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December 13, 2009

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Shanghai star's turns full circle home to China

FROM film roles as an emperor's concubine to legendary political wife Soong Mei-ling, acclaimed actress Vivian Wu has worked with the best. But she has come "home" to stimulate movie making in China and do charity work, Vivian Yang reports.

After a 20-year career as an international film star, Chinese-American actress Vivian Wu is embarking on another prospective career - raising funds for charity.

The hostess of a recent annual charity event, Wu invited a galaxy of her celebrity friends and entrepreneurs to play golf and spend money at an auction for a good cause at the Nine Dragons Estate in neighboring Zhejiang Province.

"The initial idea (of this golf-cum-auction event) is to bring awareness of charity and giving back to society. At the same time it will also launch my own charity foundation," said the 42-year-old Shanghai native, also known as Wu Junmei in Chinese.

Supported by a large group of show biz and general business types, the proceeds of the two-hour buffet and auction totaled half a million yuan (US$73,206) which was donated to Shanghai Youth Development Foundation, an official organization dedicated to helping needy children.

"I'm happy with the result and I hope more children will benefit from my charity foundation," Wu said shortly after the event.

"Charity is all about courage, kindness and responsibility. I will get great joy and meaning from others by helping (them). It's a big goal that requires persistent effort."

Wu's charity aspirations were largely inspired by her second-time portrayal of Soong Mei-ling, the youngest of the three famous Soong sisters and wife of former Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, in the star-studded epic blockbuster "The Founding of a Republic" which pays tribute to the 60th anniversary of establishment of the People's Republic of China.

Wu first portrayed Soong's legendary life in the 1997 movie "The Soong Sisters," starring with celebrated Asian actresses Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung.

She won critical acclaim for her vivid performance of Soong Mei-ling, one of the most significant women of the 20th century who devoted her late life to charity causes.

"It's an honor to play this charismatic character again. And now, after a decade, I have developed a deeper understanding of Soong who inspired me a lot more this time and thus become a role model for me," Wu said.

This self-assurance is a far cry from Wu's big screen debut back in her teens.

Born into a highbrow Shanghai family of a renowned actress and a college professor, Wu made her first feature film "Forever Young" with the veteran director Huang Shuqin in 1982 when she was still a high school student.

"I 'hated' my first experience on the movie set - I was nervous and lost. And when the cameras and lights were on me, all of a sudden I came to realize how hard it was to act. You see, I simply didn't know how to order and coordinate my body," she said.

"What's even worse was that I could hardly recognize my own face the first time I saw it on the big screen at the Shanghai Film Studio. Then I said to myself, 'Oh, gee, that face wasn't mine! How could that face be mine?" Wu recalled.

The somewhat awkward first attempt at performing led the fledging star to perfect her acting through a series of movie and TV roles in China until the day she was "discovered" by the renowned Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

He offered Wu the role of Wen Hsiu in his 1987 epic "The Last Emperor" which racked up nine Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture at the 60th Academy Awards in 1988. For her acclaimed performance of Wen Hsiu, a courageous concubine of the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Wu earned the attention of the international film community and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the David Donatello Film Festival, widely recognized as the Italian Academy Awards.

"The significance of playing Wen Hsiu is beyond mere fame. She taught me how to be brave and independent and somehow inspired me to make a bold decision at that time - to study abroad," Wu said.

In 1987, with only hundreds of dollars in hand, she took off to pursue her "American dream" and attended Hawaii Pacific University, majoring in travel industry management. She continued her study of film art at the University of California in Los Angeles two years later and appeared in a long list of films and TV series.

With her Oriental good looks and charisma, Wu was selected as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People" by People Magazine in 1990, the same year she moved to Hollywood.

From then on, her acting career took off again with a string of internationally successful movies including "Iron and Silk" (by Shirley Sun, 1990), "The Joy Luck Club" (by Wayne Wang, 1993), "Heaven and Earth" (by Oliver Stone, 1993) and "Eve and the Fire Horse" (by Julia Kwan, 2005).

Among her most notable works is the 1996 art-house feature "The Pillow Book" directed by English wiz Peter Greenaway.

In "The Pillow Book," Wu portrayed Nagiko, an obsessive Japanese woman who indulged her erotic fantasies by painting the nude bodies of herself and her lovers, one of who was played by the celebrated English actor Ewan McGregor, the lead of the Oscar-winning "Moulin Rouge" in 2002.

"I was encouraged to break all traditions and to act really free. After playing Nagiko in 'The Pillow Book', I think I'm capable of playing any role," Wu said.

Her emotionally powerful performance helped the movie win awards at sundry international film festivals, and her second-time collaboration with Greenaway in "8 and 1/2 Women" also received wide acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999.

Not only did "The Pillow Book" bring Wu fame and fortune, but also her future husband - the American-based film director and producer Oscar Luis Costo.

"A couple of months after shooting the film, I proposed to Oscar because he is such a wonderful catch for me - loving, romantic, patient and helpful.

"All in all, he is my most trusted friend, (and he has become) just like the other half of me," she smiled.

But the smart, sophisticated Shanghai lady also confessed to the challenges of managing her cross-cultural marriage over more than 10 years.

"Of course we had different ideas at the beginning and we did spend time learning how to (compliment) each other. Challenge is part of our happiness."

During the interview, she also unveiled her "top secret" for maintaining an intimate rapport with a partner - "show your affection by speaking out and cooking for your beloved."

"Cooking is so therapeutic that whenever I cook for Oscar, he knows how deeply I love him and how much love I have added to the dishes," said the savvy chef.

And their romance also works in terms of business.

The couple set up their own company - Shanghai MAR de ORO Films Inc - to produce films and TV series.

One of their most remarkable productions is 2007's "Shanghai Red," the first installment of a planned Shanghai trilogy to promote the city to a wider audience.

Written and directed by Costo, "Shanghai Red" tells the story of a widow's revenge for her husband's murder. It is set in contemporary Shanghai but has a Hollywood-style approach.

The widow protagonist Zhu Meili, a Shanghai native always wearing red, was lively portrayed by Wu who was also the film's producer.

"For me, 'Shanghai Red' is memorable as the first film ever made with my husband who taught me so much about film making."

But despite having worked with some of the best directors in the West over the past decades, Wu found that her greatest challenge was working as actress for her hubby.

"He knows me very well. I always had to give him the best acting I could muster to get through," she noted.

Further challenges came from her responsibilities as a producer.

"I had to look after others, such as the cast and crew and it was the first time I saw everything from that distinctive angle. The whole experience was a truly second education, teaching me how to be a better worker on the movie set."

After "Shanghai Red," the couple will embark next year on their second brainchild "Blue Bamboo" to further promote Shanghai.

"In Hollywood, I've accomplished most of what I need to accomplish. Now, it's my time to come back to find a 'Shanghai Hollywood' as the city is full of dynamics, potential and possibility.

"I want to bridge the links and resources between the East and West to benefit more film makers at home and abroad," said the lifetime judge of the Academy Awards.

After many career highs and lows through her illustrious life, Wu now seems to be paying less attention to what she achieves.

"I've learned not try to find a result because no such result is either 'good' or 'bad.' In the end, we know it's all gonna be okay," the charming Shanghai lady said with a beaming smile.


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