Q&A: Li Bingbing
Mainland actress Li Bingbing describes playing an intelligence decoder in Chen Kuo-fu and Gao Qunshu's new spy thriller, The Message, as 'mental torture'.
Last year, Li, 33, was named best actress at the Golden Rooster Film Awards, dubbed the mainland's Oscars. In The Message, she plays mainland communications officer Li Ningyu, who is working for Wang Jingwei's collaborationist regime during the Japanese occupation of China in the second world war. But when it is suspected that a communist mole is hiding in the regime, Li is one of five high-ranking officers tortured to determine the identity of the spy.
'Li Ningyu is the type of women who is very tough on the outside but soft on the inside,' the actress said. 'She was born into a wealthy family and is well educated, having studied abroad, which was quite rare for a Chinese woman in the 1940s.
'She would also have been one of the few lucky ones still able to live a decent life despite the war going on. But her brilliance as a code breaker leads her to a tragic ending, as she is forced to confront the painful truth that her lover, and her best friend, Gu Xiaomeng (Zhou Xun), who she saw as a sister, have betrayed her.'
Li will also vie for the best actress award at this year's Golden Horse Awards, along with co-star Zhou. The awards ceremony will be held in Taipei on November 28.
What made you want to take part in this project?
I was hesitant to take on this project initially, especially because both directors warned me that my character would be the most difficult to play. But they convinced me in the end. They kept goading me, saying things like, 'Why can't you take on this challenge? You've played seductive and bubbly roles in the past, why don't you step out of your comfort zone and do something challenging?' That sounded right, so I was in.
Do you see any similarities between yourself and your character? Both directors told me I was meant to play Li Ningyu. Perhaps I'm as devoted and persistent about love as my character. Although in the story, Li Ningyu's lover uses their relationship for espionage, she chooses to believe that he did love her. Even though she comes from a rich family, she lets go of her ego and becomes a factory worker at one point to provide for herself and her lover. I admire her for that and think that I would do the same under those circumstances.
Unlike Li Ningyu, you don't smoke or drink. Did having to do so on screen make the role more challenging?
I actually learned to smoke because of this movie. All the shots of me puffing on cigarettes were real. I really did inhale because I didn't want the audience to think I was faking it. I started trying to smoke three months before filming and in one scene with me, Gu Xiaomeng [Zhou] and [military commander] Wu Zhiguo [Zhang Hanyu] singing on a balcony, I smoked more than 10 cigarettes in a row. Luckily, I didn't get addicted. I think it is a matter of personal habits, like going to bed and waking up early. I guess I just never picked up the smoking habit. For the scene where my character gets drunk after she is humiliated by the Japanese soldier, Takeda [Huang Xiaoming], although I don't drink I have seen people getting drunk, so on set I brought myself to the verge of drunkenness, but made sure I was still able to read my lines and act. To get drunk quickly, I mixed different types of alcohol, but mostly drank red and white wine. I think both the smoking and drinking were necessary for my part. Li Ningyu needed that drink to give her the strength to confront Takeda in front of everyone, condemning his beastly behaviour. When I was shooting that scene, I made myself drunk to the point of vomiting, it was horrible. But after that experience, I find that drinking is not a bad tool to loosen up. I may drink on occasion but moderately.
The scene in which your character is made to strip during a brutal interrogation by Takeda has drawn mixed responses. What do you think of the reaction?
What Takeda does to Li Ningyu is one of the worst kinds of torture anyone could do to a woman: he not only strips her of her clothes, but of her integrity as well. I didn't prepare much for that scene in terms of wearing extra underwear or covering myself with tape. When the last piece of clothing I had on was about to be stripped away, I was expecting the directors to yell cut, but they didn't. At that point, I was unsure when this torture would end and I found myself becoming Li Ningyu, wanting to yell stop so badly, but at the same time we were both mute because we were doing it for something we both saw as important - Li to save her lover's life and me for the film. When my last piece of clothing was taken off, I was completely naked, speechless and screamed out with both Li Ningyu's voice and my own. I was basically broken down mentally and physically and collapsed on the floor, but the cameras were still rolling, just the way this horrible Japanese soldier was still carrying on his maniacal interrogation.
There's been a surge of patriotic mainland movies because of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Is this a positive development?
There's nothing wrong with expressing your love for your country. This film serves as a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for their country 60 years ago and was made especially to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of our country. I feel very special to be part of this project and I think the audience will be very proud of this film. There have not been many espionage-themed movies made in the mainland in recent decades because the topic is very sensitive. This film turns a new page in mainland filmmaking and to us, the filmmakers, it represents a giant leap forward.
The Message opens on Thursday