing in《Hero on the Sea》(1931) and《Greenwoods Girl》(1932) for the Youlian (Friendship) and Bai Hong (Rainbow) studios, respectively. Later in 1932 she joined the left-wing Dramatists Union, aligning herself with the progressive filmmakers of the time. From 1932 to 1933 she appeared in seven films for the Mingxing (Star) studio, acting the female lead in two of these,《Love and Life》and《Sister's Tragedy》. She also contributed the screenplay for the latter film, which was directed by Gao Lihen, and with Zheng Xiaoqiu in the male lead. In the autumn of 1933, she moved to the progressive Yihua Film Company, starring in《Flames》.
During 1934 and 1935, Hu Ping was the Yihua studio's mainstay actress, either starring in or holding important supporting roles for its major films, and working with some of the top filmmakers of the time: 《Women》(1934), written and directed by Shi Dongshan;《Cotton Blossom Village》(1934) from Cai Chusheng;《Life's Sad Song》(1935), written and directed by Yang Hansheng;《A Hero of Our Time》(1935), written by Hong Shen,》, and what was considered Ouyang Yuqian's masterpiece,《New Peach Blossom Fan》.
[left, Hu Ping, with Zhou Wenzhu in《Song at Midnight》
Hu Ping then moved to the Xinhua Film Company to star in director Shi Dongshan's《A Night of Madness》(1936) and《Youth on the March》(1937). Perhaps her most memorable film role, however, was her last,《Song at Midnight》(1937), a Chinese version of《Phantom of the Opera》.
When full-scale war erupted with Japan, Hu Ping is known to have been active in the resistance, but her eventual fate is clouded. It is known that she left Shanghai, but where she went is a matter of some controversy, with several sources saying she returned to her hometown of Changsha, and was still living there in the 1960s. Another source claims she went to Hong Kong and became the mistress of a wealthy man there. Whatever the case, and whatever her eventual fate, she effectively disappeared from the movie scene after 1937.
Filmography. All as actress unless indicated.
Hero on the Sea
Revival of the Soul of China
Love and Life ... Zhou Guannan
Adventures on the Battlefield
Cosmetics Market ... Miss Yang
The Iron Men
Romance in Spring ... Hu Qiong
The Future ... Pan Xuefen
Sister's Tragedy ... Meng Yuying [also writer]
Flames ... Ah Zhen
Cotton Blossom Village ... Huiniang
Golden Age ... Tao Li
Women ... Jin Ling
A Hero of Our Time ... Zhou Manli
The Beginning of Life ... Suzhen
Life's Sad Song ...
New Peach Blossom Fan ... Xie Qinfang
A Night of Madness ... Annuo, the county administrator's wife
Youth on the March ... Jin Di
Song at Midnight ... Li Xiaoxia
A note on sources:
The principal resource for this article, and others I have published at this site, is the Shanghai Library's online database. In addition to original articles by the library's research staff, the database includes numerous digitized reprints from pre-1950 Chinese film magazines. Unfortunately, these do not always include citations. Also, Chinese periodical publications in those days were usually not paginated, so by modern standards citations were usually incomplete. (In addition, the Shanghai Library file on Hu Ping includes several selections from her diary which were published in various magazines in the 1930s. None of these were used, because while they show her to have been an insightful observer of the filmmaking process, they reveal nothing of the actress herself, not surprising given the actress's private nature.) The following sources were used:
Bai, Shan 白珊. "Hu Ping." in: Film Stars of Old Shanghai (1916-1949). Shanghai Pictorial Press, 2000. [Reprint of an article in the series feature "Selections from the Literary Arena," in the magazine Greenlands 绿土地, undated but probably ca1939.]
Ke, Ping 柯萍. "An interview with Miss Hu Ping." [Interview is online at the Shanghai Library database, no citation given]
"Retired to Hong Kong: the whereabouts of the mysterious Hu Ping." Movie News no.13, June 2, 1939.
"The Talented Hunan Lady: Hu Ping." Original article in the Shanghai Library database.
Wang, Wenhe 王文和. "The author actress: Hu Ping." in: Film Stars Known by Nicknames. Beijing: Xuefan Publishing House, 1990, pp.123-142. ISBN 7-5077-0208-1.
Huang Naishuang 黄耐霜 was a native of Beijing (then called Beiping), born Huang Yunyin 黄云茵 on February 18, 1912. As with so many early Chinese filmmakers, her family had Cantonese origins, but growing up in Beijing and mastering standard Mandarin gave her a career boost with the coming of sound. She entered movies in 1930 with the Jinan Film Company, at a time when the mania for martial arts fantasies was at its zenith, and soon found herself much in demand for major supporting roles. However, like several male actors we have written about earlier (Wang Xianzhai, Sun Min, Hong Jingling) she was quickly typecast as negative characters, usually in her case promiscuous young women whose main objective was to lure the heroes into debauchery. But while this typecasting was something she resented at the time, in later years she acknowledged that she had actually been better in those roles than when she portrayed more conventional and modest women. Later in her career, Huang succeeded in making the transition to character roles, playing older women, but as she notes in the interview following this article, the transition was difficult at first, due largely to her younger image as a sexy tart. After the founding of the People's Republic, she continued screen acting in supporting roles, but the last credit I could find for her was in 1959.
