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Sunday December 2, 2007

Thoroughly modest miss

Lee Sinje, who has won the Chinese film industry’s equivalent of the Oscars for best actress, continues to build an impressive body of work. Surely it is only a matter of time before Hollywood beckons. But is she interested? 

AT 31, she is a celebrated actress and the world, you could say, is her oyster. But Lee Sinje seriously wants to slow down and savour life. 

Accomplished actress-singer Lee Sinje, whose latest movie The Drummer is currently on the cinema circuit, is surprisingly not among the hottest names in her own country.
That seems strange when she’s tasted success of the highest order in Chinese cinema – the leading lady of numerous productions and winner of multiple prestigious awards – and having no lack of offers coming her way. 

Her desire for a less hurried pace was heightened last year when she reached her 10th year in the glamorous but notoriously capricious industry. 

“I view things more calmly now than when I was younger and all eager to pursue my dreams,” says the Alor Star lass now based in Hong Kong, whose foray into the entertainment world began with the release of her Mandarin album, Under the Same Starry Night, in 1996. 

“I now focus on things that I value most, like my family and friends, and do things that I truly enjoy, like painting and learning psychology.” 

This is a far cry from the single-minded 20-year-old who took off for Taiwan on her own, forgoing plans to study accountancy in the United States. 

Lee, who was a skinny little tomboy while growing up in Alor Star, remains very close to her family.
“In these last 10 years, it’s been work, work, work for me. But I began to re-look at my priorities after turning 30,” says Lee. 

She is no loquacious celebrity and carries herself with quiet dignity. But during our two-hour interview over margherita pizza and chamomile tea recently in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, she speaks freely and frankly about her life, her work, her boyfriend ... everything except her bank balance. 

The 1.63m beauty, back for a break, arrives at the new One World Hotel accompanied by her makeup artist, looking spiffy in a long coat over a singlet and hot pants with black knee-high boots. Her long tresses are replaced by a sassy short-cropped hairdo, a style requested by acclaimed director Tsui Hark for her role in his upcoming romantic mystery, Missing

It was just five years ago that a fresh-faced Lee with her large, bewitching eyes was catapulted to stardom for her role as a blind girl who eerily receives more than a gift of sight in The Eye. The hit 2002 horror flick also brought international recognition to the directing and writing duo of the Pang brothers, Oxide and his twin Danny. 

She attended her youngest brother’s graduation in the United States last year with her parents and boyfriend, Oxide Pang. – Photos courtesy of Lee Sinje
Lee was so convincing in that role that she clinched the coveted best actress award at the 39th Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan) in 2002, and in the following year, at the 22nd Hong Kong Film Awards and the Eighth Golden Bauhinia Awards (HK). For the first two awards, Lee beat film stalwarts Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung respectively for the top trophy.  

Lee is the only Malaysian to have garnered these major accolades. 

“It’s my favourite role, along with that in Betelnut Beauty,” says Lee who has 13 movies and three TV series under her belt. (Betelnut Beauty, a 2000 coming-of-age indie drama in which she plays an aimless youth who finds work – hawking betelnut – and love on the streets of Taiwan, won her a new talent award at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival in Germany – a rare honour among Asian stars.) 

“I still watch reruns of The Eye at home,” Lee confesses unabashedly. She has good reason to. The movie, which has just been remade by Hollywood in a production starring Jessica Alba and co-produced by Tom Cruise, remains her best-known work to date. 

Lee was famously discovered by Taiwan’s doyenne of film and music Sylvia Chang at an audition in Kuala Lumpur in 1995 after Lee’s friend submitted her photo and particulars for the audition, and changed her life forever. 

Chang became her mentor-manager and they have remained close for more than a decade. Lee is contracted to the artiste management company owned by the 54-year-old Chang, Red on Red. 

The Pang brothers first saw Lee, then an unknown in Hong Kong, on MTV and knew instantly that the long search for their lead actress for The Eye had ended. The two were swept away by Lee’s performance of her song, Ocean of Love ... one of them more than the other. A year after filming The Eye in Thailand, Oxide and Lee started dating and are together till now. 

Lee with her mentor Sylvia Chang (centre) and Rene Liu at the Berlin International Film Festival to present their movie 20:30:40in 2004. – Reuters
During her recent trip home, the couple visited Taman Negara in Pahang to, as she posts on her blog, “be close to Mother Nature and catch up on my reading”. 

A contemplative and low-key sort who loves to read, Lee is learning to paint, her medium being acrylic, and is planning to sign up for a part-time psychology course with her best friend, Hong Kong actress Charlie Yeung. She also practises qigong and yoga. “Things like these help me to relax and unwind,” she says. 

In fact, true to her character, the daughter of a bicycle shop owner and homemaker constantly stays under the radar.  

Lee at her moment of triumph at the 39th Golden Horse Awards in 2002, when she was named Best Actress in the film The Eye. She is the only Malaysian to win the coveted award.
“Except for work-related promos, I don’t often attend social functions and movie premieres. 

”I don’t want to be carried away by the attention and adulation. It may make you vain. This job doesn’t last forever, there will come a day when you are no longer famous. If you aren’t careful, that sense of loss could lead to depression. 

“So to me, even when I won those awards, it was no big deal. I am just another dedicated worker.” 

While she is well-known among Chinese educated Malaysians who know her music and films, most other fellow citizens are less likely to know her name nor recognise her the way they do Datuk Michelle Yeoh. 

