Back in time

Ac­tress Chen Shu to ap­pear in film role as an­cient queen

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Chen Shu is hailed by many in China as “the most beau­ti­ful woman in cheongsam”. Over the past decade, she has been as­so­ci­ated with roles in tele­vi­sion hits that re­quired her to wear the Man­darin gown pop­u­lar­ized in early 20th-cen­tury Shang­hai.

Chen, 39, could well rest on her lau­rels of pe­riod drama set in that re­cent past, where her beauty and el­e­gance are guar­an­teed to im­press, but her ver­sa­til­ity eas­ily tran­scends that retro style.

She has sur­prised many by ven­tur­ing into con­tem­po­rary drama, play­ing Huang Lei’s first love in the lat­est hit drama A Love for Sep­a­ra­tion.

“Can you imag­ine I have never played in cos­tume dra­mas set in an­cient times?” she asks. With her dance back­ground, she can bring some­thing spe­cial to fan­tasy tales pop­u­lar with to­day’s youth.

Her up­com­ing role in such a se­ries is that of a queen, and she projects at once grand­ness and sub­tlety with some­times a mere look and at other times with slow, dance­like move­ments. She is mes­mer­iz­ing in a way Tu­ran­dot casts her spell over Calaf in the clas­sic opera story.

The pro­duc­tion has wrapped up re­cently. “I can’t wait for au­di­ence re­ac­tion,” she en­thuses. “It will hit the screen in sum­mer 2017.”

Chen starred in the 1998 Chi­nese pre­miere of the stage mu­si­cal for The Sound of Mu­sic as Liesl, the el­dest daugh­ter. (Full dis­clo­sure: I was a pro­ducer and di­rec­tor for that pro­duc­tion.)

It turned out to be a launch­ing pad for her act­ing ca­reer. Be­fore that, she was a pro­fes­sional dancer with the Ori­en­tal Song and Dance En­sem­ble, spe­cial­iz­ing in clas­sic Chi­nese dance.

In China, many fine ac­tors got their ini­tial train­ing in dance, such as Zhang Ziyi and Yang Yang.

Chen calls the op­por­tu­nity “a gen­tle way to segue into act­ing with such a clas­sic piece”. The role con­tains a love story as a side plot and was quite “de­mand­ing” in its own way, which is why she loved it. The pas de deux for “I am 16 go­ing on 17” pro­vided full flour­ish for her dance skill.

Soon after, she got her­self en­rolled in the pres­ti­gious Cen­tral Acad­emy of Drama and re­ceived se­ri­ous and sys­tem­atic train­ing for act­ing, es­pe­cially line read­ing.

But the big­gest rev­e­la­tion, she says, is in the proac­tive ap­proach she must take as an ac­tor.

“It is not like ev­ery move­ment was chore­ographed for you,” she ex­plains.

The process of cre­ation for an ac­tor may in­volve the anal­y­sis of text and the de­sign of the role’s de­tails in­clud­ing what she­may wear.

“I learned how to ac­tively par­tic­i­pate in this process and col­lab­o­rate with oth­ers.”

Woman in the dress

Chen did not re­al­ize she would later be­come the pre-em­i­nent in­ter­preter of the­woman in cheongsam. She was ready to tackle any role that would come her way and re­gard it as a new chal­lenge.

It was not un­til some­time around 2005, after her grad­u­a­tion from the acad­emy, when it dawned upon her that sto­ries set in the Repub­lic of China era (1911-49) and usu­ally in Shang­hai would be par­tic­u­larly fit for her. That means women in el­e­gant at­tire, of­ten so­cialites or up­per-class ladies.

Cheongsam is the Can­tonese pro­nun­ci­a­tion for the body-hug­ging one-piece gown that has its ori­gin in the Manchu tra­di­tion. It is now stag­ing a come­back as a for­mal wear of retro style. This spell­ing is more ac­cepted in English than the stan­dard pinyin for qi­pao.

