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Longtime Chinese Thesp Trades Sword for Personal Saga in Sundance Film

Cheng Pei-Pei stars in fest opener 'Lilting'

Cheng Pei-pei (Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) this month celebrates 50 years of an on-and-off career in entertainment that has known the highs of acting in King Hu’s transformational film “Come Drink With Me” and the lows of an attempt at producing that led to bankruptcy.

Now, the Shanghai-born Cheng, who signed a seven-year contract at Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong in 1963, and has worked mainly in the marital arts genre, finds herself in quite a different tale — Sundance opener “Lilting,” a drama about an immigrant woman who has to face the death of the son on whom she depends, and the discovery of his homosexuality.

It was while working for the Shaws that she met Hu, the director these days most associated with the “wuxia pian” fantasy martial arts genre. After being cast in his 1966 film “Drink,” she became known as the queen of swordswomen. Cheng says that at the time, she was surprised to be given a martial arts role, but these days, she sees the similarities between dance, where she got her start before pacting with the Shaws, and fighting.

Despite her rise to stardom, Cheng retired in 1970 at the end of her Shaw contract. She got married, and moved to the U.S. with her husband, but resisted career possibilities offered in Hollywood. “I didn’t go to the U.S. to act. In those days, pretty much the only roles for Chinese women were as prostitutes. That was too limited,” she says.

Instead she brought up her children and ventured into production, a move that drove her into bankruptcy and contributed to the end of her marriage. “The productions were intended for the Chinese community in the U.S. and trained a lot of people, but they failed to make money,” she explains.

Divorced and ready to get back to work, Cheng says offers came flooding in. But except for Stephen Chow’s “Flirting Scholar,” which marked her return to cinema, most of the rest of the decade was spent in a trans-Pacific existence, working in film and TV in Hong Kong and China, and English-language TV in the U.S.

In 2000, Ang picked her for the role of the scheming, but still kick-ass older woman Fox in “Crouching Tiger.” Since then, she has had roles in sexy actioner “Naked Weapon,” Hyde Park Entertainment’s game adaptation “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li” and Chinese-Korean motorbike actioner “Speed Angels,” to name a few. Many parts have been secondary, so Cheng jumped at the chance to take on “Lilting,” which sets her clearly as the lead and boasts an impressive script.

These days Cheng keeps her family close. This month, she celebrated her half century in the movie business working on “Comfort Women” with daughters Jennifer and Marsha.

Though her own saga is different than that of her lead character in “Lilting,” Cheng sees similarities.

“It is more the director Hong Khaou’s story than mine, and I’m not as good a storyteller as he is,” Cheng says. “Though I did emigrate to the U.S., and there are certainly elements (that are comparable), like her being scared and her struggle, which I recognize.”

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