Spanning two continents and more than half a century, Lisa Lu's career is the legacy of an icon. When she reprises the leading role in A Dream Like a Dream at the end of 2014, she will bring to the stage a lifetime of savoir faire, writes Raymond Zhou.
When Lisa Lu walks into a room, you instantly realise why some say youth is overrated. Lu, born in 1927, commands attention without a single word or dramatic gesture. Her presence alone inspires awe and admiration, even from people who do not know who she is.
Lu is Chinese-style elegance personified. She is always immaculately dressed and her silver-white hair stands out in an environment where everybody wants to look younger by tinkering with the colour of their hair. She smiles at everyone and speaks Mandarin with a diction so clear and melodious and a rhythm so mesmerizing that she seems to have hailed from the golden age of old Beijing.
It is not just seniority that makes Lu a legend. Who in the Chinese-speaking world can claim the kind of career longevity that she has? Who has had the honour of appearing in movies with such illustrious names as Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and James Stewart? Who has the definitive portrayal - make it portrayals - of Cixi, the woman who shaped modern China?
"You're a good actress," Brando told Lu on the set of One-Eyed Jacks, a 1961 Hollywood film. "You have a simplicity and an innocence to your acting, and don't let Hollywood change you."
The seeds of Lu's acting talents were planted early in her life. Her mother was a Peking Opera star and her godfather was Mei Lanfang, the greatest icon of the Chinese performing-arts genre. Lu herself appeared on stage while still a teenager. With typical humility, she now says she did not have the chops to be a professional opera performer.
Her training in theatre and film started in a very unusual way. In the 1940s, Shanghai showed lots of Hollywood movies. The practice of the time was not to add subtitles or dub the films, but to hire simultaneous translators. Lu was a so-called "Miss Earphone" and she learned to act by imitating actors on the screen.
In 1947, she enrolled in the University of Hawaii and in 1956 her whole family moved to Los Angeles. She was an accounting major whose acting bug was gnawing at her constantly. With the encouragement of her family, she got into Pasadena Playhouse and soon a slew of small roles beckoned from neighbouring Hollywood.
Lu's big break came from Hong Kong, where she starred as the female lead in The Arch. In this 1970 film, she plays a young widow who has to suppress her affections for an officer. The film did not assume a customary tone of denunciation toward the old system as dehumanizing, nor did it extol it as a traditional virtue.
Anchoring the film is Lu's portrayal, so rich in nuances that it defies easy categorization. Hers is an intimate study of the psyche of an old-style Chinese woman caught between responsibility and emotions.