Man of Many parts
Liu Ye can still recall the day 10 years ago when his father returned home with a pirated DVD he'd bought on the street. It was a copy of Stanley Kwan Kam-pang's Lan Yu, in which Liu played the leading role. His performance attracted critical acclaim and led him to a best actor title at Taiwan's prestigious Golden Horse awards.
'He said, 'This is the movie for which our son won an award, we've to see this',' Liu says. 'They were very serious about the whole thing - they brewed a pot of tea and sat themselves properly in front of the TV before clicking play. I went, 'I'll leave you to it then', before scurrying back to my room.'
It wasn't just out of a sense of modesty that Liu didn't watch Lan Yu with his parents. It was because he had never told them that he played a character struggling with a rocky homosexual relationship, a topic which was (and still is) a taboo subject in mainland filmmaking and the reason why the movie was (and still is) only available on the sly.
'I think they were worried about hurting my feelings, so they clenched their teeth and braved the whole film,' says Liu, now 33. 'But eventually my father pulled me to the side and said to me, 'Don't ever make films like this again!''
Liu Jianhua was probably worried his son would eventually spend his whole life making officially censured underground films. He would never have imagined then that Liu Ye would become one of most well-regarded mainland actors of his generation. He has appeared on screen as lovelorn young men and scowling villains; he is a scheming prince in Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, a menacing snow wolf in Chen Kaige's The Promise and a heroic soldier in Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death.
Liu's versatility will be given another airing this year, as he appears in two roles which are poles apart in their characterisation and symbolic meaning. This month, he will be seen in Andrew Lau Wai-keung's urbane romance drama A Beautiful Life, in which he plays a policeman who has to contend with his relationship with a self-centred property agent (played by Shu Qi) while also taking care of his mentally disabled younger brother (played by former diving champion Tian Liang) and his own deteriorating health. 'I'm just playing an ordinary guy here,' Liu says.
Ordinary is not a word that can be applied to his next role. In Founding of the Party, Liu plays a young Mao Zedong working towards the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. 'He's not the easiest character to play, as throughout the years actors have been portraying him in [a god-like way],' Liu says. 'That's how people did it in the 1970s or 80s ... but I wouldn't have been able to do that even if you asked me to.'
Liu says he never thought that one day he would be cast as Mao. 'People must have been going 'what?!' when they heard Liu Ye was to play him,' he says. 'Then again I've played all sorts of characters since the 1990s - good guys and bad guys, the whole gamut. Probably [playing Mao] will be an opportunity to see how open-minded Chinese society is. I'm very excited about this anyway - it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an actor.'
Playing Mao couldn't have been further away from Liu's ambitions as a teenager. Despite growing up in a film studio - his father is a lighting technician, his mother a union steward - Liu says being a movie star was the last thing on his mind. 'In those planned-economy days of the early 1980s, the actors were probably earning less than my father did. When I looked at that, I asked myself why I should bother with this?'
His elder sister went on to study law, and Liu's plan was to follow his parents' wish for him to study science or engineering - until a chance encounter with one of his sister's film-student friends.
'Her classmate came to visit us in the summer and saw me playing basketball, and she said to my sister, 'Your brother looks quite handsome - would he be interested to become an actor?' My response was, 'what for?' But things had changed somewhat, and in the mid-1990s actors were earning more. As a teenage boy, I was also itching for a chance to get away from my parents, so I went to try it out in Beijing.'
Before a year had gone by Liu wrote to his father, telling him he was thinking of leaving his studies at the Central Drama Academy and returning home. 'But my father said I should at least get a diploma out of it so I backtracked and decided to finish my studies.' His decision to persevere was vindicated when, in 1998, he was cast in one of the two lead roles in Huo Jianqi's Postmen in the Mountains. Playing a young postman learning the ropes in the rural backwaters of Hunan province, Liu - who was then 20 years old and a second-year student at the academy - won the best supporting actor award at the mainland's annual Golden Rooster awards. 'That gave me the confidence I needed to continue,' he says.
Then came the success of Lan Yu - followed by a period of instability on his part, Liu says. 'I was just 23 - and imagine a young man trying to come to terms with this sudden fame and fortune. I was really dazed - and I think it wasn't until I hit 28 or 29 that I got into a steadier frame of mind.'
Liu attributes his maturity to his wife, the Chinese-speaking French photojournalist Anais Martane, whom he met when he was 28. 'She showed me another way of living my life,' says Liu, whose first child with Martane, Nuoyi, was born last October. 'She... showed me around French villages to see how people live there. I discovered I could spend my time off doing more than drinking beer and going to karaoke bars.
'And she knows more about how the ordinary Chinese person lives than I do, as she's been interviewing people and taking photographs of them for so many years. We talk about stuff like that all the time.'
The relationship has brought Liu a perspective he dearly needs, given the occasional troughs in his career in the past few years. He was lambasted for his parts in The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower, two bloated mega-productions which drew acidic comments from critics when they were released in 2005 and 2006.
Not that he's still focused on small-budget fare nowadays. After A Beautiful Life and Founding of the Party, Liu will reunite with Lu Chuan in The King's Feast, a US$15-million epic set amid the brutal wars and bloody schemes during the final years of the Qin dynasty around 220BC. Liu will play Liu Bang, a warlord who would eventually emerge from the chaos to establish the Han dynasty, which would rule China for the next 400 years.
'He's the one I have high hopes for,' Liu says of the 40-year-old director. The same thing can probably be said of the actor by Lu and many of the director's counterparts - and probably Liu senior himself, whatever his opinion of Lan Yu now.
A Beautiful Life opens on May 26; Founding of a Party and The King's Feast open in June