Practically nothing is recorded of Huang Naishuang's personal life, which is most unusual for a prolific filmmaker, especially one who worked for most of the major Shanghai studios and had prominent roles in numerous major 1930s productions. We don't know if she ever married, who her lovers were, or were there any scandals involving her (exceptional for a 1930s actress). According to an Internet posting by her nephew, she died in 1967.
But for her professional career, Huang Naishuang's own testimony is best, as related in the accompanying interview. While I have made a few comments and appended a filmography to the interview transcript, I believe Huang's story is best told by herself. It also provides us with some unique insights into the earliest Chinese filmmaking, and shows another similarity with Hollywood during its Golden Age: actors' contractual battles with studios. In fact, Huang Naishuang's troubles with the Shao (Shaw) Brothers' Tianyi studio brings to mind the problems Bette Davis and James Cagney had with Warner Brothers a few years later, although unlike those Hollywood stars, Huang's grievances never wound up in court.
[left, Ruan Lingyu in a Lianhua studio publicity photo. Click on any image to enlarge.]
On June 6, 2005, in the midst of China's celebration of its movie centennial, CCTV-10 (China Central Television's Science Channel) broadcast on its daily program "Lecture Room" a lecture on the most famous actress of its silent film era, the legendary Ruan Lingyu. (Despite its name, the Science Channel carries a broad range of cultural programming topics, including those in the humanities and social sciences.) The Chinese Mirror has obtained a transcript of that lecture. The speaker, who goes by the single name Chunzi 淳子, is a talk show host on Shanghai's ERS (Eastern Radio Station). She is also a prolific author, having published two novels, a variety of TV and film scripts, and numerous articles, in particular on the geographic and architectural history of Shanghai. In 1993 she began research on the Chinese woman writer Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), particularly the latter's Shanghai connections, which led to the publication of Zhang Ailing City Map《张爱玲城市地图》a scholarly monograph tracing the places where Zhang's writings were set. The author's lecture topic here was very suitable to her research, given Ruan Lingyu's ties to Shanghai.
[right, author, lecturer and talk show host Chunzi]
[Comments in brackets, like this paragraph, are those of the The Chinese Mirror's editor, added where he thought that further clarification or information was desirable. We have appended a bibliography for further reading at the end of the lecture, and an afterword noting a few relevant points either omitted in the lecture or which conflict with the findings of other researchers. Images in this article are all Chinese Mirror file photos; click on any image to enlarge.]
The translated lecture transcript follows:
I want to speak today about a woman, a famous woman, an outstanding silent film actress of the 1930s. Her name was Ruan Lingyu. As Chinese cinema reaches its centennial, Ruan Lingyu appears before us now from 70 years ago, March 8, 1935. That evening, dressed in a qipao [cheongsam], she took her own life. She left us a message, written on her dress: "Gossip is a fearful thing, gossip is a fearful thing." Anyone who has read this bit of history, and discussed Ruan Lingyu and her death, has probably reached the conclusion that because she was someone who feared gossip, and could not bear that gossip, she had to die.
[On August 21, 2007, China Central Television (CCTV) aired a documentary which examined the marital life of one of China's leading movie stars of the silent and early sound eras, i.e. the "Empress," Hu Die, (aka "Butterfly Wu"). As we noted in an earlier article, the marriage was for some years a troubled one; not because of spousal discord, but because of one very powerful - and ruthless - man's desire for the actress. The Chinese Mirror has obtained a transcript of the program, and what follows is a translation of that. During the program, archival film footage and photographs were interspersed with comments by several authorities on movie history or the political/social history of the era. Sections in italics are the broadcast's voiceover narrative, while those in brackets - like this one - are the translator's, added where it was thought further comment or clarification was desirable. The illustrations accompanying this article are from The Chinese Mirror's archives.] [Hu Die, above left. Click on any photo to view full size.]
In November 1935, the Mingxing movie studio's top actress Hu Die was wed to Pan Yousheng (潘有声), an employee of the British trading company Jardine Matheson. From that moment on, the course of their life together was one of sincere emotional attachment combined with misery. In the troubled years ahead, their marriage was plagued by war, exile and intense pressure from powerful forces.
One spring night in 1944, a distinguished female visitor arrived at the living quarters of a man holding the rank of Major General in the ruling Nationalist (KMT) government's military. He was director of the Chinese Military Council's Investigation and Statistics Bureau, an innocuous-sounding organization which was actually the KMT's secret police. His name was Dai Li, and he was the second most powerful man in China after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi), and, as "China's Himmler," Dai Li was the most feared man in the country. [Dai Li, right]
Learning of the visitor's arrival, Dai Li ordered an aide to bring her in at once, and a few minutes later a well-dressed, mature and elegant but somewhat gaunt woman entered. She was no less than the reigning "Empress of Movies," Hu Die. Her purpose on this late night visit to Dai Li was to rescue her beloved husband -- Pan Yousheng.
Hu Die (original name Hu Ruihua) was born in Shanghai in 1908. Her father Hu Shaogong was a railway inspector. In 1924, she chanced upon an ad for a Chinese film school recruiting potential movie performers; since she had loved theater from childhood, Hu Die applied to the school, determined to join China's fledgling film industry.