Back in time
Actress Chen Shu to appear in film role as ancient queen
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.
Chen Shu’s versatility transcends films, TV and theater.
Chen Shu’s upcoming role is that of a queen in a lavish costume drama.