Natalie Hsu, daughter of 80s Hong Kong actress Ann Bridgewater, lights up the big screen in China

Natalie Hsu on the set of The Day We Lit Up The Sky in Haikou, the capital of China’s Hainan province.
PHOTO: Lian Ray Pictures

Natalie Hsu En-yi says that at some point in their lives every girl wants to be Julie Andrews, the star of classic US musical The Sound of Music. While that might remain wishful thinking for many, 17-year-old Hsu is living the dream with her singing and dancing debut in the Chinese youth musical The Day We Lit Up The Sky.

Released last month in cinemas across China and full of fizzy dance numbers, the musical has already earned 160 million yuan (S$34 million) at the box office.

"The Sound of Music is my favourite musical movie," Hsu tells the South China Morning Post. "For live musical theatre productions, I am a huge fan of Hamilton. I have played it so many times during car rides and at home that even my parents know all the lyrics by heart."

Set in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province, The Day We Lit Up the Sky is the coming-of-age story of Xiao Huang (played by Hsu) and Old Dog (played by Chinese heartthrob Peng Yuchang) who pursue their dream of winning a dance competition.

A scene from The Day We Lit Up The Sky.
PHOTO: Lian Ray Pictures 

Chinese media have compared Hsu's ethereal loveliness with the beauty of Mitsuki Kimura, daughter of Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura. Yet despite her good looks, Hsu's character in the musical is a down-to-earth, self-effacing girl whose small stature and family background (her father sells smelly salted fish for a living) make her a laughing stock at an all-female school full of tall and beautiful girls.

Natalie Hsu on the set of The Day We Lit Up The Sky in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province.Natalie Hsu on the set of The Day We Lit Up The Sky in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province.

Natalie Hsu on the set of The Day We Lit Up The Sky in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province.

Natalie Hsu En-yi says that at some point in their lives every girl wants to be Julie Andrews, the star of classic US musical The Sound of Music. While that might remain wishful thinking for many, 17-year-old Hsu is living the dream with her singing and dancing debut in the Chinese youth musical The Day We Lit Up The Sky.

Released last month in cinemas across China and full of fizzy dance numbers, the musical has already earned 160 million yuan (US$21 million) at the box office.

"The Sound of Music is my favourite musical movie," Hsu tells the South China Morning Post. "For live musical theatre productions, I am a huge fan of Hamilton. I have played it so many times during car rides and at home that even my parents know all the lyrics by heart."

Set in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province, The Day We Lit Up the Sky is the coming-of-age story of Xiao Huang (played by Hsu) and Old Dog (played by Chinese heartthrob Peng Yuchang) who pursue their dream of winning a dance competition.

Chinese media have compared Hsu's ethereal loveliness with the beauty of Mitsuki Kimura, daughter of Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura. Yet despite her good looks, Hsu's character in the musical is a down-to-earth, self-effacing girl whose small stature and family background (her father sells smelly salted fish for a living) make her a laughing stock at an all-female school full of tall and beautiful girls.

While Xiao Huang does not win the dance competition, she takes a great deal of pride in trying her best to chase her dream.

Hsu (in pink) with crew on the set of The Day We Lit Up The Sky.
PHOTO: Lian Ray Pictures 

Hsu says the film's message - that underdogs should have the same chance to shoot for the stars as the privileged - resonates with her.

"The message applies especially in the current generation when everyone is a high-achiever and strives for perfection," says Hsu, who finished her secondary education in Hong Kong.

"It is easy for them to be overly success-oriented and to feel that if you aren't the very best then you are nothing at all. At the end of the day, what matters most is that you are doing something you love, care about and enjoy, whether you succeed or not."

Co-star Peng, 26, who was born in China's Jiangxi province, plays an older student who romances Xiao Huang and keeps nudging her to join the dance competition. The musical also features superstar cameos from Sammi Cheng Sau-man and Zhang Yi, though Hsu admits she had never heard of them before shooting began.

"I am very out of the loop when it comes to the entertainment industry, so I didn't know they were big stars before meeting them. But this is a good thing as otherwise I would've been terrified working with them. Working with them was very humbling as they are very experienced. I have much to learn from each of them."

Hsu adds she quickly got along with Peng on set. "I taught him Cantonese tongue-twisters and he taught me all sorts of fun games that kept me from falling asleep during late-night shoots. He was very patient with me, helping me feel comfortable in front of the camera. I barely felt any nerves when we were on set together."

Hsu says she enjoys ballet, contemporary and jazz dancing, and her dance sequences in the film impressed critics and audience alike.

"Dance is more than just an after-school hobby for me," she says. "In recent years [before the Covid-19 pandemic], I often spent holidays overseas for dance classes, performances and competitions."

Haikou's climate meant many of the outdoor dance scenes in the movie were shot in the rain.

"There's a scene where we danced in the rain in front of the school gates," Hsu says. "The scene was shot during the coldest week in December. Between takes we were shivering non-stop, despite being wrapped in thick towels and drinking cups of warm ginger tea.

"Another challenging scene was the finale filmed in April on a big raised platform in the middle of the ocean. Because the platform was white, it reflected the blazing sunlight into our faces. It was very difficult not to squint while dancing."

A scene from The Day We Lit Up The Sky filmed in pouring rain.
PHOTO: Lian Ray Pictures 

Hsu thanks her mother, Ann Bridgewater, a singer and actress in the 80s and 90s and now a professional clinical psychologist, for being by her side throughout shooting.

"She came on set with me almost every day," Hsu says. "It comforted me so much knowing she was there. On set, she could always tell if I was struggling to evoke the feeling of certain scenes. Then she would give me suggestions which made me feel much more comfortable and confident about my performance."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.