Director's big gamble with Vicki Zhao

Actress wins over audiences playing wife of child abductor in Peter Chan's new film

China actress Vicki Zhao Wei is a Best Actress nominee at the Golden Horse for her role as an uneducated farmer in Dearest. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES

Director Peter Chan took a big gamble when making his new film, the child abduction drama Dearest.

While the first half puts the spotlight on the missing boy's parents, the second half zooms in on the wife of the child abductor.

Chan, 51, says over the telephone from Hong Kong: "It's quite daring to flip things around in the middle and focus on someone who is traditionally a villain.

"If you pick someone whom the audience has no affinity for, it will be hard to win them over to a new point of view.

"You need someone they like, so that they can enter the frame of mind of the character more easily."

Enter China actress Vicki Zhao Wei, who is fondly remembered for her turn as the lovable Little Swallow in the widely popular late 1990s period television series My Fair Princess. She won a Golden Eagle Award for Best Actress for the role and also picked up a Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress for the period action flick Mulan (2009) as the titular heroine.

In Dearest, showing in cinemas, she played uneducated village farmer Li Hongqin. She is a Best Actress nominee for the role at this year's Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, which takes place tonight.

Chan says her performance is "very real and very natural" but declines to comment on her chances of winning.

"It's subjective. For every award and every jury, it's hard to say. What I think is good, what others think is good, what audiences think is good, it's all subjective," he adds, citing the same reason for his omission from the Best Director shortlist.

He can well afford to be sanguine since he has already won a grand slam of directing honours in the Chinese film world, at the Hong Kong Film Awards (Comrades, Almost A Love Story, 1996, and The Warlords, 2007), Golden Horse Awards (Perhaps Love, 2005, and The Warlords) and Golden Rooster Awards (American Dreams In China, 2013). He is the first person to complete the sweep.

Dearest came about after he watched a documentary on a child kidnapping case. It screened out of competition at Venice International Film Festival in August and was a Special Presentation at Toronto International Film Festival in September.

It has earned some good notices. Trade rag The Hollywood Reporter raved about the "beautiful" performances - calling Zhao the Chinese Juliette Binoche - but had issues with the plot.

Chan credits the film's success to the story and the "dream team" cast he worked with, including top China actors Huang Bo and Hao Lei as the missing child's parents.

He says of them: "They are very conscientious actors and are also influential stars. This seldom happens with the same group of people."

The hardest part of making the film was nailing the script.

He says: "With every movie, getting the script just right is the biggest challenge. This is something with very strong feelings, but you don't want to simply inflame the emotions of the audience. There had to be some amount of rationality and restraint."

Did making the film lead him - the father of an eight-year-old daughter with his partner, actress Sandra Ng - to be more vigilant about safeguarding his child?

He says simply: "I've always protected her."

Dearest is showing in cinemas.

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