Through the years, Ling has managed to amass a long and surprising resumé, rare for an actor of Asian descent in Hollywood. She's shown up in roles as varied as the Asian hottie in the Will Smith vehicle Wild, Wild West and as the unhappy concubine Tuptim in Anna and the King. Though those roles certainly had their brow-raising moments, it was her role in 1997's Red Corner that brought her the most notice, playing an attorney helping to clear the name of an American lawyer (Richard Gere) accused of murder in Communist China. The controversial role caused the Chinese government to revoke her passport and blacklist her from working in China. "It was a very difficult time," she says.
Through much effort on her part — basically meeting with the government officials and apologizing for any consequences of her appearing in the film — she has now cleared her passage back to China and is also able to work there. "I learned to be careful of the consequences of my actions. Now, I am cautious, like I burned my hand — not as free but more mature."
When I push Ling with questions about politics or whether she will ever claim an Asian American identity or be involved in Asian American issues, she shakes her head. In fact, she says ideally she wants to be able to move freely between homes in Los Angeles, Paris and China. "I came from China, I have a lot of old China's influence. It is my grandparents and parents. I feel very grounded there," she says. "America is my love affair, it is my husband or my boyfriend. Here I am going to flirt. I am going to have fun. It is a different spirit. But I am fortunate to have all these things."
With her constant traveling, Ling says she barely knows where she is when she wakes up in the morning. "Sometimes I am completely lost," she admits seriously, but then she begins animatedly talking about the perils of jet lag. "You wake up in the middle of the night, 3 a.m. — what are you going to do? I walk around and look in the refrigerator, naked, and start to eat peanut sauce. Or I am sitting in front of the fire, naked, reading something. Or I will try and call people and I wake them up, they are like: 'What are you doing?'
Ling's continual use of the word 'naked' creates the perfect transition to ask her about her burgeoning fame as a sex symbol. Infamous for dressing as sexy as she can be, Ling has also been linked in the past to the likes of rock 'n' roll pretty boy Chris Issack — who has quite the reputation with the Asian ladies. "I like to dress sexy and in Asia they might consider me a 'sex symbol,' but I don't really see it that way," she says. "You know in China, somebody says 'sexy' and it's a bad thing. When I come here, I gradually learn that it is something complimentary to a woman. I think it means that I represent the female body, the female nature."
Ling is decidedly unapologetic about her flamboyant style and, in this, I see a little flash of diva. She says she wants to flaunt it while she has it. When I ask her if she worries that she is adding to the exoticization of Asian women, she says that she doesn't let those kinds of issues affect her. "If people got to know me they would know there is something here more than just a sexual body," she says. ¿For everyone else, who cares?"
When I mine Ling for stories about her personal life, a romantic, indulgent side of her comes gushing out complete with stories of a love affair in Paris ("I know I'm such a romantic," she sighs), her work-out regime of eating chocolate soufflé and cheesecake, her recent penchant for good wine ("When I am kind of drunk, I become so charming. I try and seduce everybody") and her love of traveling (about looking into a leopard's eyes while on safari in Africa, she says: "The world was reduced right there").
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