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Pushing her boundaries

He Saifei's role won her a Golden Rooster and forced her to find a way to connect to a character unlike any she'd played before, Xu Fan reports.

By Xu Fan | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-21 06:14
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Under the direction of Qiao Liang, the art-house film Off the Stage has earned He Saifei the best actress award at the 36th Golden Rooster Awards. It features her as a former Yueju Opera star who yearns to reconcile with her long-estranged son, portrayed by actor Yuan Wenkang. [Photo provided to China Daily]

There was still a slight chill in the air in Beijing in early spring. On the day of her interview with China Daily, He Saifei had a cold, so she wrapped herself in a black down jacket, her voice carrying the hint of nasal congestion. But the actress approached each question as seriously as she does her work.

In late 2021, He took on one of the most challenging roles of her life, portraying a former Yueju Opera star in the art-house movie, Off the Stage. The opera is originated in Zhejiang province during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The character is obsessively focused on pursuing success to the neglect of her family, and is portrayed as a somewhat selfish mother.

Although she initially hesitated to accept the role due to the stark contrast in personality, He eventually found a connection to the character as she listened to the songs of the late pingtan (Suzhou ballad) musician Xu Lixian, who, like her character in the movie, died of cancer.

"I have been studying pingtan for over two years. It's hard to describe the moment I suddenly grasped my character, but it was the passion and dedication in Xu's voice that helped me understand the enthusiasm of a traditional opera actress for the art," says He.

Born in Zhoushan in Zhejiang province in 1963, He was recruited by a local troupe in 1982 before rising to fame in the popular Yueju Opera film Five Daughters Celebrating a Grand Birthday in 1984. Since then, she has performed on opera stages and in dozens of movies and TV dramas, and became well-known for acting in a series of blockbusters, including Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (2007).

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