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Cheng Pei-pei stretches dramatic wings in 'Lilting'

Cheng Pei-pei stretches dramatic wings in 'Lilting'
Director Hong Khao, left, and actress Cheng Pei-pei of "Lilting." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Cheng Pei-pei has put down her swords.

The ballet-trained actress came to fame in the 1960s as the "Queen of the Swords" in Hong Kong kung fu classics such as 1966's "Come Drink With Me" and 1969's "Dragon Swamp" as well as playing the villainous Jade in Ang Lee's Oscar-winning 2000 film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

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But the 67-year-old rarely has been given a chance to stretch her dramatic wings on-screen. First-time filmmaker Hong Khaou initially didn't know if the action star could handle the complex role of Junn, a Chinese Cambodian woman living in London who is grieving over the unexpected death of her son, in the British drama "Lilting," which opens Friday.

"When I read the script I think I can do it," said Cheng over the phone from Huzhou, China, where she is filming the TV series "In Love With Sleeping Beauty" in which she plays a family matriarch.

Hong said he was impressed by her performance in a recent film from New Zealand called "My Wedding and Other Secrets." "I think it give me the confidence to know that she had the abilities and skills."

"Lilting" was inspired by Hong's mother, who like Cheng's Junn, has never learned English.

"I was from Cambodia, and then we were displaced and immigrated to Vietnam," he said. "We spent eight years there, and then we came [to London]. We have been here for over 30 years."

But his mother never assimilated. "I think it was very traumatic. When we arrived in England, my father passed away quite soon, and so she was left with four kids. During that time I think she found it really difficult to just adapt. She kept to herself and raised four children and got them through university."

So Hong and his siblings were — and are — her lifeline. "When I was younger we would translate TV shows," he said. "She loved watching 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' We would always watch and translate them."

"Lilting" is about loss and love, but it's also a meditation on communication and language.

Cheng's Junn is living in a retirement home in London dealing with memories of her son, Kai (Andrew Leung). Her only solace is her boyfriend, an elderly British man named Alan (Peter Bowles), who is attentive despite the language barrier.

In hopes of helping her, Richard (Ben Whishaw), Kai's grieving partner, hires a translator (Naomi Christie) so Junn can talk with him and Alan. The translator brings Richard and Junn closer but causes friction between Alan and Junn.

"Communication doesn't necessarily bring understanding," said Hong.  "I wanted to show the two sides of the coin."

When casting the film, Hong knew he needed actors to "get the nuances correct. I have always been an admirer of Ben, and I wrote to him to explain he was the one I wanted not because he was famous but I felt he would be good for the part. The character carries so much grief, it really needed someone who could be that vulnerable but also have strength.

"He's a lovely actor," said Cheng of Whishaw ("Skyfall," "Cloud Atlas"). "We are still good friends."

Because Cheng's English is "very broken," Hong decided to direct her in Chinese. "I actually liked doing that because I felt nobody was listening in on us," he said. "I think I was struggling with the idea of how to give notes without too many people listening in on us. I had my private moment with her."

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Twitter: @mymackie

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