Rotten Tomatoes caught up with actress Bai Ling (Red Corner, Southland Tales) on the verge of her latest film, Crank: High Voltage, to talk movies and learn more about the bold and sensual artist, who at times is better known for her off-screen persona than her expansive body of work. Below, find out which romantic classics and modern films Bai Ling names among her Five Favorite Films and read on for our in-depth conversation about her work, her life, and her pursuit of happiness as we peel back the layers of the force of nature known as Bai Ling. Click to go directly to our interview with Bai Ling.
Mentally, Casablanca connects with my world. It’s very romantic, about giving and testing, and trusting and loving… And there’s the romantic music. Everything is [in line with] my tastes of romance. It’s also about an unfulfilled love, which makes everything more beautiful because you can’t have it. It’s just human nature. If you have it — you see the person, you see the romance — then the story becomes practical, like reality. But because it’s unfulfilled, it’s always a fantasy because we add so much of our own beauty, and romance, and poetry, into it.
Also, Casablanca is about the sacrifice of giving love. Real love, I think, is unconditional; you give your love away to love somebody. Otherwise it’s not real love, it’s possessive, it’s ownership.
I like movies like Gone with the Wind, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I’ll actually choose Traffic. When I did not speak the language, I watched the movie sex, lies, and videotape, and I didn’t understand; I thought American movies were always blockbusters, hard movies, with action and male leads. But that film was like pieces of life, pieces of dreams. I did a movie called Nipples, based on my dreams, with different characters coming together…very sexy, and very modern, and very open. I think that’s something that’s very contemporary and I didn’t think a lot of American directors were [that way]. [Steven Soderbergh]’s mind is very modern. I like Traffic because he shot it like a documentary, but there’s mystery, there’s modernity. There’s an unknown danger in it. When the characters are crossing the border — I just like the momentum of life, when people cross each other, when lives cross each other. In that moment of life, what can happen.
Wong Kar-Wai is one of my favorite directors from Asia. I’m a natural romantic. I feel like his movies — slow motion, the momentum of people, even a clock running — are non-traditional filmmaking. Normal movies [have scenes set up] like, I talk to you; you talk to me. Those kinds of movies are boring to me, but his films are advanced. He’s also extremely private and personal. His stories are all about innocent love, sort of like teenage love. How people need; how you love. They’re very, very romantic. When I talk about it, I feel this slow motion romance, high heels, the mystery of women, sexy, walking by. I recognize things in my soul that are unspoken; a lot of those longings, and unfulfilled romances, and dreams within [Wong Kar-Wai’s] films — they make me feel that.
I’d like to pick Red Corner, because Bai Ling’s in it. [Laughs] Actually, I choose it because out of all the movies that have Asian leading characters, it’s the first to have the most feminine — the most brilliant, modern, intelligent, female character ever in a Hollywood film that portrayed Asian characters. In all other films, it’s a mystery, romance, or kung fu; but here, I played a lawyer, a contemporary woman. And she has a romance with this sex symbol — Richard Gere. That combination is really rare on the silver screen, in Hollywood.
I play a lawyer and I fall in love; I’m under a Communist government and helping a foreign man. There’s also a lot of unspoken love underneath. I would sacrifice my life for him. She gives on many, many levels; she’s not only tough and sexy, but there’s intelligence behind it, and a total giving of unconditional love for this man for whom she would die and do anything for. There’s a beauty to her giving up everything for a man whom she’s helping while she’s under danger and pressure from the government — choosing between a country’s love, and being in danger of being destroyed and never seeing this lover that she would do anything for. It’s extremely beautiful and romantic to my heart and my soul, and I have a fantastic and beautiful relationship with my co-star, Richard Gere. So that’s one of my favorite movies forever, because I’m so close to it. These two [characters] are giving their lives to each other, and that love must remain hidden on the surface of the court system; the modern world is harsh. I like that under the harshness there’s a romance, and that romance is so free and so true.
Do you still remember what it was like when you were filming?
