11:37 September 30 2009
The Message, a thriller based on Mai Jia's novel of the same name, is set to dominate the Chinese box office during the National Day golden week. Directed by Gao Qunshu (The Tokyo Trial) and Chen Kuo-fu (The Personals), The Message has a star-studded cast including Zhou Xun (Painted Skin), Li Bingbing (The Forbidden Kingdom), Zhang Hanyu (Look for a Star) and Huang Xiaoming (The Sniper).
Touted in the media as "one of China's best commercial films," The Message tells the story of a Japanese official and the puppet government attempting to find an undercover agent among five suspects during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. The film is dedicated to the 60th anniversary of New China and those who sacrificed their lives for the country.
"I will not reveal anything about the plot," laughed Li Bingbing, who plays one of the suspects, "it will totally kill half the fun of watching this thriller."
The crew signed a confidentiality agreement during shooting. "Chen, who also wrote the script, kept changing it. We did not even know how the film would end halfway through shooting," Zhou Xun told the Global Times.
Zhou said that she hopes the audience will get involved in guessing who the undercover agent is, which is the best part of watching the thriller. "You probably won't get it right. Chen's script is really smart," she added with a triumphant smile.
Zhou said that the biggest challenge for her was that the directors asked her to act naturally. "We had to forget about being actresses and completely devote ourselves to the roles."
Such devotion is best reflected in the film's climax, a 13-minute scene that Li and Zhou shot in one take. Zhou said Li's performance amazed her. "As Li had always been quiet and precise, I did not expect such a strong outburst of emotion from her. I had to put myself more into my role to match her."
"The secret is that I drank some alcohol before shooting," Li confessed. She said that she seldom drank before, but she was told to forget about herself completely.
"Zhou and I were both so devoted to our roles that I could not feel the cameras and crew around us, we were immersed in the scene, just the two of us."
"Few actors get the opportunity to perform in a one-take scene with such length. I'm really lucky and I enjoyed the process," Li added.
Li also shot her first nude scene. She chose not to use a stand-in because she wanted to deliver a strong performance.
"Still, it was my first time to be half naked on screen, I of course had my worries and concerns," Li said. "Luckily when the cameras started to roll I forgot about my concerns and simply went with how my character should feel and react. Besides, Huang is really professional. Acting with him was comfortable, even though he had to strip my clothes off."
Zhou commented that working with two directors was beneficial. "Chen and Gao shared the same understandings about this film, but they looked at and communicated with me about my acting with different approaches, which helped me create the role more completely."
Zhou said that Chen focused more on the script while Gao was more involved in the shooting process and Chen is more strict and solemn than Gao. "But they are both good at making actors feel at ease and performing to their best potential."
"They knew exactly how to shoot the film and understood every role deeply," commented Li. She said that the two directors gave her valuable feedback.
The relationship between Zhou and Li is complicated in the film. "I'm her supervisor at work, but we are also close, like sisters," Li explained, "but at the same time, we keep our secrets from each other." Zhou added that media speculation about their characters becoming intimate was untrue.
As two of China's leading actresses and signed by the same agency, Zhou and Li's relationship also appears complicated in real life. There have often been rumors in the media about the two being on bad terms. Li clarified them by saying that Zhou was like her younger sister.
"We were not so close before because we are both busy and have little time to get along," she added. Li said this film gave them more time to get to know each other. "She even cooked sweet soup with pears when she found out that I was not sleeping well."