Vicki’s Months of Cold Misery

 The Straits Times, Oct 03, 2008
by Foong Woei Wan

 During the filming of Painted Skin in winter, the director and crew ignored the Chinese actress to help her get into character.

Chinese actress Vicki Zhao had a miserable, really miserable winter in China late last year. The usually vivacious Zhao had been cast in the Hong Kong fantasy action film Painted Skin, as Peirong, the despairing wife of a general (Chen Kun) bewitched by a demonic temptress (Zhou Xun).

 And it seemed that Zhao had to live her lonely character’s life off-screen too as she was ignored by director Gordon Chan and his team after hours.

“They didn’t comfort me, they didn’t joke with me. I felt left out. they left me in this state,” the 32-year-old said on the telephone from Beijing. “I was uncomfortable and terrified during the two months I was filming.”

 As the cast and crew filmed in the desert in northern region of Ningxia and in the Hengdian studio in the eastern province of Zhejiang, she felt like an outcast both on- and off-camera. Her family had to fly in to keep her company.

Only later did she realise that team had cold-shouldered her to help her get in character. Well, it worked, she said, “I was in pain. I was in more pain than the director. All the tears the audience saw were real.”

Painted Skin, which is Hong Kong’s entry for 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is based on a story of the same title form the Chinese classic Strange Tales.

 In the original cautionary tale, a man has an affair with a lovely lone female traveller, only to discover she is a demon dressed in a painted human skin. When he has his heart ripped out by the monster, his virtuous wife has to go to great lengths to revive him.

The film has an insidious plot, however: The demon wants to win the man’s heart – metaphorically – and to replace his wife. Either way, the role of the unhappy wife is an unlikely one for Vicki Zhao Wei, who is more famous for playing the chirpy adventuress, Little Swallow, in the mammoth television hit, 1998’s My Fair Princess.

In her other big screen outing this year in the epic Red Cliff, she portrays Sun Shangxiang, a high-spirited wannabe warrior – a character close in temperament to Little Swallow.

So, why did Vicki Zhao sign up for Painted Skin and months of misery?

 Director Gordon Chan “provoked me”, she said. “He thought it was something I might not be able to do. It provoked me to accept the challenge.”

Musing on the difficult decisions her character has to make in a love triangle, she said, “I couldn’t handle it as well as her. She is a character I could learn from.”

Faced with a similar situation in her love life, she said: “I would have roamed the world.”

Then she caught herself and added: “I haven’t been married so I can be casual about it.”

Zhao Wei has been linked in the tabloids to a Chinese table-tennis star. But she denied the rumours of romance. She said: “That’s all rubbish. We are good friends. I wouldn’t not go out with my friends because people are taking photos. As to whether our relationship will develop, Heaven hasn’t given me any hints yet.”

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