When I talk about it, it’s like I’m there! I feel emotional, like it’s going to make me cry; because I gave my life to the character, and to Richard Gere’s character. For me, it’s real; it’s not acting. And we had this beautiful, loving relationship just like in the movie. You know how sometimes when you’re in love for a lifetime, you remember a one-night stand? It’s not about the length, it’s about the impact and how pure, and how right, that person was to your soul and to your heart in that moment.
It’s a very personal choice because when I came to America from mainland China, I was an actress, but I never knew about Hollywood. I had heard of Hollywood but we didn’t have access to see Hollywood movies. A photographer was taking pictures of me and said, “You remind me of this actress named Audrey Hepburn.” I said, “Who is that?” He said, “Bai Ling, you have to watch her films,” and he found me Roman Holiday. That was the first Hollywood movie I’d ever seen. And it’s still one of my favorites, because it first introduced me to Hollywood — beautiful, romantic, very graceful, and elegant. I would like to remake it — I hope some director can help me, maybe Steven Soderbergh or Wong Kar-Wai. [Laughs] What I remember about those old Hollywood films is that when a leading lady and a leading man meet, they don’t have to say anything; you already know they’re in love. You root for them; you want them to be together. That’s the magic of Hollywood. I think somehow today we’ve lost a little bit of it, and you don’t care as much if two characters get together. But Roman Holiday makes you smile, makes your heart smile, makes your heart sing for these two people. Gregory Peck is gentle and elegant, the kind of tall leading man that I like.
I think we should remake the film. Everybody in America, in Asia, and in Europe, would appreciate it. The beautiful, pure, romantic story — I wish I would play a role like that, because I have a romantic soul. I’d like to bring that purity to the audience, to have their fantasy fulfilled.
Check out Bai Ling’s Five Favorites when she sat down with Current! (and yes, we realize that she added in Slumdog Millionaire with our friends at Current)
Living one’s life in the spotlight is a daunting undertaking for most, but few celebrities set themselves up for negativity as bravely or unapologetically as Bai Ling. After making her Hollywood breakthrough opposite Richard Gere in 1998’s Red Corner, the Chinese-American actress has since racked up an impressive number of credits, zooming breathlessly through mainstream roles and independent films alike. Yet, Ling has become best known in some circles for her off-screen persona, her antics on the red carpet, and the sometimes strange (and wonderfully frank) sayings she shares with press and on her candid personal blog, Naked Seduction.
RT sat down with the Crank: High Voltage star to talk movies over lattes in a Beverly Hills cafe and to learn more about the woman behind the persona. We learned that Ling’s brand of celebrity comes at a cost; the Chinese-born actress willingly lives her life in the open, channeling her very existence as a gift unto the world, a candidness that often invites the harshest kinds of criticism. And Ling is not without her moments of vulnerability, as we discovered when she shared her sadness at being exiled from her homeland following the release of Red Corner, or when she revealed the difficulty of keeping a smile when critics attack her in public.
Despite all that, Bai Ling soldiers on by living life on her own terms (and by enjoying the hell out of her work, which includes appearing in this week’s Crank: High Voltage opposite Jason Statham and in Taylor Hackford’s upcoming Love Ranch, opposite Helen Mirren). Read on for our candid interview.
Bai Ling: I feel like I’m not in this world; I feel like I am here, but every day I’m living in my own world. I don’t read anything, I don’t really watch anything, I’m in my own world, with the spirit and the soul of the universe, that have been given to me. I think that through my blog and my movies, in my own way I give a little bit of this to other people’s soul, people who forget about life, forget about romance and love, every day they’re trying just to make money and be successful. You wake up and you have tons of money, and you’re bitter; but the blue sky, and the birds and clouds and the romance are passing by you. A lot of people say how rich I am, I have a house, I have land. I say, I am the richest person in the world, do you know what I have? The universe.
It seems like very few people would embrace something like that.
