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Growing pains
Updated: 2004-10-27 08:31

Jennifer Li is a lucky girl. She is not a professional writer but her first book about her school days in England has sold 120,000 copies.

Jennifer Li [file photo]
She is not a beauty but she won the role of portraying herself as the heroine of a big-budget movie adapted from her book. That so many dreams of this young woman have been realized seems almost too good to be true.

"It's her book and her story. No one understands better than she about the role," says director A Gan, who is famous for directing several best-selling - and funny - horror movies.

"Life Translated" is based on Li's autobiographical book, "Winged Sheep." A 16-year-old girl named Jean flies off to study in a century-old high school in the United Kingdom. Her schoolmates, at first, regard her as "an ugly and silly girl." But she finally wins their friendship and respect through her sincerity and warm heart. Jean also attracts the attention of a Hong Kong boy named DJ (Edison Chen) and the captain of the school rugby team, Tom (Cary Woodworth). She falls in love with DJ.

Born in Shenzhen in south China's Guangdong Province, Li studied at Felsted School in England from 1995 to 1997. Like thousands of other Chinese students who leave home to study in a faraway country, by the time she was 16 Li had tasted discrimination, misunderstanding and more than her share of difficulties. Inspired by her father, Li wrote an account of her "growing pains" filled with a teenager's hopes, tears and joys and two years ago it became a highly successful book.

"The friendship, bittersweet love, growing sexual awareness and homesickness in her book touched me and inspired me to make a movie," says A Gan. "It's a film for high school students and university freshers. The youngster movie genre doesn't really exist in China yet. I hope that teenagers will not spend their leisure time only at Internet bars. Chinese filmmakers are beginning to make films for them."

The movie was shot entirely in Britain with a budget of 21 million yuan (US$2.56 million), a large sum for a Chinese film.

When the director asked Li to write the script, he had no thought of casting her - an ordinary-looking girl - as the star of the movie.

"She was not beautiful and had no acting experience," says the director. "Our stereotype of casting beauty in movies would have excluded Li from our list of candidates. But she tried hard to be given the opportunity. She even took an acting course at New York University to prepare herself.

"If the star of the movie had been beautiful and well-known, it would have just been another commercial Hong Kong movie. A beautiful girl would not have encountered the problems that Li did in a foreign land and we have tried to be faithful to the novel."

But to some, this big-budget movie still looks like a shallow commercial flick.

"You can guess the ending by the middle of the movie," says Wang Jian, a local film reviewer. "The plot is thin and uncreative. I cannot understand why the director spent so many minutes filming Li and the two handsome boys bicycling on the streets. It has no emotion and no meaning. It's like an over-long story which has nothing to say.

"But, anyway, the movie has accurately targeted its audience, which is rare for Chinese films," she says. "In addition, Li looks unattractive at the beginning but gradually I came to feel that the girl is sincere and lovely. As a first-time actress, she has done well."

Actor Woodworth is also impressed by the achievement of this new Chinese actress.

"At first she was upset, uncomfortable, frozen, stiff and worried when performing," Woodworth says. "Step by step, she realized herself and joined the scene. I especially appreciated some of the small things she did to bring out the flavor of the role. She became more and more colorful."

The movie may also have changed Li's direction in life entirely. After high school graduation, Li received a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Denver and went on to study for a master's degree at New York's Columbia University. But she has quit her business studies to study film production at New York University. She will also be a hostess on a new English program in Beijing.

"My future career will be related to films," says Li, now 25 years old. "I'm a girl driven by passion. Film stars may be prettier than I am - but I can write. I'm good at writing love stories and I'm writing another script now. The story is about a European man born in China who can speak only Chinese and a Chinese girl born in America who can speak only English.

"I matured and became independent earlier than other girls. Pains and sorrows helped me to grow up faster," says this really lovely girl.

"Life Translated" is now airing in Shanghai cinemas with English subtitles.

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