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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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Director Qiao Liang [Photo provided to China Daily]

Director Qiao Liang, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, says that the academy's president recommended he read Ai Wei's novel in early 2021, and that he was quickly hooked up by the unlikely protagonist.

Saying that the role reminded him of independent female figures like Nora Helmer in Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Qiao says he believes Qi represents the dilemma of contemporary women after liberation — even in modern society, women are still scrutinized from a male perspective.

A native of Jilin province, Qiao spent most of his childhood time backstage of the Jilin Opera troupe to which his father belonged.

"I refused to go to kindergarten, so my father took me to the troupe when he was working. There were other children there whose parents were also in the troupe. Because the adults were busy with their own work, we entertained ourselves by putting on wigs for fun and using prop swords as toys," he recalls.

"I still remember my father searching everywhere for me and finally finding me asleep in a large wooden trunk, which I had turned into a makeshift bed because I was too tired after playing," he adds, with a smile.

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]

Life backstage left a deep impression on Qiao's childhood memories. He was captivated by its drama and by the ordinary "aunties and uncles" who ate with them casually in the canteen, but once in makeup and onstage, transformed into great heroes, emperors, and nobles, shining brightly and beyond reach.

"I feel this moment is magical, and this is what I wanted to express in the movie," the director says.

In an attempt to capture the nuances of Yueju Opera, the film was entirely spoken in the dialect of the provincial capital, Hangzhou. Principal scenes were filmed in Shaoxing and Shengzhou in Zhejiang, with the seaside scenes shot in Fujian province.

Late last December, Qiao organized a personal film exhibition in Seoul, where he screened Off the Stage and Crested Ibis, a film about a Chinese journalist's investigation into air pollution, that drew the attention of South Korean industry insiders.

"It was my first time in front of a foreign audience in person since the pandemic. I was delighted by the strong interest shown by the South Korean viewers in the films. A few even recognized that Off the Stage is spoken in dialect. I was proud to promote Chinese culture and traditional art overseas," Qiao recalls.

Art-house film Off the Stage. [Photo provided to China Daily]
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