BL: I’m not just saying that; I live that. And I’m innocently in it, and so happy; I’m like a little girl. Today I opened my curtains and it was sunny, and suddenly I just smiled. To me every day is a new day, a new moment in life, there’s no time…society is time. We’re always late, we’re always rushed, we’re always leaving, but in nature there’s no time. When there’s no time, there’s no hurry. There’s no agenda, there’s no purpose. You just [share the moment], you smile, you talk, you have coffee, you share that moment.
When you have an agenda, you don’t see what nature gives. When a moment comes, [like when] the sun sets and [creates] light sculptures… for me, I enjoy that I saw it. I saw it! They’re more real than a real thing you can touch. Because it’s for your soul, it’s food. And that’s what gives you the beauty and the romance and the delightfulness of the spirit, and you can basically affect others. That’s my gift, I feel. I talk to you, and other people read it — truthfully — if they allow themselves to not be judgmental about what Bai Ling says and not criticize me, they will see I’m not here to talk about myself; I’m sharing with you what I see that people don’t notice, but that’s there everyday.
It’s the appreciation of the small things that many people have a hard time embracing.
BL: It’s like breathing; without breathing, there’s no other thing. You’re alive, can you imagine? What a gift! We don’t see it. Like air — whether you notice it or not, it’s there, serving you every moment. How generous, to just give for free. And we take it for granted. But when someone takes your breath away, you go ah, you were right! You don’t know how beautiful we have it. I think that’s the most valuable thing we have.
I just hope that you can help in a way — media, how they portray me; they don’t understand me at all. Or they prefer it that way; I know how magazines want to sell. If Bai Ling’s sophisticated and elegant, there’s nothing really to talk about. If she’s crazy, or her nipples are always out, there’s something to trash and to talk about and to laugh at. But, I understand the magazines’ relationship with Hollywood; I accept that I’m an actress — and I’ve said, I have eight little spirits within me — one of them is crazy, she’s courageous, she’s out there. She enjoys showing off, because she thinks she’s beautiful; she is! And I’m ok if you trash me. I dare you to trash me, and I also dare you to celebrate me. Why only one way? Why not embrace day and night? People don’t know the darkness, the nighttime, how pure and valuable it is. Without the darkness, without pure black, you’d never see the stars and moon. You can’t ignore it. And those things have a higher purpose.
I think you’re very courageous to live like this; the nature of it leaves you open to both good and bad, and most other celebrities are very guarded.
BL: People tell me, “Don’t trust journalists,” but if I don’t trust, I can’t talk. What would be the fun for you? Sometimes I get trashed because I’m so open; it’s like saying “I love you,” and getting slapped. It’s kind of sad sometimes. I’m so open, so pure, I give you love, and a person steps on me… even then, you have to dare to love. Otherwise, why live? So therefore, I have to be loyal to myself, and I have to be truthful. Hopefully if I have ten interviews, just one person grabs it, and I’d be happy. I think it’s a rare thing that few people can appreciate it, because they’re too busy being brainwashed by society, by the magazines, by other people’s views, they forgot to have their own views, their own voice, and their own talents. I think everybody’s a star and a magician, but you give that up to follow others. I think if you’re loyal to that, you will like me, because you’ll know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, you won’t understand me, and you’ll think, “She’s out of her mind!”
Did you always have this philosophy?
BL: I think when I was in China, I grew up like a wild animal and adopted a human form. And I don’t know how to function because I’m so free. I’m a totally free spirit. When I say everything it seems wrong, because my mind functions differently, like I’m running a different program. I was constantly writing apology letters when I grew up — to my parents, to my school teacher, to my army leader, to my government — and I thought about it, what did I do wrong? I’m only having fun playing with my own thoughts. My own soul, my own structure…I think society is formatted, like with time, systems, boundaries. I’d think, one day I’ll rule the world, and the world will be so much more beautiful, because I’d abort boundaries that divide people, create violence, and pit people against each other.
I believe in the universe, in nature. Like my name; Bai is the simplest character, it means white. In writing, it’s the simplest character you can have. It means white and purity. Part of me is childlike, simple, pure, white. Ling, I just learned, in the complicated Chinese character, is like lightning. It’s like a light storm. It’s intriguing, it’s so dangerous, and it changes… I think I’m basically the circle of life; I’m like a child, but I have the wisdom of the universe.
