October 26, 2002|I confided in the amazingly beautiful Hong Kong action legend Cheng Pei-pei--recently seen as the villainous Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--that a screening of her classic Shaw Brothers film Come Drink with Me on a grainy bootleg copy as a small child gifted me with both a lifelong love of martial arts films and my first crush. Still lovely and distinguished almost forty years later, Ms. Cheng met me at the Daily Grind coffee shop in the Old Tivoli Brewery, where the Denver Film Society was running the 25th Denver International Film Festival and featuring a new print of Come Drink with Me that was originally struck for this year's Venice Film Festival. She was soft-spoken, polite, and exceedingly gracious; I was stricken by her humility and friendliness--old crushes die hard, I guess. I began by asking Ms. Cheng about her training as a dancer.
Cheng Pei-pei: I was eight when I started ballet and I've always felt dance and martial arts are very similar--the ways in which you stretch your body, use your legs, there's something that's complementary about the disciplines. Some ballet dancers can't do any other kind of dance just like some martial artists are bound by one school, but with my background I was able to make a transition into the martial arts that was very comfortable and natural.
Film Freak Central: Were you aided by your training as an actress?
Oh yes, because I'm an actress I approached it from the perspective not of purity of the form--dance or martial art--but of trying to understand how one informed the other. When [the director of Come Drink with Me] King Hu first spoke with me, he wanted me to be in his film and told me his philosophy of martial arts. He wanted a different kind of rhythm--before, martial arts were portrayed as boom-boom-boom-boom (chops the air with evenly timed strokes). King Hu wanted b-boom...b-boom b-boom--an arrhythmic pattern of gathering strength, contemplative pause, then sudden action. So I listened and fashioned in my mind a jazz improvisation pattern--a very specialized rhythm of dance. What I'm saying is that as an actress, I was able to not be so rigid in my training.
Were you schooled in a great many dance forms?
Jazz, modern, all kinds. That diversity was extremely useful as well, I think, in fostering a mental and philosophical agility. Plus, I was probably too young to know any better. (laughs)
Did you do most of your own stunt work?
Well, King Hu wanted us to do as much as we could because it was so early in the genre then...
Arguably the first example of the modern martial arts film.
(laughs) Well, maybe that's true. It was so early then that we were all feeling our way in terms of what could be done, what looked good, and how to go about it, so King Hu really encouraged us to be in there. It was, then, a process of performance, not like now. I'm not saying it's not performance now, but they've really perfected so many of the techniques that you can get stunt people in there who can do the movements and then you have the technology to make it look like the actor and totally natural at the same time. Honestly, though, the stunts then weren't that dangerous and we had absolute faith in King Hu--he knew exactly what he wanted and we were bolstered by the strength of his vision. After shooting Come Drink with Me, he gathered us together to explain his editing process--how he used each of the twenty-four frames to convey some action or philosophy that might not be visible to the naked eye, but was important for the feeling of the film.
Are you pleased with the new print?
I'm so pleased. There is a scene where the drunken master and the chief henchman are fighting and they pass each other in mid-air--a transition there where, for a split second, they are superimposed over one another against the background. It's very beautiful and I don't think that I ever saw it before in any other print--but I saw it in this one. It's amazing that so long after the movie was made, we are discovering new things about it because people care about preserving this heritage.
You mention the perfections of technique in the martial arts film--do you have moments when you sit back and realize that those techniques are almost due entirely to the period of films in which you were involved in general and Come Drink with Me in particular?
I do, yes, and I feel extremely lucky. I'm just so, so lucky. Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are two films that are, in many ways, key films of martial arts movements--one for the East, and one for the West. I would feel so very fortunate just to have one film like that in my life, but to have two is just very humbling.
Many of the scenes in Crouching Tiger--the rooftop chase, the restaurant fight--are taken directly from Come Drink with Me. Did you give any pointers to Zhang Ziyi--an actress at a similar age in a similar situation to you with your breakthrough film--on set?
Not really. On the set, even though I'm much older than Zhang Ziyi, I never felt as though I was qualified to give direction or advice. I tell my own children that when you work, the director is the boss and with Ang Lee, that was so easy to do because he's such an amazingly good and sensitive director. We didn't know each other very well--Zhang Ziyi and I--before the film but of course by the time the shoot was finished, we were very close. She's going to have a wonderful career.
Were you frightened as you were shooting Come Drink with Me that what you were doing was so new that it wouldn't be well received?
I was too young for that--too silly, maybe. Maybe I wasn't that smart, either. (laughs) I never felt scared or that what we were doing was so radical a thing. I had so much trust in King Hu that that was all that mattered. The environment, I'll tell you, around the genre at that time was very similar to the one surrounding martial arts movies in the United States at this time. The difference in China is that we always had the old serial novels--Crouching Tiger is even based on Wang Du Lu's novels, you know--so there was the excitement of seeing some of our favourite books, the ones we had read as children, adapted into film. In the United States there isn't that kind of history so the excitement that western audiences are bringing to martial arts-themed films is so fresh and new. They have different moorings.
Your daughter Marsha is going to star in the remake of Come Drink With Me?
Yes, yes--we haven't started shooting that yet, we're still in the script development stage, but I'm so excited!