Though he is an inveterate prankster (Maximillian remembers his father once stumping British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a party by asking him, “So, Tony, what is it you do?”), Michael is not cracking wise this time. Over the years, he has appeared in numerous movies, usually as a walk-on, including as the Asian butler in Modesty Blaise and a turn as himself in the Julian Schnabel–directed Basquiat. Tellingly, the only concession to kitsch in his library is a novelty director’s chair with his name printed on the back—a gift from China.
If Michael has his way, he may well be putting the director’s chair to use. Earlier this year, he finally completed a script for a hard-boiled-genre movie, tentatively called Pulse—a labor of cinematic love he also plans to direct. “I think it’s in a good place,” he says. “It’s a classic noir film with European sensibilities and—I know it’s a dirty word—a ‘message.’ It’s a thriller about racism.”
The conversation inevitably turns to Voice for My Father, the autobiographical script he completed two years ago with the help of Maximillian, 34. In the deeply personal and moving story, Michael, who was born in Shanghai in 1939, ruminates on his Chinese ancestry and the vicissitudes of fortune that resulted from being the son of arguably the most famous man in China at the time.
Michael’s father, Zhou Xin Fang, whom he credits with his creative drive, was a highborn Chinese national treasure and a famed star of Shanghai’s Peking Opera Theatre who went by the stage name Qi Li Tong (Unicorn Child). His mother, Lillian, was the daughter of a Scottish tea merchant who scandalized Chinese society when she ran off with the older, married performer. When government forces began to clamp down on Unicorn Child’s increasingly nationalistic performances, Michael’s parents sent him off to Wenlock Edge, a boarding school in England, when he was 13. He never saw his father again; his mother visited him once in England.
“I wish I could say I went kicking and screaming,” Michael says of being banished to a school that he has described as Harry Potter without the magic. “But I was too dumb to do that. Basically, my mother wanted me to get out of there, period.” (One of his sisters, Tsai Chin, a former Bond Girl who appears in You Only Live Twice, was also hurried off, to Europe.)
Of his parents, Michael says: “Terrible, terrible things happened to them. They were basically the first to be purged in the Cultural Revolution, but I didn’t find out about their deaths till much later.” His life, he says, has been an attempt to reconcile his love for them and their fate with his extant love of China, which he visits occasionally. “It sounds corny, but everything I do is to make China great to the West. But, of course, I have mixed feelings about my homeland because there are some things I can never forget.”