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Shu Qi: A Cinderella Story

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although many top Hong Kong talents have started off in exploitation films, few can match the real-life Cinderella story of Shu Qi, whose career has seen her rise from porno starlet to internationally recognized A-list actress. Her fairy tale transformation has not been an easy one, and has in fact been the result of many years of hard work, as she gradually and determinedly worked her way up through thankless roles in Category III-rated sex comedies and as eye candy in action films, to her recent starring roles in the likes of Confession of Pain and My Wife is a Gangster 3. In addition to establishing herself as a popular blockbuster mainstay, she has also acted in a number of arthouse films, working with acclaimed directors such as Stanley Kwan and Hou Hsiao Hsien, and winning awards on numerous occasions, showing a talent for baring her soul as well as her body.

Shu Qi was born Lin Li Hui in Taipei, Taiwan, on April 16, 1976. She came from a poor family, and her early years were spent struggling daily to make ends meet. A fiercely independent girl who rebelled against the strictness of her parents, she ran away from home several times before leaving for good at the age of 16. After taking a variety of low-paying jobs, she was eventually offered a contract by a modeling agency. Though the work involved steamy photo sessions which might politely be described as leaving little to the imagination, she jumped at the chance.

Fortunately for her, after featuring in a number of magazines and videos over the next few years (many of which have now become sought after collector's items in certain circles), her obvious charms were spotted in 1996 by Hong Kong producer Manfred Wong who cast her in Sex and Zen 2. Although the Category III-rated soft-core production was not much of a step up in terms of content, it did at least provide the actress with her first legitimate role and more importantly, a foot on the bottom rung of the Hong Kong film industry ladder - the only way from here was most definitely up.

She didn't have to wait long for her big break, which came in the same year in the form of Derek Yee's Viva Erotica, in which she starred alongside Karen Mok and the legendary Leslie Cheung. The film was a cynical spoof on the Category III sex genre, and she parodied her former roles by playing an actress reluctant to disrobe for the cameras, much to the disconcertion of Cheung's director. It proved to be a significant critical success, garnering an impressive eight nominations at the 1997 Hong Kong Film Awards, with Shu herself picking up statuettes for Best New Performer and Best Supporting Actress.

Now properly accepted as an actress, the next few years were incredibly busy as Shu attempted to capitalize on her success, averaging five or six films per year in 1996 and 1997. Initially, these were fairly limited and largely decorative roles in genre productions, like prostitute or ditzy subordinate. Still, Shu slowly became a recognizable face, featuring in Street Angels, Growing Up, Love: Amoeba Style, and Till Death Do Us Laugh amongst others, in all of which she managed to provide the film's few memorable scenes. At the same time, she was able to squeeze in a few more dramatic roles, including a great turn in 1997's Love Is Not a Game, But a Joke which won her Best Actress nominations at the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards.

Far from resting on her laurels, in 1998 Shu Qi doubled her work rate, appearing in an amazing ten films. More importantly, many of these were higher profile productions like Young and Dangerous 5, the latest in the popular triad series, along with Young and Dangerous: The Prequel and spin-off Portland Street Blues (for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards). The former saw her working for the first time with director Andrew Lau; he also gave her a small role in his blockbuster The Storm Riders the same year, and they would re-team many times in the future.

As well as starring in action films, Shu showed her versatility in the likes of Yon Fan's gay-themed Bishonen, Mabel Cheung's moving drama City of Glass for which she earned herself another Best Actress nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards and a myriad of rumors with co-star Leon Lai, and the drama Your Place or Mine for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Horse Film Awards. Finally, in the same year came perhaps the surest proof that she was now an accepted part of the Hong Kong film industry - a role in a Wong Jing production, in this case the romantic comedy Love Generation which again featured Leon Lai.

1999 was the year in which Shu Qi finally achieved top leading lady status with her role in the Jackie Chan vehicle Gorgeous. Although the film, which saw her playing a Taiwanese girl who travels to Hong Kong in search of love after discovering a romantic message in a bottle, was not quite the usual action-packed fare Chan's fans were used to, it was still a box office hit, both at home and abroad. She also appeared in martial arts blockbuster A Man Called Hero, and boosted her acting credentials with roles in the award-nominated drama Metade Fumaca and acclaimed director Stanley Kwan's The Island Tales.

