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South China Morning Post
Cover: Sunday Agenda
May 31, 1998

Bai Ling has beauty and fame but is saddened by being unable to share her successes

By David Cohen
People Magazine may have made Bai Ling one the 50 Most Beautiful People In The World, but truth be told, they did not know what to make of her at all.

She is in there, all right, in the 1998 list, sandwiched between Prime Minister Tony Blair and a tortilla-chip spokesmodel, wearing nothing but a bedsheet and the kind of dewy come-hither look rarely seen outside dreams and magazines.

But do not expect Bai Ling to chat about cosmetics and fragrances. "I'm not so much into the makeup and all that stuff, ; because I think that's the least important," she explains over lunch at a seaside restaurant in Santa Monica. "I mean, you have to look nice as an actress, but I'm more interested in what's inside. I said that but they didn't print it: the real beauty comes from inside."

It is really no surprise that she has never embraced the giddy superficiality that has made People an American institution. She did not even recognize some of the movie stars who appear with her in the magazine. "For me, everything's new, I'm trying to adapt to it. Everything's not a big deal as to other people.

"But I'm honored. I feel like when you're a child in school and you give a good degree and you go back to your parents and say Oh I got this. That's how I feel. It cheers me, and it's very nice of them."

It is an honor that the only Asian actress on People's list cannot share with the people and country she loves, though. Her role as a lawyer in the film Red Corner has turned the mainland government against her. The Ministry of Television and Radio said the film "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" and Shanghai's Wenhui Bao accused her of "selling out her country."

The same article has been run all across China, says Bai, and she admits that it has hurt her and her family inside China. "But if (the government) would really look with open eyes, an open heart, nobody could imagine the role I played is anti-China. It's a beautiful role, a beautiful portrayal of the Chinese people. I love my China. I love my country. I love my country. I'm proud of it. Of course we have problems. Why can't we change our own problems? All of this we are doing, it's for the love of the country. We want to make it better."

Despite a life's journey that has taken her around the world and made her a movie star on two continents, she values country simplicity more than Hollywood glamour.

Born in 1970, she was raised by her grandparents in Sichuan after her parents ran afoul of the Cultural Revolution. She has stayed close to her grandmother, visiting each Chinese New Year (until the recent furor over Red Corner). She calls her time in Sichuan, "the most luxurious life, because we have the sun, we have the moon, we have the trees, we have the birds, what else do you want?"

Her idyllic childhood ended suddenly when she was drafted into the Army at 14 and sent to Tibet, part of a performing group that entertained other troops.

Although much of her unit was teenage boys and girls, military and ideological discipline prevailed. Her first task was to read a rule book on relationships between men and women. "Little Bai," hardly knew about such things, and the quiet young girl who did not report on the others, was often asked to be a lookout when a couple wanted to sneak some time alone.

Unfortunately, she was being watched, too. "Later, they'd call me into the office, they would say 'Little Bai, you're smart, you're young, we want to promote you. Is there something you want to report to us?' I knew what they meant, but I wouldn't say it because I think I should stay loyal to my friends."

The constant pressure to conform wore her down. "They always win," she says without rancor. "because in the army, the rule for us, the first rule is that you obey. But I have my thoughts." She learned to hide those thoughts, living much of the time in her imagination. "I think it's an animal's nature to survive."

It also helped turn her into a true actor. "When the outside somehow isolates you, you go back to yourself. You feel close to yourself. When you're so close to your own heart, you become sensitive, you understand how other people feel."

By 1989 she was out of the Army, and a rising a film star. Then she was in Beijing shooting a film when the pro-democracy demonstations began in Tienanmen Square. The shy ex-soldier joined in.

Looking back, she is proud of how the people of Beijing supported the students. ; "It seemed like we were a big family, one family. You felt like the sky was bluer at the time. You felt like people stopped serving the society, and started to realize there's life for themselves."

That evaporated with the crackdown, but she did not look for a way out right away. "I'd had many opportunites before to leave the country, and I did not. Because I thought 'I'm Chinese, and in my country I was doing very well as an actress.'"

In 1992, she got a two-year visa to attend New York University film school. She admits that it was "a very tough time in China," but she was not trying to flee the country. "I needed to know the world. And I always wanted to learn English. That's more important to me, to change myself, to do something new. I think that's very important, to explore that part of you which you don't know."

She admits that "I never imagined I'm ever going to stay here and become a movie star." Only when the US Congress passed a law extending visas for former pro democracy activists, did she decide to stay on and pursue acting in America.

She had no money, did not yet speak English, and her friends were less than encouraging. "They looked at me, looked at each other, like I must be out of my mind. But for me it's something very very simple. It's something I love and I don't see the obstacle. I think people must follow their heart."

Her career advanced slowly but steadily until Red Corner. It was a true 'breakout' role for her. She elevated the material with a powerful, nuanced performance, received excellent reviews and easily stole the movie from Richard Gere. She became a movie star all over again.

She knows she has a power to move people, but her gift seems to leave her almost mystified. "I have to tell you something, sometimes I don't even know who I am. After I did Red Corner or whatever a lot of people were asking me how did you do it. I don't know. I couldn't answer that question. Because I feel like there are so many parts of me I don't even know. I'm not in charge of it. Sometimes I even feel I'm a tool of somebody else or something. I feel like an instrument being played."

Red Corner advanced her career, but it made her life more complicated. Some of her friends in China have told her she was stupid to do the film. Others warn her not to return, for fear she will not be able to leave again.

"I really think what Hollywood did with Red Corner is very good for China," she argues. "Probably they don't see it." She is proud that the film punctures some western stereotypes of China and the Chinese people, which she thinks come from overexposure to Hong Kong action films. "Fighting and kung fu, that represents China. Either you're a prostitute or you're fighting kung fu. You have no brain. At least this film shows some brain there."

Despite the denunciations, her main worry is not reprisals against her grandmother in Sichuan. "I think China is much better now, and the people in the government are much wiser now. They wouldn't do anything to her. The only thing I worry is, how can I go back? When can I go back and see her? So sometimes when I talk about it, I hesitate, because on the one hand I want to say that everything I do is from my heart. On the other hand, I do have family there. I want to go back there."

"Life is tough" she sighs. "I'm torn, sometimes, in between. I don't know what to do, I don't know what to say, I don't know where to face, and I don't know where it's going to lead me. Everything is unknown, a challenge."

Of course, she has pursued the unknown time after time, in a journey that has brought her from Sichuan to Tibet to Beijing, New York and now Los Angeles. "Sometimes I enjoy the uncertainty and the unknown, because I think that's the meaning of life, the unknown."

Western magazines like to make much of her name, which translates as "White Spirit." She indeed has a spiritual side, but it is a mistake to think of her as soft and ethereal. Her spirituality gives her strength and a sense of purpose. "What is happening to me, sometimes I think it is fate, or it is part of my mission in life."

"I just feel very very sad about the irony that I am chosen as one of the most beautiful women in the world, but in China, (they say) I am betraying my country. It's too much for me. It's not like that. I'm just a very simple person."

She has recently settled into an apartment on the Pacific. Of her life in California, she says "I'm always by myself, kind of wandering." And though she may be officially one of the most beautiful women in the world, she is single and does not have a boyfriend. "That's a mystery I'm trying to solve," she explains.

The People Magazine piece is bound to turn some heads, but Bai was more interested in showing the movie world a sexy side they missed in Red Corner. She will get to vamp a little in her next film, Wild Wild West, an action/western/comedy starring Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. "In Red Corner I was very serious, kind of sad, smart, intelligent. In this one I have some fun."

It is a smart career choice, especially for someone who complains that Hollywood "is too complicated for me. Taxes, agent, manager, publicist, I just can't deal with it. America is just too complicated for me."

Bai may be living in America, but she says she is very optimistic about China's future. She compares westernization to a train on a track. "When the train starts moving, everybody moves. Where can you go? We can't go back."

"But when we get past this, we've got enough money, where are we going? We go back to the beginning. The beginning is your root, your culture, your country, so you go back there, you never lose it because that's who you are. So I'm not worried about about the culture in China. It will still be there."