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China's resident beauty kicks it up

PHOTO: 2011 Davis Films/Impact Pictures (RE5) Inc. and Constantin Film International GmbH

Publication Date : 13-09-2012


China actress Li Bingbing is blasting into the big time with some heavy-duty guns and a killer dress.

After turns as a white-haired witch in Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and dual roles in the historical drama Snow Flower And The Secret Fan (2011), the 39-year-old star takes on her highest profile Hollywood role yet in the fantasy action flick Resident Evil: Retribution. The film opens here today.

Resident Evil is arguably the most successful celluloid adaptation of a video game. The first four films – Resident Evil (2002), Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) – have earned a total of US$675 million worldwide on a combined budget of $183 million.

In Retribution, Li plays the role of Ada Wong, a popular player character introduced in the PlayStation game Resident Evil 2 (1998). In the film, Wong helps the series’ heroine Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, escape from imprisonment. They have to make their way through simulations of New York and Tokyo while fighting off the undead infected by Umbrella Corporation’s virus.

And of course, Wong runs, shoots and kicks a** while wearing a sleeveless figure-hugging red number with a thigh-high slit.

Recalling the shoot in wintry Toronto last November and December, Li says in Mandarin: “It was really very little clothing – a qipao with a high slit that flapped when the wind blew. Can you imagine how cold it was for me in that costume? Just standing out in the open, I would shiver involuntarily.”

Good thing then that Jovovich was looking out for her, asking the wardrobe department to cover Li first when a take was done and remove her coat last when it came time for another take.

Being the professional that she is, Li had no problems with the height of the slit in the dress and, in fact, regrets that she did not have enough fight scenes as Ada Wong.

At the Empire Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, she tells Life!: “I wanted the slit to be that high after I saw the images of Ada Wong from the game. We were being faithful to the feel of the character from the game. Not that I wanted it to be that high but that was where the opening would be the most beautiful and cool.” If anyone thinks that Li is hankering after greater exposure with, well, greater skin exposure, think again.

Unlike other internationally prominent fellow China actresses Fan Bingbing, who has been grabbing attention on red carpet events everywhere with dramatic dresses, and Zhang Ziyi, who has been tabloid fodder for her love life, Li has kept a relatively low profile outside of her films.

There is hence something a little mysterious about this Chinese beauty with the flawless complexion and large peepers even though she is a huge star at home with 17.8 million followers on her weibo microblog.

Dressed in a Gucci ruffled print dress for the media event, she looks elegant and poised. The multiple earrings she sports lends her an unexpected spunkiness but not so many that she seems to be auditioning for a Chinese remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

In conversation with reporters, she is not overly effusive but neither is she as icy as her name suggests (“bing” is the Chinese word for ice). She speaks her mind and comes across as likably down-to-earth, someone for whom making movies is all about the work, not the status.

She is certainly not shy about stepping into the limelight, having attended the Oscar party circuit this year and confessing to Life! that to attend that glitzy awards ceremony with a movie in tow would be “like a dream”.

She just has no grand plans to conquer Hollywood: “I’ve always left it to fate. I’ve never had this idea that things should be this way or that. “I’ve never set goals for myself, either. Just because you set them doesn’t mean you will achieve them, nor does it mean you won’t achieve them. And then you have to set new ones again after attaining them.”

Do not ask her what or when her next American movie might be – she does not know.

Musing about the actor’s lot, she says: “There are times when an actor takes the lead and times when she has to be passive, this can’t be helped. You have to face being chosen or you might be in a position to choose someone.”

That is not to say that Li is a total slacker when it comes to her chosen craft. The Shanghai Drama Institute graduate made a splash very early on. For her role as a sympathetic prison guard in Zhang Yuan’s Seventeen Years (1999), Li was named Best Actress at the Singapore Film Festival in 1999.

She has flitted easily between action and drama, taking on wuxia television shows such as Taiji Prodigy (2001) and Eight Heroes (2005) as well as more actorly fare such as Snow Flower And The Secret Fan. Variety is the spice of life for Li, who says she enjoys both genres. “I just love acting. Fight scenes are like being in a dream as you become someone with super strength or capability and accomplish things you normally can't."

She notes matter-of- factly that it is the dramatic roles which have won her accolades. They include a prestigious Golden Horse Award for Best Actress for the spy thriller The Message (2009) and a Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress for the romantic drama The Knot (2005).

She offers a measured assessment of her own acting: “Ten years ago, I was younger and more immature and now I think it’s a good time for me. I have had some life experience and become a richer person and my acting is more layered.”

At this stage of her career, she is more concerned with the quality rather than the quantity of her output. The kind of role does not matter so much as how the character fits into the script as a whole. She adds: “If there aren’t any good films, I would rather not act.”

It also means that she is thinking about the importance of movies to her life. “If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said that my career comes first. Always, always, always. All these years, it’s been work first and everything else was not as important. Only in recent years have I started to pay more attention to myself.

And what she is thinking about is children, thanks to Jovovich’s enthusiastic endorsement of them.

Apparently, Jovovich, who is married to Resident Evil: Retribution writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson, with whom she has a five-year-old daughter Ever, told Li: “You need to have kids and then you realise how beautiful the world is. Fame and fortune don’t matter to me now. When I look at my daughter, I have everything.”

And Li, who is single and not reported to be dating anyone, is swayed. She is even thinking about becoming a mother while skipping the boyfriend/husband stage altogether. She says: “Maybe... I don’t know, it’s no big deal to people now."

Taking on Resident Evil: Retribution is in keeping with her search for personal fulfilment as well, though on a different level.

A “major reason”, she says, for doing this movie was to learn English: “When you have to be in front of the camera the next day and speak in English, if you can’t do it, what will you do?

“So you force yourself to learn it or it’ll be a huge loss of face. Every day on set is like having to take a test and cross a hurdle.

“Everybody is lazy, I’m human too. There are times when I think I don’t want to learn it and yet I like doing so.”

She wants to learn the language, not primarily as a means of making headway in Hollywood, but for a simpler reason. “I’m insecure. On occasions when I have to meet people and chat in English, I can’t really communicate. And that’s why I started learning the language.”

On the set of Resident Evil: Retribution, she was thrust into a foreign environment and culture. Unlike her previous Hollywood ventures, which featured Asianco-stars, it was all Westerners this time.

As she was not confident of her English, she tried to not to speak too much at first. But the ice was broken after some time. She says: “Their expectation of you is actually very low so when they realise you can speak some English, they would encourage you to speak more. With English and body language, you can communicate.”

With each English-language film, the improvement she has made is audible. In Retribution, her spoken English proficiency is somewhere between a sometimes incomprehensible Jackie Chan and a fluent Michelle Yeoh.

To the delight of the fans, she also gamely speaks a few Malay phrases at the press event and at the Malaysian premiere of the film at TGV Sunway Pyramid last Friday.

Asked if she has any advice for younger actors and the question gives her pause.

She then responds: “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about this. If I were to give some advice to young people, not necessarily actors, I would tell them it’s never too late to start anything and to insist on your dreams.

“Is that difficult to translate into English?” she asks. You assure her it is not and tell her what the phrase is. “Never too late to start anything,” she repeats in English, savouring the sound of the phrase.


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