We’re now welcoming a Siren that once sacrificed a part of her body to play a role to its fullest. We’re, of course, talking about Bai Ling, who completely shaved her head for her role in Anna and the King. Her mane was more than three feet long and she mulled over the decision for months. In the end, it was a wise move, as her scenes as the doomed character Tuptim became even more poignant for it.
Bai Ling (which can be translated as “White Spirit”) was born on October 10, 1970, in the Szechwan province of The People’s Republic of China. Her parents were both artists (dad musician and mom actress) and thus got into problems with the authorities during the Cultural Revolution. So the young girl was mostly raised by her grandmother. At the age of 14, she began a career in entertainment as she was enrolled by the People’s Liberation Army to be a performer in Tibet, singing and dancing for soldiers. She soon became an expert in vocalizing many different dialects. Obeying strict rules was not her forte, mainly concerning the use of alcohol and cigarettes, so she ran into some conflict.
Joining the Szechwan Theater Company, Bai Ling became adept at performing traditional parts, as well as working with more modern projects. Seems that she spend time in a mental hospital, following bouts of depression. Some small roles in film came her way and at the age of 18, she starred in Hu Guang. She received permission to promote the film at the Moscow Film Festival as long as she wouldn’t talk about recent political turmoil, mainly the Tiananmen Square protests (of which she had been a participant).
Bai Ling, now 21, arrived in New York City to study at its Film School and to enrol at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute… all this without speaking a word of English! Her facility at mastering any languages resulted in her being soon turned into a perfect American. She turned up in Sansho the Bailiff, a production for the Brooklyn Academy of Music directed by Terence Mellick. Her American film debut was for The Crow, as memorable bad girl Myca, a character wearing fetish wear and intrigued by human eyeballs. She auditioned for Heaven and Earth, an Oliver Stone film, who finally hired her for another project, Nixon, as she played Nixon’s interpreter during his famous visit to China. Then, came Red Corner and the cause of more controversy.
The movie starred Richard Gere as a journalist on a trip to China who’s being accused of murder. Bai Ling played his appointed defence attorney, in a performance that was very well-received. But not everywhere, as the film was banned in China and Korea. To her astonishment, the unfortunate actress saw future movie roles in Asia cancelled and her passport revoked! She was now considered as a traitor in her native land, as the angry countries were not in the least flattered by the movie’s depiction of justice. Even Ling’s parents were ostracized. Still, she gathered positive press in North America, as she won the 1997 Breakthrough Award from the National Board of Review, as well as being named Discovery Star of 1997 by the Hollywood Women’s Press Club for their Golden Apple Awards. To top it off, she became one of People’s magazine 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
She could then be seen in Somewhere in the City, alongside a cast including some interesting European actresses, namely Ornella Muti and Bulle Ogier. Bai Ling wearing a ping wig… yum! A decorative role followed for the ill-fated Wild Wild West, with a character named Miss East. 1999 was the year that Bai Ling became a U.S. citizen. She also joining Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat for Anna and the King. Yes, the hair incident. She had actually never had her tresses cut, as she only got them trimmed at the bottom. Long as it was, using a bald skullcap was out of the question. As she played the king’s concubine who makes the ill-fated decision to pursue a romantic liaison with a childhood friend, the character of Tuptim must disguise herself as a monk. So, off with her hair. The movie was filmed in Malaysia, even if it takes place in Thailand. Thai government officials were afraid that their people would not be filmed in a respectful fashion. Even if the Anna and the King was a box-office disappointment and failed to launch the North America career of Chow Yun-Fat, in my memory still lingers the final, poignant fate of Tuptim…
Also worthwhile was her participation in the hit show Angel, playing Jhiera, a princess from another dimension. In 2001, Bai Ling was cast as goddess Kwan Ying for a colourful TV miniseries titled The Monkey King, a popular Chinese fairy tale. Next, she played a sensuous vampire in the futuristic horror film The Breed. After, a futuristic sci-fi thriller came her way, entitled Storm Watch. Huh? What was she doing in B-pictures? Oddly, she was also present in Taxi 3, the third episode of the French comedy-action movie franchise Taxi, with a cameo by Sylvester Stallone (?). Mindless thrillers and more serious projects followed, most memorably The Beautiful Country, a Norway/USA co-production about the Vietnam war.
In 2004, Bai Ling was in the cast of the intriguing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film with an unique visual look, to say the least (with the special inclusion of Sir Laurence Oliver, dead since 1989!). She also found the time to be in Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith for a small role, that of Senator Bana Breemu. Recently, for the horror anthology Three… Extremes, Ling won as Best Supporting Actress for the Golden Horses Awards for the episode Dumplings. The plot: seems that women afraid of aging are eating dumplings stuffed with embryos to keep them eternally young! Intriguing.
Bai Ling is now planning to write about her experiences living in Tibet. She dated singer/actor Chris Isaak and director Luc Besson. Seems to me that the innocent-faced ingenue has turned into a woman with a bit of a harder face, with sometimes distressing lines under her eyes. And her clothing can be described as eccentric, to say the least. Still, she remains a most fascinating performer, that was recently seen in Man About Town, alongside Ben Affleck (is it wise to star alongside Affleck, these days?). We strongly hope that her presence will continue to grace fantasy film work or any kind of worthwhile project, for that matter, because in the right hands, this actress ROCKS (just watch her strutting the stage in the 2005 series But Can They Sing? And to the joy of many, her breasts popped out of her dress at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival!).
1987 Shan cun feng yue 1988 Arc Light 1994 The Crow; Dead Funny 1995 Nixon 1997 Red Corner 1998 Somewhere in the City; Row Your Boat 1999 Wild Wild West; Anna and the King 2001 The Breed 2002 Face; Storm Watch 2003 Taxi 3; The Extreme Team; Paris 2004 My Baby’s Daddy; The Beautiful Country; She Hate Me; Three… Extremes; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; 2005 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith; Lords of Dogtown; Edmond 2006 Man About Town; Southland Tales 2007 Living & Dying; The Gene Gereration; Shanghai Baby 2008 Toxic; The Hustle; Dim Sum Funeral; Chain Letter; A Beautiful Life; The Gauntlet; The Lazarus Papers 2009 Magic Man; Love Ranch; Crank 2: High Voltage