Chen spent half a year do­ing re­search. She would talk to ex­perts who spe­cial­ize in the sub­ject, linger among ar­chi­tec­ture of the pe­riod, or other­wise im­merse her­self in the at­mos­phere. She brushes aside the com­pli­ment that she is the most beau­ti­ful woman in this fash­ion, say­ing that she would rather in­ter­pret it as an ac­knowl­edg­ment of her es­say­ing such roles and bring­ing out the full-fleshed per­sons be­hind the tra­di­tional dress.

“Cheongsam is just a sar­to­rial ex­pres­sion of women dur­ing that time, and even though it was barely one cen­tury old, we as ac­tors need to rep­re­sent the grace and char­ac­ter be­yond the fa­cade,” she says. “I’m proud I can be as­so­ci­ated with such roles.”

Chen has ap­peared in many hit drama se­ries, usu­ally as the fe­male lead. She would not name one as her sig­na­ture, but rather find the unique im­por­tance in each role. “I was lucky to get the right roles at the right time ofmy ca­reer andmy age so that I was able to give the best pos­si­ble per­for­mance I could,” she says.

For the 2005 Plot­ting ( An­suan), which blazed a trail for the spy thriller genre on Chi­nese tele­vi­sion, she says her role, Huang Yiyi, was “un­prece­dented” and it fit her age and men­tal­ity per­fectly. The TV adap­ta­tion of Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City and the stage pro­duc­tion of Cao Yu’s clas­sic play Sun­rise both pro­vided fer­tile lit­er­ary ground for her to shape her char­ac­ters. And her ti­tle char­ac­ter in Tie Li­hua has won her le­gions of fans.

She re­ceived many ac­co­lades for these roles, in­clud­ing the most highly re­garded awards in the pro­fes­sion.

Climb ev­ery moun­tain

Chen is not afraid that she­may be pi­geon­holed as a tele­vi­sion ac­tress. While her big­gest ex­po­sure is from tele­vi­sion drama se­ries, she sees TV, film and stage as dif­fer­ent plat­forms with much in com­mon. “I’ll al­ways have a spe­cial place in my heart for stage,” she says, partly be­cause of her dance back­ground and partly be­cause of her fam­ily in­flu­ence — her fa­ther is a dancer, her mother a mu­si­cian and her hus­band a noted pi­anist.

Chen ap­peared in the 2015 Matt Da­mon movie The Mar­tian. It­was a small but eye-catch­ing role. Even though her ex­po­sure on the big screen has been lim­ited, a cause of head-scratch­ing in pre­vi­ous days, she has come to terms that her rich tele­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­ence has been very re­ward­ing and paved the way for a pos­si­ble ven­ture into films when good roles come her way.

Re­cently, she was spot­ted in Wuzhen dur­ing the famed the­ater fes­ti­val. She has Sun­rise and Jane Eyre under her the­atri­cal belt and when the right role comes she says she will jump at it.

Of all the ac­tresses she looks up to, 71-year-old Bri­tish ac­tress He­len Mir­ren is her fa­vorite, “for main­tain­ing her vi­tal­ity and her ded­i­ca­tion to the art.”

Mir­ren also helps re­move the bag­gage that ageism may plague ac­tresses of a cer­tain age, says Chen.

Cate Blanchett is another of her role mod­els, for her ver­sa­til­ity in tak­ing on widely di­verg­ing roles and for her in­de­pen­dence that she projects as a woman and an artist.

“It is en­cour­ag­ing to see these artists achiev­ing such heights and mak­ing it pos­si­ble for oth­ers to aim high,” Chen says.

Chen may be tele­vi­sion roy­alty, but she has a higher goal in the pan­theon of arts.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Chen Shu’s ver­sa­til­ity tran­scends films, TV and the­ater.

Chen Shu’s up­com­ing role is that of a queen in a lavish cos­tume drama.

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