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.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 25) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. Disney Legends Ceremony,

    Robert Downey Jr. Reveals He Was Busted for Smoking Pot at Disneyland

    Robert Downey Jr. celebrated his Disney Legend status by sharing the endearing tale of how the first time he visited Disneyland, he was arrested. The Iron Man actor was being honored in Anaheim at Disney’s biennial D23 convention. After a brief introduction by Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger, Downey felt he had to come [...]

  • Thandie Newton Reminiscence

    Thandie Newton Reteams With 'Westworld's' Lisa Joy on 'Reminiscence' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following her Emmy win for her performance on “Westworld,” Thandie Newton is joining the feature directorial debut of the show’s co-creator. Sources tell Variety that Newton is set to join Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson in Warner Bros.’ “Reminiscence,” directed by “Westworld’s” Lisa Joy. WB acquired the rights to the package after this year’s Berlin [...]

  • Ming-Na Wen poses at the Disney

    Original 'Mulan' Star Ming-Na Wen Weighs in on Remake's Controversy

    Ming-Na Wen, who played the leading voice role in the original 1998 version of “Mulan,” has spoken out about the recent controversy surrounding Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake, which has been co-opted by China’s authoritarian regime to attack Hong Kong protestors. “We are living in a world right now where there’s so much change and confusion [...]

  • Jon Favreau'The Lion King' film premiere,

    Jon Favreau 'Holding Out Hope' for Spider-Man to Remain in the MCU

    Spider-Man’s potential exit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe could throw a wrench in Happy and Aunt May’s relationship, but Jon Favreau is “optimistic” the love affair will continue amid Sony’s dispute with Disney. “You never know what’s going to happen. I’m holding out hope and being optimistic that this isn’t the final chapter of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content