Lucy Liu Dips Into Chinese History For A Swashbuckling New Role

Having built a cinematic legacy with badass roles in “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill,” Lucy Liu was eager to embody one of history’s most misunderstood women ― even if it meant looking beyond the multiplex and streaming platforms to do so.

The “Ally McBeal” actor is the voice of the titular character in “The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend,” an immersive, narrative-driven virtual reality game now available on Meta Quest after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere last year. The game is based on the life of Zheng Yi Sao, also known as Ching Shih, a female pirate in the South China Sea from 1801 to 1810.

Players first row out to a seemingly abandoned ship, where they soon find themselves seeking an escape route after encountering danger and a glimmer of treasure. Along the way, they get to learn a thing or two about a pioneering woman who, as Liu says, was “a ruthless and very fearless leader.”

Actor Lucy Liu, left, and director Eloise Singer.
Actor Lucy Liu, left, and director Eloise Singer. Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images

“I was quite embarrassed that I’d actually never heard of her myself,” Liu told HuffPost in an interview. “I was really stunned that this woman existed, that she’d come from a lowly place in society as a courtesan and basically worked her way up toward understanding and taking over for her husband, who died mysteriously. The fact that she was an underdog was so important to me.”

Liu landed the voiceover role after meeting with British filmmaker Eloise Singer. As with Liu, “The Pirate Queen” marks Singer’s first foray into VR. And she, too, found herself captivated by Zheng Yi Sao’s life.

“A friend told me the story and she said: ‘Did you know that the most powerful pirate in history was a woman?’ And I couldn’t believe it,” Singer recalled. “There’s a misconception that Blackbeard was the most powerful pirate. Or, if you ask some people, they’re like: ‘Oh, it’s Captain Jack Sparrow,’ who’s not even a real person. But [Zheng Yi Sao] helped pave the way for gender equality by creating laws that required men and women to be treated equally on her ship, which was extraordinary. So it’s just really exciting that we’re able to bring to a light a narrative that’s been seemingly forgotten.”

Watch the trailer for “The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend” below. 

As for the decision to cast Liu, Singer said: “There’s no one else in the world, literally. Lucy’s the perfect person to play a pirate queen. It’s a no-brainer. It makes total sense.”

Once Liu and Singer began working on “The Pirate Queen,” they found themselves facing an unexpected (and frankly sad) obstacle: No animation featuring women’s hands had ever been created for VR before. The hands seen in “The Pirate Queen,” they said, had to be created from scratch. Detailed jewelry, dirty fingernails and visible scars were added later for effect.

“That kind of tells you, really, that people believe that the fan base [for gaming] is generally men,” Singer noted.

"Lucy's the perfect person to play a pirate queen. It's a no-brainer. It makes total sense," Singer said of "The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend." <span class="copyright">Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images</span>
"Lucy's the perfect person to play a pirate queen. It's a no-brainer. It makes total sense," Singer said of "The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend." Dia Dipasupil via Getty Images

With “The Pirate Queen” now out in the world, Liu and Singer are hoping to share more of Zheng Yi Sao’s story in other mediums. A graphic novel, a film series and a podcast based on her life are also in the works.

For now, however, Liu believes the immersive qualities of “The Pirate Queen” as a VR game will endear the story of Zheng Yi Sao to those who prefer “experience-based” storytelling.

“Being a latchkey kid and just absorbing whatever was in front of me on the television... I can see why there are so many different ways for kids to learn now,” she said. “I think this would’ve probably been better for me, as an experience-based learner. It just happens to be didactic without anyone knowing it, necessarily.”