Just as high tea was being served at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in midtown’s London Hotel last Wednesday, Li Bing Bing was accosted by a group of young fans, cameras in hand. Li, thirty-eight, one of the China’s most famous actresses, was perfectly coiffed, and dressed in skinny black pants, a butterfly-print top and a crisp white blazer with a mandarin collar. Her face gave way to an ever-so-slight sulk as the fans excitedly chatted in their native Mandarin and gathered around. But then the petite actress swept her hand through her hair, rose from her seat and smiled pleasantly for the photo.
Li had arrived in town earlier in the week to promote her latest film, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, accompanied by director Wayne Wang, author Lisa See, and producer Florence Sloan. (The latter’s counterpart, producer Wendi Deng Murdoch and wife of Newscorp’s Rupert, was conspicuously absent.) The movie is loosely based on See’s novel, which is set in a remote, nineteenth-century Chinese village and follows the difficult, foot-bound lives of Lily and Snow Flower. The women have been laotong (“same old”)—or, as one might say, BFFs—since meeting at age seven and, when apart, communicate the tales of their lives through written messages using their own made-up language. For those who may have been excited by the trailer, ahem, there is no lesbian sex, nuanced or not. Wang also took substantial artistic license, reimagining the story through a split in time and personality—the modern-day, bustling, city lives of businesswoman Nina (Lily) and writer Sophia (Snow Flower).
Until last week, Li had been an obscure presence in American media, despite her resume of nearly twenty feature film roles since 1999. On the other hand, as she casually mentioned over the healthy dollop of clotted cream she carefully spread onto a scone, she has over seven million followers on China’s Twitter-equivalent Weibo. (At press time, Lindsay Lohan, J. Lo, and Miley Cyrus each had less than a third as many Twitter followers. Justin Bieber, a mere 1.27 million.) Li, in her imperfect, but very impressive English, added that laotong is a “very trendy word in China,” where the film opened at the end of last month, grossing five million in its first ten days. “When they talk about best friends, they say, ‘I need to find a laotong.’”
Li is still not as popular as fellow Chinese actors Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi, who both achieved international stardom years ago, but this widely publicized movie just might give her a boost. In a critical sense, it falls somewhere between Miami Vice and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which her aforementioned colleagues respectively starred in. Where the narrative thread fails in Snow Flower, there is beautiful cinematography as well as a fascinating cameo by Hugh Jackman, gamely singing—in Chinese.
The rest of the tea partiers that afternoon at the London were an assortment of professional and artistic women, mostly Asian or Asian American, selected by the Wang’s LA-based publicist. We were here for a “unique” junket stop, an intimate (albeit short) conversation about the film’s main themes, namely female relationships. Li spoke of her own personal laotong, a college roommate. “We’re like tongxinglian, like lesbians,” she said. “But not really. I just really like her.”
The next morning, Li made her first American television appearance, thronged by The View’s very own talk-show-host BFFs. She charmingly repeated a modified version of her laotong story, and when asked, “What’s it like being a big movie star over there,” responded, “It’s like the same situation in the U.S. It’s not very convenient in your daily life. But I’m used to it.”
Claudine Ko is a writer living in New York and California.