Screen legend Cheng Pei Pei once said that she wanted to retire at 65. But at 68, she seems to be busier than before, with several titles in the works. Ask why and the star of classic martial arts movies such as Come Drink With Me (1966) replies with a hearty laugh: "No idea, I guess people are not willing to see me retire."
One of the projects she was involved in was the indie drama Lilting. She plays a Cambodian mother living in Britain who is grieving over her son's (Andrew Leung) death and is reluctant to accept that he had a gay lover (Ben Whishaw). In town for the recently concluded Singapore International Film Festival, where it was screened, Cheng spoke to Life!.
She ticks off what is important to her now when she picks a new project. "The most important thing for me is having a fully formed script and production. Whether it's a new director or not is less critical," she says in Mandarin. Lilting is Cambodian-British writer-director Hong Khaou's debut feature. He had written the story for theatre, but it was never staged.
Cheng says she was taken by the "very strong" script, adding: "I'm very willing to help newcomers. Maybe I'll get flooded with offers from newbies after this. But the script has to be sincere and it's not about using my name to generate sales."
In the film, her character Junn is representative of the conservative Asian parent. The actress herself is more liberal and points out that her views on homosexuality are completely different.
Still, it was not difficult to get under the skin of the character because there were points of resonance with her own life: "As a mother, I have plenty of experience, and my four children all grew up (abroad) in the United States."
The biggest challenge was actually linguistic. She says: "I understand their conversations in English, but in the movie, I had to pretend to be clueless and that was hard given that I'm impatient by nature as well."
She also calibrated her performance in her scenes with Whishaw (Cloud Atlas, 2012). She recalls: "He's someone who gets emotionally agitated easily and he cried very hard at some points. And so I wanted to balance that with a strong, single mother."
For her sensitive portrayal, she was nominated for Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards, eventually losing out to Gugu Mbatha-Raw for the period drama Belle.
She says frankly: "I thought that being nominated was a great honour. To enter into this completely foreign situation - I was like an alien - and to get their endorsement, that's not an easy thing. When I said it previously for other awards, that was all fake."
In person, she comes across as a kindly and smiley grandmother. But then, few grandmothers can lay claim to having blazed a trail kicking butt on the silver screen.
She speaks fondly of her late Shaw Brothers Studio boss Run Run Shaw, whom she paid tribute to at the Silver Screen Awards last Saturday. She tells Life!: "He has always been a role model to me, from his love of movies to his work ethic. And he really believed in cultivating the next generation of talent."
Actors would joke that the studio was like the famed Shaolin monastery. Cheng says that among the veterans of the entertainment world today, many started out at Shaw.
She herself was a beneficiary of Shaw's generosity as he sent her to Japan to learn dance for nine months. "At that point, I was already a draw as an actress as Come Drink With Me had been released. If he was concerned only with profits, he need not have done so."
With her now lending up-and-comers a helping hand, it looks like the process of paying it forward has come full circle.
This article was first published on December 17, 2014.
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