Hollywood actresses have often bared it all on the silver screen – it comes with the territory – but how many of them can boast a CV with the words former porn star? Not to say that Taiwanese-born actress Shu Qi goes around flaunting her XXX credentials, but it is now common knowledge among Chinese filmgoers, reviewers and critics alike – discounting, of course, those still impeded by China’s draconian Internet censorship laws.
Shu Qi’s transcendent journey from her abusive family to her adult industry photoshoots to her frenetic Asian superstardom is not mythos. It may sound like apt material for one of Qi’s poignant coming-of-age dramas, but her steep ascent to a national household name is no cinematic illusion. Perhaps Qi’s own life will one day fill the big screen; but right now, at the ripe age of 39, Qi’s career is in full bloom, with no signs of slowing anytime soon.
Shu Qi is best known within Western film circles for her role alongside Jason Statham in fight fest extravaganza The Transporter, where she played Lai, a long-legged exotic beauty riding on the coattails of her macho man. Cliché? Perhaps. But Qi’s oeuvre extends far beyond the saturated role of damsel in distress. Her critically acclaimed performance in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin was featured prominently at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD in North America in January 2016.
Shu Qi was raised in squalid parts, a far cry from the luxurious, gold-dressed palace that provided the backdrop for The Assassin. She was born on April 16, 1976, in a slummy part of Taiwan now known as New Taipei City. Her family was not of the affluent sort – not until she stripped down to reel in the big bucks, anyways – and, quite understandably, her mother wanted to marry her off to a rich man.
“I’m not sure if it’s something I did that triggered it. Maybe she thought a pilot is a secure occupation and since he’s a friend’s friend, she thought it might turn out to be a good match,” she pondered aloud in an interview on Shen Chun Hua’s Life Show.
Her parents were raised the old fashioned Chinese way, and they raised Shu Qi in a similar fashion. Like many other Taiwanese children, naughty or nice, Shu Qi was no stranger to an archaic whipping now and again.
“Actually, I was 12. But it was an accident, I didn’t know I was skipping class. I was on the dance team and it was after an away performance. Everybody on the team went out to an after party and I followed them, not knowing I was supposed to return to school. So the teacher called my mother and said I skipped class. My mother got so mad, when I came back home, she chased me down the alley with a belt. I got a bad beat that day.”
Fed up with her ailing family dynamic, she left the nest at the tender age of 16, fleeing to her friends for shelter and comfort. Not unlike many budding actresses before her, she worked at many a peculiar job to help keep food on the table – but not for long. After a short span on the run, she was approached by an agent who offered her a spot in a “hardcore adult magazine”, which just so happened to be the Chinese edition of America’s Playboy. Shu Qi was tailor-made for the entertainment industry –nude or not so much- with her pouty lips, dazzling eyes and lithe physique leaving little to be desired. So she took the gig.
“It’s funny, ever since I was little, I liked to pretend that I was older. I started wearing heels, miniskirts, and tight shirts, put on heavy makeup and walk around like that. Then one day an agent saw me,” she recounted. “I was naive. My agent told me it’s a form of art, throwing terms like artistic and aesthetics and basically coaxed me into doing it. What I ended up telling myself was, ‘why not?’ It’ll be a token of youth to remember when I grow old.”
She eats her words now. The remnants of her raunchy photoshoots can still be scavenged on the internet, but Shu Qi wants to put her sordid past behind her. In an interview with UDN news, she divulged a poignant anecdote that rendered her and many a viewer glossy-eyed:
“There was this one time when I was on the streets of Hong Kong, and a lorry drove past me, and several men inside it yelled at me ‘porn star’. Those two words sounded so ear-piercing to me, and this finally made me realize what I had done, and that this was the kind of impression I was leaving on everyone. This incident left a big effect on me, and I was determined that from then on, I would only film good movies. The clothes I’ve taken off, I want to put them back on one by one.”
Partially true to her word, she was noticed in 1996, ironically, on the cover of an adult rag by film producer Manfred Wong. He subsequently gave her an ancillary role in the critically acclaimed Viva Erotica. Her role in the Hong Kong Category III film – the equivalent of America’s R Rating – did not boorishly expose her assets in their entirety, but was still studded with prolonged scenes of simulated copulation. Be that as it may, she surprised many, taking home the Best Supporting Actress and Best New Artist accolades from the Hong Kong Film awards. Viva Erotica was Shu Qi’s long-awaited ticket to the big leagues, and a gigantic leap away from the gutters of porno lite.
