Zhou Xun fills Gong Li's shoes in a remake of Red Sorghum

She returns to the gogglebox after a decade as her grandmother misses seeing her on TV

Zhou Xun in the well-received drama series Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV
Zhou Xun in the well-received drama series Red Sorghum. -- PHOTO: SINGTEL TV

Chinese actress Zhou Xun last did a television series more than a decade ago. It is an indication of how far she has come since her debut in 1991 - she is now among the most bankable actresses in Chinese cinema and has even starred in the 2012 Hollywood sci-fi drama Cloud Atlas.

In a rare move for a top movie star, she has returned to the small screen in the China drama serial Red Sorghum and she is not doing it for money but for love - love for her elderly grandma who does not go to the movies.

"My grandma is getting on in age. She doesn't surf the Internet or go to the cinema. She usually watches TV. One day, she told me she hasn't seen Xiao Xun (Little Xun) on TV for a long time. I realised it's been a while since I starred in a TV series," says Zhou in an e-mail interview with Life!.

Her grandma's words planted in her mind the thought of finding a good TV script. Soon after that, the Red Sorghum offer came along.

The show is an adaptation of Nobel-winning author Mo Yan's 1986 novel Red Sorghum Family, which director Zhang Yimou had made into a 1987 film, Red Sorghum. The movie went on to win the Golden Bear at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival.

Zhou says she was drawn to the novel's 19-year-old protagonist Jiu'er - a spunky peasant girl forced to marry the leprosy-stricken owner of a winery.

"I'm really moved by Jiu'er's will to live - she's a decisive and strong woman. It isn't easy for her to manage the entire household," she adds.

"Red Sorghum is a classic that people are familiar with. I knew it wouldn't be easy to pull it off."

The popularity of the book is not the only thing Zhou has to contend with. The character Jiu'er is made doubly iconic by the fact that it was the breakout role of Chinese actress Gong Li in Zhang's film.

Well aware that she cannot escape comparisons between her and Gong Li in the same role, she chose not to rewatch the movie version as she wanted to make the TV character her own.

"I really like and respect Gong Li as an actress. I watch all her movies and look forward to watching her act. Because we play the same character, it's only natural that audiences will compare our portrayals of Jiu'er."

Moreover, "the way that a movie and a TV series each presents the story is very different. A series has the advantage of time to flesh out the characters, compared with a movie".

The two platforms are also greatly different in how they are shot. After such a long time away from the small screen, Zhou admits that the pace of filming took some getting used to.

She says: "In the first week, it was a little challenging because there were lines to be memorised every day. After all, it's been about 10 years since I did a TV series. Slowly, I got the hang of it and I realised that I haven't lost my touch for memorising lines."

The 60-episode Red Sorghum premiered last October in China to rave reviews online and has enjoyed good ratings. According to Chinese media reports, the series topped the ratings on four satellite TV channels for three weeks during its broadcast.

It has been viewed more than 1.4 billion times on one of China's major streaming site iQiyi. On the same site, the South Korean hit drama My Love From The Star (2013), one of the most popular shows last year, has more than 2.8 billion views.

The good reception of the series has been achieved despite initial criticism of the casting of the 40-year-old Zhou as a 19-year-old. But few would argue that the actress looks much younger than her age.

In the romcom Meet Miss Anxiety, which is now showing in Singapore, she is convincing as a 20something woman.

Her secret to youthful looks, she says, is discipline.

"It's important to be disciplined in your lifestyle routine. Getting your beauty sleep is a must. I also make sure I remove my make-up thoroughly, moisturise my skin and also make it a point to put on face masks."

Meet Miss Anxiety is her second straight romcom after Women Who Flirt (2014). But fans should not think she is moving away from the serious dramas such as Suzhou River (2000), The Banquet (2006), The Message (2009) and The Silent War (2012) that she is better known for.

She says she fields acting offers with an open mind.

"The script, the character, the director are all important. As long as it's not horror, as long as the project moves me and the time is right, I'll give it a shot."

Last year, she tied the knot with American-Chinese actor Archie Kao, 45, who is known for his roles in TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-present) and Power Rangers Lost Galaxy (1999-2000).

She sprung a surprise on her fans when she announced her marriage and exchanged vows with Kao at a charity concert she organised in Hangzhou last July.

If she seems happy to mix work and family life, that is because she says she is more of a happy-go-lucky person than a compulsive planner.

"I don't need to make a special effort to allocate my time. I go for filming, then meet my family and friends over a meal.

"Perhaps it's because I like to do things simply and I don't really plan ahead.

"Planning is not really my forte. For me, it's all about going with the flow. I don't want to give myself too much pressure. Happiness is the most important."


Red Sorghum premieres next Tuesday at 10pm on Jia Le Channel (Singtel TV channel 502).

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