Perhaps you remember her as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or maybe your memory of her goes back to the Shaw Brothers’ The Lady Hermit. But no matter what film you recall Pei Pei Cheng being in, it always evokes her magnetic agility.
As a martial arts action star, Cheng put her dancing talent to good use. But in her latest film, Lilting, she’s motionless. Playing Junn, the grief-stricken mother of an adult son who suddenly dies without revealing his homosexuality, she’s at a loss. When her son’s lover appears at the nursing home where she’s been living, Junn is apathetic toward his overtures of friendship. Further, she’s being courted by an Englishman although she speaks no English.
International Examiner: Like action stars Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang, you started out as a dancer. How did that prepare you for acting?
Cheng: Back in the beginning of my acting career, director King Hu watched me dance in a stage performance. After that, he thought I would be best suited as the female knight-errant in his new wuxia film Come Drink with Me. That’s how I started my action actress career. That’s what made producers think actors who dance are suited for action acting; hence, Michelle and Ziyi were cast the same way.
IE: How do you feel about being called The Queen of Swords?
Cheng: It was one of the local newspapers, Sing Tao Daily, that started a campaign to have readers vote for this title, and I was given this award formally.
IE: You started out with the Shaw Brothers in 1963. Looking back, are you surprised at how your career developed?
Cheng: It was luck being able to come across good directors and good scripts, and I’m a hard worker.
IE: Your ‘Crouching Tiger’ role was probably the first time most Americans saw you, but in China you’d been a star for decades. Are you looking for more global recognition?
Cheng: Director Hu’s movies were well known in Europe many years ago, so European audiences had seen me. But it was the right timing after Crouching Tiger. Celestial Movies just bought all the movies from the Shaw Brothers and restored all of them. They took it global to Europe, Korea, Japan, and Australia. I had the pleasure of going with some of my movies to all those places to meet the audiences.
IE: In ‘Lilting,’ your role is radically different from anything you’ve done before. What inspired your performance?
Cheng: My personal experiences helped me.
IE: How did you relate to Junn and her circumstances when she’s so different from you?
Cheng: I also migrated to America from Hong Kong so I understand the feeling of new immigrants. I also relate Junn to my mother as she also had dementia. The difference in my character from Junn’s is that I’m a very open mum. So, if any of my children were gay, I would know from the beginning.
Lilting opens October 17 at Landmark Theatres Ken Cinema and Varsity Theatre.