A star shines her light on Chinese film

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The evolution of Chinese film is the subject of an enticing documentary that premiered on Friday.

Featuring dramatic reconstructions of historical moments and the stories of trailblazers, In Pursuit of Light follows Chinese-born American actress Lisa Lu, 95, from Los Angeles, to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangdong province, as she reminisces about, and sheds light on, influential works that helped define the early development of Chinese film.

Lu is a legendary actress of Chinese ancestry who forged a pioneering path to Hollywood and has been active in the film industry for more than six decades and counting. She has received several influential awards and has featured in movies with such illustrious names as Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda and James Stewart.

The documentary reproduces fascinating stories from her early life.

Lu started to imitate theater performers at a very young age, which is perhaps unsurprising given that her mother was a Peking Opera star and her godfather was Mei Lanfang, an icon of the Chinese performing arts.

In 1947, her family moved to the United States and she enrolled in the University of Hawaii where she studied financial management.

They then moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and Lu joined the Pasadena Playhouse. The venue was both an incubator of talent and a place where invaluable contacts could be made. Soon a slew of small roles beckoned from neighboring Hollywood.

Her Chinese-style elegance and capability to speak both Chinese and English won her many career opportunities.

She was widely known as "one take Lisa" for her ability to accurately deliver her lines, in time and without fuss.

The only time the nonagenarian tears up in the documentary is when she recalls Mei's family seeing her off at Wusongkou port in Shanghai in 1947 as she and her mother boarded their ship bound for the US.

She reels off each farewell gift she got from Mei's family.

Mei Baojiu, Mei Lanfang's youngest son who was 13 back then, gave her a red envelope containing five US dollars which was the "lucky money" he got from elders as a Spring Festival gift.

"He saved the dollars for a long time and unexpectedly gave them all to me," Lu says with tears trickling down her cheeks as she looks back with nostalgia to the brotherly act of affection.

In the documentary, she also shares heartwarming memories, for instance, of her friendship with the legendary late Hollywood actress, Audrey Hepburn.

She met Hepburn in the early 1960s when the latter was filming Breakfast at Tiffany's in Los Angeles.

The two actresses, though from different cultural backgrounds, soon hit it off and became friends and confidantes.

Hepburn showed a keen interest in the qipao, the traditional one-piece, body-hugging Chinese dress that Lu often wore on movie sets. Lu gave her a piece of silk brocade embroidered with exquisite flowers to make a well-tailored qipao-like evening dress.

In return, Hepburn sent Lu a delicately designed powder box engraved with the words "Lisa with Love, from Audrey", which Lu carefully kept for half a century before she donated it to her alma mater, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in 2014.

In the documentary, Lu also recalls other film legends, namely, Lai Manwai who is widely hailed as "the father of Hong Kong film", filmmaker Cai Chu-sheng, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong and kung fu star Bruce Lee. She reveals how they contributed to the development of the world's film industry and promoted the spirit of Chinese people.

"I'm honored that I once walked alongside them in pursuit of our film dreams, and that I'm still on the path," Lu says.

Coincidentally, all five of those trailblazers are of Guangdong origin.

Shi Chuan, an expert on China's film history, says that, due to geographical and historical reasons, many pioneers in Chinese film production were from Guangdong province, which once served as the bridgehead for China's increasing exchanges with Western countries and was a center for advanced culture.

"People living there were relatively more open-minded (than people from inland areas). In the past, few Chinese women were willing to enter the public eye of the film industry, but some actresses of Guangdong origin were an exception," adds Shi.

Zhang Tongdao, director of the documentary and also a professor with Beijing Normal University, says that he got to work with Lu for more than a month, during which, Lu's personal charisma inspired him to embrace his better self.

"I hope that Lu's dedication to her work and passion for life can also touch the heartstrings of our audience," says Zhang. "Also that the stories of those legendary figures can strengthen Chinese people's sense of patriotism and stimulate the development of the country's film industry."

The documentary has gathered precious historical records, including movie clips, letters, diaries and items from the personal collections of the filmmakers, actors and actresses of Guangdong origin. It also involves in-depth interviews with kung fu master Dan Inosanto, a student of Bruce Lee, and some other surviving collaborators and family members of the five film legends.

The production unit spent a great deal of time and effort in getting permission to use clips of old movies from their respective copyright holders and searching for historical materials.

"We've used materials from 31 old movies, among which 10 have never been brought to the big screen for a domestic audience," says Zhang, the director.

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