I’m not out to get something, I just want to share who I am. There’s no agenda. I talk about my nipples — I think they are beautiful! And people say, she’s doing this for what? I’m doing this for nothing. I’m totally being who I am. A lot of people don’t understand. They’re living in a shell, bitter, trying to trash others. Why don’t you come out of life, compliment somebody, give them love, and say something that you know in your heart is right. For me, I believe that being Bai Ling, in this body and soul, is a gift. And this gift is not for me to keep. You only live once. I feel like the only brilliant, most beautiful thing you can be, is to be the pure extreme of who you are. No matter who you are. You have to go extreme to show it.
Next: Bai Ling on what she needs to win an Oscar, how she chooses her roles, and how she nabbed her role in Taylor Hackford’s Love Ranch, opposite Helen Mirren
Let’s talk about your acting. How do you view your career and your talents?
BL: I’m really a genius. I’m so talented. But the stage and the road of opportunities I have are not equal to my talent. Dumplings — I won four awards. It’s just magic. If you give me the stage, I’ll make magic for you. Therefore, I hope directors and producers can see it. I just want to give the gift; I know I have it. They talk about winning the [Academy Award] — I just need the vehicle. Not for winning, but to show you the brilliance that I can do. Like Sean Penn, my friend. All the brilliant actors say, “if I had the vehicle, I would be there.” Just to show people the talent that you have. The award is to celebrate; they’re not important to me, but of course it’s important that because of that, people would give me more opportunities, a stage to shine your talent. That’s what I want, not the awards.
We all have the special potential that only you have, nobody can do better. But you have to find that. There are people stuck their whole lives because they want to be movie stars, they want to make money and be famous. Money and fame are not the same as doing it to shine; those are the things people reward you with. If you hold on to [those things], you would be miserable.
You seem very fearless, in life and in your work.
BL: I really, really love what I do. I’m so daring; if a director asks me, Bai Ling, jump, I would jump. I’m not bulls***ing; I do everything for real. I do action myself. You see Crank 2; they hang me in a car, and you’ll see the car crash. At the same time when the car almost hits my body, they lifted me up. If they screwed up, my head would be gone. I have a stunt double, but I do it myself. People don’t know how hard I work. How much I give. I give everything. I was shooting Dumplings, and it was 100-something degrees, in a little apartment building with no air conditioning, and the meat was rotting… But I loved that character — so daring, so bold, so sexy. She tested me, tortured me, teased me.
Is it hard to deal with the negativity inherent in the entertainment business? How do you deal, knowing that you put yourself out there for all to accept, or not accept?
BL: I’m very proud that I did everything by myself. Nobody supported me; I didn’t rely on anybody, even my family. Sometimes I feel vulnerable, when people don’t understand me and try to trash me instead of celebrate me. I did everything — came from a foreign country, no money, no language, no nobody… and I made it, because purely I trusted. But sometimes I may get sad because people trash me and use harsh words, and wish for the worst. But I don’t want to be afraid…I still feel like a light, innocent, pure spirit, because I think in your heart there’s a candle light, and I have to protect that flame of fire, because it’s so fragile. Wherever you talk to people, wherever the darkness comes to you, you always imagine this little flame of candle light that you have to protect. If you feel it’s dark, then you move away. You don’t fight, because that’s when the light’s going to die for sure. Whenever you feel the shadows you close your eyes, smile, and leave, and don’t take it with you. But I’m a human being; those things hurt me, because I’m human and I have feelings. I can’t take the negativity because it’s a shadow on my soul; I’m here for a higher purpose. I have to protect myself. I just hope people see the beauty…
Years ago you went through a hard time when Chinese officials took offense to your participation in a film that criticized the government. How did you get through that time?