That same year, she went on to star in one of her final Category III flicks, Sex and Zen II – not a family movie by any stretch of the imagination. She went on to play a Hong Kong gangster’s love interest in Young and Dangerous 5 and Born to Be King. The two movies were the final chapters in a winding series that chronicled the rise of a group of friends from lowly street thugs to triad bosses with the city’s underworld at their fingertips.
One of her seminal roles came in 2001’s Millenium Mambo, where she played Vicky, a young hostess with her heart torn between two men vying for her affection. The art house feature signified the beginning of a prolonged, fruitful collaboration with esteemed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
After getting her feet wet in Hollywood a year later in the aforementioned The Transporter, she made an about-face and played a femme fatale in Corey Yuen’s So Close, a film rife with more blood, guts and glory – but this time, she was the one wielding the gun, not the one shying away from it.
Her next role as Hsiao-Hsien’s leading lady came in 2005, starring opposite Chang Chen in Three Times, which swept the floor at Taipei’s Golden Horse Awards and gleaned a nomination for the Palme D’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. At the festival, the film was backed by legendary movie critic Roger Ebert, who consequently gave it a rare four out of four stars in his review for the Chicago Sun-Tribune:
Three stories about a man and a woman, all three using the same actors. Three years: 1966, 1911, 2005. Three varieties of love: unfulfilled, mercenary, meaningless. All photographed with such visual beauty that watching the movie is like holding your breath so the butterfly won’t stir.
Many years after the groundbreaking success of Three Times, she commented in a 2012 interview with TimeOut Hong Kong on her future as an art film actress:
[I’m not especially into art films] because their mode of expression is rather different. If I were a new actress – or maybe if I were me from five or 10 years ago – I’d be very passionate about acting and want to experiment with everything. I wanted to test my abilities when I was offered the chances to work with Hou and other important directors. I wanted to see whether I was capable of playing this role or that role. I wanted to find out about my potentials. That’s why I was really interested to take up art film projects… to torture myself. But after doing these art films or non-mainstream movies for a while, I felt mentally and physically exhausted… Right now, all I want to take part in are happy movies, silly comedies, simple movies, movies in which I just stand around, or movies in which I have only two lines.
Shu Qi stayed true to her word for many years, partaking in numerous “happy movies”, “silly comedies” and “simple movies”. Her sole exception landed her opposite the prolific kung-fu actor Donnie Yen in 2010, in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, a martial arts epic unto itself. During her sabbatical from art films, she also paid homage to her formative years, gracing the cover of fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar China – albeit draped in lavish garments, this time around.
She reconsidered her stance on art house movies in 2015, resuming her partnership with director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who featured her as a taciturn, blade-wielding general’s daughter ordered to kill her cousin in The Assassin. The film was showcased in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, competing alongside highly touted selections such as Carol, but edged out the opposition to take home the award for Best Director. New York Times co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis praised the film effusively:
Filled with palace intrigue, expressive silences, flowing curtains, whispering trees and some of the most ravishingly beautiful images to have graced this festival, “The Assassin” held the Wednesday-night audience in rapturous silence until the closing credits, when thunderous applause and booming bravos swept through the auditorium like a wave.
Shu Qi’s hands are full with various “happy movies” and “silly comedies” scheduled for release in the forthcoming years. One can only anxiously hold on to their seat, anticipating even the faintest of rumours of Qi’s next big film; perhaps another art house feature that will all but cement her place in China’s Film Hall of Fame – if one were ever to be established, that is. In all seriousness, Shu Qi is far removed from her humble, sultry beginnings, and has buried her past six feet under, even if the public has not done so yet.
When I first entered the Hong Kong film industry 15 years ago, I had nothing on my mind. I had no plans, I had no major goals. All I wanted to find out was whether I could step into this movie world, whether I could act, whether I would become a decent actress in the future, whether I could change people’s views about me. Actually, I was only thinking about doing my best – and here I am now.
And the best is yet to come.
Above: A slideshow of Shu Qi’s feature in Harper Bazaar’s China.
Cover photo: Still from The Last Woman Standing. Huaxia Film Distribution