Lisa Lu is a Chinese-American actress, born in Beijing. She started her career as a teenager, performing in Kunqu theatrical productions, a traditional style of Chinese opera.
The Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) ended with a Communist victory. While the new regime financially subsidized China’s theaters for most of the 1950s, it started withdrawing its support by the end of the decade and shut them down during the 1960s. Lu migrated to the United States by the late 1950s, in search of more career opportunities.
In 1960, Lu had her first notable film role as Madame Su-Mei Hung in the war film “The Mountain Road”. The film is the set in World War II, and depicts Su-Mei Hung as the widow of a Chinese officer. She joins an American unit in an anti-Japanese mission in the Pacific War, and engages in a brief romance with their leader Major Baldwin (played by James Stewart). The relationship ends when Baldwin burns down an entire Chinese village, and hurts thousands of innocent civilians during his mission. The conflict between the two lovers is based on Baldwin’s idea that the end sanctifies the means, and on Su-Mei’s disagreement with his indiscriminate killings.
In 1961, Lu played the character of Chinese slave girl Su Ling, in an episode of the television series “Bonanza” (1959-1973). In 1962, she appeared in Western film “Rider on a Dead Horse” and the crime-drama “Womanhunt”. She had a hand-full of television appearances for the rest of the decade.
In the late 1960s, Lu found more work in the cinema of Hong Kong. Among her more successful films was the wuxia film “The 14 Amazons” (1972). She played the role of the semi-legendary She Saihua, a female general in the army of Emperor Taizong of Song (reigned 976-997).
In 1973, Lu appeared in the American horror film “Terror in the Wax Museum”. In 1975, Lu starred in the historical film “The Empress Dowager”, where she played Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908, reign as regent 1861-1908). The film depicts the relationship between the powerful regent and her puppet ruler, the Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908, reigned 1875-1908). Lu reprised her role in the sequel film “The Last Tempest” (1976).
In 1977, Lu had a supporting part in the science fiction film “Demon Seed”. In the film, the sentient computer Proteus forcibly impregnates human character Susan Harris (played by Julie Christie), in an effort to create a human host for its sentience. In 1979, Lu had a supporting role in the drama film “Saint Jack” (1979). The film depicts the efforts of small-time pimp Jack Flowers (played by Ben Gazzara) to create a lucrative brother in Singapore, while defying the control of the local organized crime syndicate.
In 1981, Lu played a nun in the war film “Don’t Cry, It’s Only Thunder”. The film is set in the Vietnam War, and depicts a cynical and selfish soldier. When a promise to an old friend causes him to offer volunteer service in a local orphanage, the soldier starts caring about people other than himself.
In 1982, Lu was the narrator in the documentary film “Sewing Woman”, about the life of immigrant worker Zem Ping Dong in San Francisco. In 1986, Lu had a small role in the adventure film “Tai-Pan”. The film is set in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839-1842), and depicting a powerful trader and opium smuggler in 1840s Hong Kong, The film was an adaptation of the 1966 novel “Tai-Pan” by James Clavell. It was a box-office flop and critically poorly received, due to ignoring several of the novel’s key subplots and leaving the motives behind the characters’ actions largely unexplained.
In 1987, Lu played Empress Dowager Cixi for a third time, in the history film “The Last Emperor”. Early in the film, the dying Cixi chooses Puyi (1906-1967, reigned 1908-1912) as the new emperor of the Qing dynasty, despite him being underage and being outranked in the succession order by his father and several uncles. The film covers the consequences of this deathbed decision.
In 1988, Lu had a small role in the mini-series “Noble House”. The series was based on a 1981 novel by James Clavell, and served as a sequel to “Tai-Pan”, though set in 1980s Hong Kong. It features the descendants of the merchant princes of the 19th century, and the efforts of centuries-old companies to adapt and survive in a changing world.
In 1993, Lu appeared in the generational-saga film “The Joy Luck Club”. It features the lives of a group of Chinese women, from their childhoods in China to old age in the United States, and their relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. She also played the small part of Shi’s mother in the period drama “Temptation of a Monk”, set in 7th century China. In the film, the general Shi Yan-sheng (played by Hsing-Kuo Wu) is manipulated into assassinating the crown prince of the reigning Tang dynasty (reigned 618-907) as part of a court intrigue. His mother and most of his family are slain in retaliation, but Shi assumes a false name and retires to a monastery. Years later, Shi has puzzling encounters with a look-alike of his dead fiancée, unaware that his old enemies have located him and that the mystery woman has been hired to assassinate him.
After several years of playing mostly bit parts, Lu had a main role in the Chinese television series “Qianlong Dynasty” (2003), playing the politically influential Empress Xiaoshengxian (1692-1777, regent status from 1735 to 1777). Lu played a supporting role in the comedy-drama “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt” (2006) as the gossipy neighbor of protagonist Ye Rutang (Siqin Gaowa). In the film, Rutang is a middle-aged woman in Shanghai, living alone and estranged from her husband and family. Her attempts to find new lovers and friends, make her an easy prey for the big city’s swindlers and thieves.
Lu continued played small roles for the rest of the 2000s. In 2010, she had a more substantial role in the drama film “Apart Together”, as the aging “widow” Qiao Yu-e. Qiao’s husband disappeared in 1949, at the final phase of the Chinese Civil War. Qiao was pregnant at the time, and eventually had to raise with the help of a new lover. Decades later, the missing husband turns up alive, returning from self-exile abroad. He tries to reconcile with a wife who barely remembers him, and with a son who has never met him.
In 2012, Lu appeared in the romantic drama “Dangerous Liaisons”, as the character Du Fenyu, matriarch of a dysfunctional family. The film mostly deals with the efforts of Du’s grandson Xie Yifan to seduce his young and sexy cousin Du Fenyu, whose husband has recently died.
In 2018, Lu appeared in the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians”, as the character Shang Su Yi, matriarch to a rich and powerful family of Singapore. While Lu was 91-years-old at the time, she seemingly had no intention to retire.
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