BL: Yeah, after Red Corner. But now it’s all solved. I went through a hard time, and I learned that politics are so much more complicated than my comprehension. I don’t like politics; I think most of the people are benefiting from the power. But also I learned there are consequences for my actions; I did Red Corner, I thought it was a brilliant woman that I was playing, but I got punished. So it’s kind of ironic; you learn things about the world that you just have to accept, and overcome your sadness to understand the other part. To understand China, which I did — I apologized, because that’s my country and I have to go back. It was a hard, hard experience for me, but I’m glad I went through it, just to learn and experience life in a harsh way.
Talking about the roles you choose, you seem to go for consistently strong and sensual female characters, but has it been difficult to do this as an Asian in Hollywood?
BL: In Love Ranch, there had been no Asian roles. It’s a true story about the first legal brothel in America, in Nevada. The role I got was written for a twenty-year-old white girl with big boobs, long hair, from Vegas. Her name is Samantha and she is the highest earning prostitute in that ranch. She’s not Asian, she was white. I auditioned with Taylor Hackford; I got the role with this audition. I’m so excited to see the movie. Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci [co-star], I’m so happy to work with both of them, and Taylor Hackford — I’m just really, really grateful that he gave me this role. He changed it. My character’s so arrogant; so mysterious. Helen Mirren was so nice to me. By the end, [Taylor Hackford] gave me a postcard with a note that said, “Bai Ling, you have no clue what a fascinating Samantha you created.”
Do you improvise very often? You’ve said you don’t act, you just live your roles.
BL: I think most brilliant actors are very intelligent. Like Helen Mirren, for example: when she played the Queen, the choices she made. How subtle; how brilliant. It’s about the intelligence behind the artist. You know the character. It’s how much you understand life. I assume, I think, most actors are intelligent people.
You’ve worked with many notable directors, including Richard Kelly; I was at the infamous Cannes premiere when Southland Tales debuted, which you had a role in. How did you reflect back on that experience given the reaction critics had to the film?
BL: I don’t judge people’s films like that; I think a person’s artistic journey is like a person’s life journey. It’s up and down, naturally. Natural growth is up and down. I think that the moment an artist goes through is the perfect moment that artist needs to go through, and for him in the moment, it’s the masterpiece he can give. I don’t really criticize or judge others; I find the beauty. For example, my own character is a brilliant character, and just for that I’m satisfied. And Justin Timberlake’s character — look how brilliant it is, what he created! I think this format is art, it’s not perfection of things. Art is supposed to be moving; film is a moving image.
I think critics have format in their minds. Of course, they’re brilliant and they know what is good or bad, they watch everything and they know every movie. You have comparison, you have knowledge. But I think sometimes you have to nourish an artist, it’s their journey. You can’t criticize Picasso’s blue period — that’s what made him, that’s his journey. It’s like the four seasons; you can’t say raining or snowing or too much sun is bad. If you think something is not an artist’s best, you can nourish them. You can say, that’s what I don’t like, and I understand why.
You have also worked with Luc Besson. What do you remember of that experience?
BL: You know what I learned from him? That human beings’ potential is unlimited. Because I learned French. I thought, how can I learn French, when I only had two weeks? I worked so hard; I worked until 12, and practiced my French until 2am.
You have a lot of projects coming up, and your career of late has included a lot of independent films. Is that all part of a deliberate career choice, or is there just a lack of roles available in studio films?
BL: I’m not planning or thinking too much. I think the roles just come my way. I had a lot of offers; like, last year I was working nonstop, from this set to that set. Sometimes I hadn’t even finished the script and I go. I feel like I’m lucky to be working and that I’m made offers. For me, it is work but it’s life; for example, one film takes me to Thailand, so I’ll go because it’s in Thailand. Another role I play because I like to play the role, and also because of the economy — and last year there weren’t a lot of films, and a lot of actors were not working, so I feel I’m lucky to be working.
You can find Bai Ling on her personal blog, and catch her next in Crank: High Voltage, which opens nationwide this Friday. Get the latest reviews and trailers here and check out more Five Favorite Films in our archive, including: