Gao Yuanyuan has grown up into a fine actress. [Guo Yingguang]
After finishing shooting Nanking! Nanking! earlier this year, lead actress Gao Yuanyuan found it hard to return to normal life. The 29-year-old, who is famous for her "girl-next-door" image, was transformed. She played a middle-aged teacher, who helped Nanjing people survive the horrors of the Japanese atrocities in 1937. Even after two months of taking a break from acting, the role still haunts her.
"It was a rite of passage for me, psychologically," she adds. "The acting process, every single gesture, and even each breath, have been haunting me."
Nanking! Nanking! director Lu Chuan wanted to dismantle the school-girl image that made Gao hugely popular over the past decade. He wanted her to reveal something deeper.
"My character helps lots of people survive but she also witnesses the death of her friends," Gao says. "The director persuaded me to open up and find another me."
"I understood 'being lovable' and being 'the girl next door' was a compliment, but I was the girl-next-door to what?"
A talent scout spotted Gao on the street when she was only 16 and since then, the fresh-faced actress has starred in nine films. But she admits never taking acting seriously until she worked on Nanking! Nanking! which opens in cinemas next month. "I don't feel ambivalent about calling myself an actress now," she says.
In 1997, Gao's acting career began when she played a high school girl in Zhang Yang's Spicy Love Soup and teamed with Wang Xiaoshuai in his classic Beijing Bicycle and later his award winning Shanghai Dreams.
When Shanghai Dreams won the Jury Prize at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, Gao was thrust into the spotlight.
However, immediately after the success of Shanghai Dreams, the actress decided to take a year-long break to reevaluate her career.
"I don't think I did a good job in that film though lots of people gave me praise," she says.
"I envisioned having a full year off, just living life and having fun. I love going to crowded supermarkets and shopping at small stores. It is the best thing."
In 2006, she teamed up with Jackie Chan in his comedy Robin B Hood. She learnt a lot from the veteran actor.
"I looked at him (Jackie Chan) working and keeping busy everyday with passion in his eyes. But once we finished, he would withdraw from the crowd and his eyes would soften."
Nanking! Nanking! is a turning point for the young actress, who has attracted a legion of young Chinese fans who have grown up with her.
"I think a lot of the roles I have been playing up to this point have been young women coming of age," Gao muses. "The circumstances may have been different from role to role, but they were all coming-of-age stories." But Nanking! Nanking! was something special.
"It was the first time I felt I was taken seriously. It gave me my first shot of confidence as an actress," she says.
(China Daily December 23, 2008)