It also doesn’t help when international media has mistakenly identified her as a Taiwanese or Hong Kong actress. 

Indeed, despite her achievements, she is no groupie-commanding superstar who is mobbed everywhere she goes when back in her own territory. 

But true to her name – Sinje means “pure heart” – she has remained close and faithful to her family, friends and country. 

These days, the eldest of four children flies home more regularly to see her aged parents and three brothers. 

In a touching blog entry on her 60-year-old father, Lee writes: “As I headed towards my parents at the airport arrival hall I caught sight of Dad – suddenly his hair appeared to have gotten white, his body thinner and his face paler, though he still had that familiar smile on his face. I tried hard not to blink, for if I did, the tears welling up in my eyes would flow down my cheeks....” 

In another, Lee recounts memories of her father staying up at night to care for his children. “Dad, our hero, would set the alarm clock and wake up every half-hourly to check on us when we had fever....” 

Her father was understandably apprehensive about her big move to Taiwan. However, the alumna of SMJK Keat Hwa – already a noted performing talent in school – was determined to seize the chance of a lifetime. 

“Chang Chieh (Sister Chang) came to Alor Star to see my parents and convinced them to let me go for it,” recalls Lee, who was by then a veteran of many singing competitions and the head of her secondary school’s drama club. 

It is hard to picture that this charming and graceful lady was once a gamine gal roaming the neighbourhood and very active in sports. 

“I loved sports and played tennis. I was also always the first to volunteer myself to sing onstage and had won many trophies in my primary school years,” says the actress who still sings karaoke with her 51-year-old mother. 

The fiercely independent girl handled those early years of living alone in a foreign land with equanimity, though “it was the lowest point in my life: I had no friends and my first album didn’t sell well.” 

Remarkably, when it comes to friends, fame has not made her forget her bosom buddies from school. She and five other girls she has known since Remove Class still maintain their close ties. 

“We are like sisters. Sometimes they come to visit me in Hong Kong ... and go shopping!” she grins. 

Her close confidante is of course Chang – the first person Lee tearily phoned backstage when she bagged the biggie at Golden Horse Awards (the Oscars of the East) – who continues to be a huge influence in her life. They have collaborated on two movies directed by Chang, Princess D (2002) and 20:30:40 (2004). The latter is an interesting tale revolving around three women each in their 20s (represented by Lee), 30s (Rene Liu) and 40s (Chang). 

“Chang Chieh is a terrific person. She treats us all (artistes under Chang’s company) very well. And she is not mercenary but full of love for us. I learnt a lot from her,” says Lee. “It was like a dream (being a protege of Chang).” 

So what’s next? Will Lee follow in the footsteps of 44-year-old Yeoh to Hollywood? 

That would seem a natural progression for her after her string of movies opposite some of Asia’s biggest names, such as Aaron Kwok in Divergence and Daniel Wu and Edison Chen in Princess D

Lee says she wants to concentrate on acting which she prefers to singing (her sixth album was released in 2004), but is surprisingly nonchalant about Hollywood, where even her pal Charlie Yeung and the Pang brothers are making inroads. Yeung is the lead actress in the brothers’ upcoming remake of their 1999 thriller, Bangkok Dangerous, starring Nicolas Cage as a hitman. 

“If it comes, it comes, I will treasure the opportunity,” Lee states before adding: “But I am happy for those Asian stars courted by Hollywood. This is a good thing for the industry.” 

At the mention of Ang Lee, Lee’s eyes brighten. She admits to having a great admiration for the work of the world-famous Taiwanese director. 

“Sure, I’d like to work with him! Then again, it’s not something I desperately crave. It’s all fated,” she shrugs. 

Her nonchalance comes as no surprise to those who know her. 

China Press entertainment editor Lee Ai Lee, who first interviewed Sinje even before her big break overseas, says the actress comes across as one who thrives on honest indie flicks rather than glossy Hollywood blockbusters that Yeoh does with panache. 

“It goes with Sinje’s laidback character. She is less ambitious though a very good actress who’s game to try different genres,” Ai Lee opines, dismissing the misconception that Sinje has become a stereotypical horror movie star. 

Sin Chew Jit Poh’s Yew Lan Nee says Sinje is selective of the roles that she takes on, favouring quality over quantity. 

“You don’t see her accepting too many movie offers. She values her own space and family more than anything else,” Yew adds. 

One wonders if Sinje is handicapped by a lack of fluency in English. Coming from a Chinese-speaking background, Sinje, despite taking lessons, does worry about her proficiency in the language. “I’m just not too confident conversing in English.” 

Nevertheless, in the recent Road to Dawn which was shot entirely in Penang, Sinje, starring as a local tycoon’s comely daughter, she speaks English rather competently in a couple of scenes. 

Does she feel overwhelmed by the powerful emergence of talent from China that even Hollywood is enamoured of? 

“I won’t deny that I have thought about it and discussed it with my boyfriend, especially now there’s a trend to pair a Hong Kong actor with a mainland Chinese actress in film (Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is a case in point). But I’m thinking perhaps it’s time I should start to explore other options as well, like scriptwriting. 

“The world is constantly evolving. It’s a big place and you can’t possibly have everything. I consider myself very lucky already. If you are never contented, you’ll always feel weary and unhappy.” 

For this philosophical and pragmatic small town girl made good, the world is truly her oyster – and she’ll reach out for it in her own good time. 

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