Unfortunately, the year 2000 proved to be one to forget for the actress, after Manfred Wong, still her manager since the early days of her career, pulled her out of a starring role in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, apparently in order to shoot a commercial in Japan. The film's ensuing worldwide commercial and critical success proved the decision to be a monumentally poor one, not least since it catapulted her replacement, Mainland Chinese starlet Zhang Ziyi, to global stardom. Sure enough, the mistake cost Wong his job, with Shu understandably electing to find herself a new manager and agent after the disaster. The rest of the year proved no better and essentially saw her treading familiar waters by starring in the inevitable Young and Dangerous 6, along with a series of rather bland efforts such as Wilson Yip's Skyline Cruisers. It seemed as though her star had all but reached its peak.

However this proved to be far from true. Showing great resilience, Shu shrugged aside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and continued her inexorable rise by headlining Ann Hui's supernatural blockbuster Visible Secret, a film which revitalized the genre in Hong Kong and reconfirmed her star status. In 2001, she collaborated with Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien for the first time on Millennium Mambo, a rather depressing drama about the emptiness of modern life which enjoyed a successful run at international festivals including Cannes, where it was nominated for the Golden Palm award.

Now established as one of the most popular actresses in Asia, she found the blockbuster roles flooding in and was rarely off cinema screens in 2002. The year saw her star in a wide variety of productions, including Marco Mak's horror omnibus Haunted Office, plus two more films for Andrew Lau, namely Women From Mars and The Wesley's Mysterious File, a special effects heavy sci-fi starring Andy Lau. Her biggest hit of the year was the spectacular action film So Close from director Corey Yuen, a big budget Charlie's Angels-style thriller in which she and Zhao Wei played a pair of martial artist assassin sisters being pursued by Karen Mok's determined policewoman. Stylish and explosive, the over-the-top film was well received by genre fans the world over and served the actress well as a global calling card.

In the same year the actress made her international debut proper in The Transporter, a French-Hollywood co-production directed by Corey Yuen and Louis Leterrier, and produced and written by the legendary Luc Besson. Interestingly, although her role as a Chinese woman being smuggled and ultimately protected by aspiring British action star Jason Statham required her to speak English, she learned her lines phonetically rather than actually studying the language.

Shu Qi's next set of films saw her working in a variety of different countries, travelling to Mainland China for director Lu Yue's drama The Foliage and Thailand for Danny and Oxide Pang's depressing supernatural sequel The Eye 2, in which she played a suicidal woman who suddenly develops the ability to see ghosts. She continued to globetrot, heading to Korea for Jingle Ma's blockbuster sequel Seoul Raiders, a slick spy caper in which she provided the female foil for Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and was given a chance to show off her vocal abilities by singing the title song with Taiwanese co-star Richie Jen.

In 2005 she worked again with Hou Hsiao Hsien, this time on the complex drama Three Times, an ambitious film set in three different time periods which charts the changing nature of human relationships. Like all of the director's films, though ponderous it was well received by critics and proved popular on the international festival circuit, being nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. The film proved to be Shu Qi's crowning glory, with her excellent performance finally winning her the prestigious Best Actress prize at the Golden Horse Awards.

Despite the boost this brought her status as a serious dramatic actress, Shu Qi has continued to feature in popcorn crowd pleasers and genre films, though it has at least allowed her to take her foot off the pedal somewhat and be a little more picky about her roles. The first of these was in Soi Cheang's Hong Kong horror Home Sweet Home, an effective, underrated film in which she plays a distraught woman whose son is snatched by a mysterious monster lurking in a modern housing estate. Although sadly the film didn't make much of an impact at the box office, Shu was soon back in blockbuster mode with Confession of Pain, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's much hyped follow-up to the Infernal Affairs trilogy and Initial D, in which she provided support to the male lead pairing of Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Though it received mixed response from critics, the film was a massive hit in Hong Kong, and has since been snapped up for a Hollywood remake.

Ironically, Shu Qi's following film, Korean blockbuster My Wife is a Gangster 3, saw her replacing Zhang Ziyi in a role which was clearly earmarked for her after a cameo appearance in the second installment. Her appearance in the Korean production underlines her international popularity and the fact that she is one of the few stars versatile and charismatic enough to overcome language barriers and comfortably work in different countries - pretty impressive for a girl who started her career posing for adult magazines.

Whilst it is likely that Shu Qi will always be remembered for the fact that she rose to mega-stardom from such lowly beginnings, it is clear that her past has neither held her back nor prevented her ability as an actress from shining through. With roles in the recently released Forest of Death and the upcoming epic thriller Blood Brothers, a film said to be inspired by John Woo's classic Bullet in the Head, set to send her stock rising even higher, it is obvious that she will continue to be a welcome presence on cinema screens for many years to come.

Published April 30, 2007

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