Famed actress Zhang Ziyi literally runs rings around her opponents in the Oscar-nominated action film The Grandmaster, executing the circular motions and spiral flips of a martial arts style known as bagua zhang.

What many people may not know is that Zhang's trainer in the film is a Singaporean who conducts martial arts classes in Marine Parade.

Beijing-born Ge Chunyan, 55, was once China's national champion in bagua zhang, and a former actress in mainland Chinese martial arts movies. She has lived here for 20 years and became a Singapore citizen in 2003.

A contemporary of wushu champion- turned-movie star Jet Li - they were selected to join the first Beijing wushu team in 1974 - Madam Ge was apparently Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's top choice to train his leading lady in The Grandmaster.

Chinese star Zhang plays Gong Er, a highly skilled martial artist seeking vengeance for her father's death, in the lush actioner which is up for two Oscars - for costume design and cinematography - at the Academy Awards in March.

According to Madam Ge, Wong had painstakingly tracked her down, calling up numerous contacts in China before reaching her in Singapore through her former coach in Beijing, Wu Bin.

The director was inspired by her lead performance in Pride's Deadly Fury, a 1983 mainland Chinese martial arts flick, and wanted her bagua zhang moves recreated by Zhang in The Grandmaster.

Recalling the phone call from Wu in 2009 relaying the director's offer, Madam Ge tells SundayLife!: "My coach called me. And just like he would order us during our training sessions in the past, he told me that I must take up the job."

"I agreed, I would definitely listen to my coach's orders," the mother of two says in Mandarin with a laugh.

Bagua zhang has a history of about 200 years and was created in the Qing dynasty by famed martial arts practitioner Dong Haichuan, she explains. Bagua refers to the eight trigrams which represent natural forces and are often seen around the circular yin-yang symbol.

While most Chinese martial art styles have mainly linear movements, bagua zhang involves the constant walking and moving of the arms in circular motion, as performed by Zhang in the film.

These fool the opponent into thinking that the practitioner is retreating, while creating an opportunity for the practitioner to counter-attack.

Madam Ge, who set up the Ba Fang Wushu Training Centre here in 2004 to teach forms such as bagua zhang and taiji, conducts classes at open spaces in Marine Parade. Her students range in age from four to 80.

Classes had to be stopped during the two months in 2009 that she spent training Zhang in Guangzhou, China, as well as in Shenyang, where the film was shot. Due to the tight filming schedule, Zhang, who shot to fame as an actress in the 2000 martial arts movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had only up to a month to learn bagua zhang. A person with no martial arts background would take about two to three months to pick it up, says Madam Ge.

"Zhang Ziyi would practise in the morning and afternoon, and watch training videos at night. She joked with me that she was going to dream of us having lessons while she was asleep," says Madam Ge.

She commends the actress for being "professional and serious in learning", revealing that the actress was hospitalised for exhaustion in between training and was advised by doctors to rest for a few days.

She found Zhang "humble and respectful of her teachers" and "a fast learner".

Madam Ge trained another Chinese actor in The Grandmaster, Max Zhang.

She says director Wong behaved respectfully towards her. Not only was she invited to the movie's premiere in Beijing in January last year, but Wong also introduced her first among all the film's trainers presented to the media.

Today, she teaches martial arts classes almost daily and lives with her husband and two children in Marine Parade. Her daughter is a recent university graduate, while her son will do his national service next month.

Madam Ge, who was interested in sports as a child, originally wanted to join the gymnastics team at the Beijing Shichahai Sports School when she was 13. Instead, she was recruited into the wushu team.

She was the national champion in bagua zhang from 1981 to 1985. She also helped to coach the Chinese wushu team from 1982 to 1989.

The family moved to Singapore in 1994 when her husband got a job offer here. She declines to reveal his occupation and put the move down to "fate".

"We really like it here, that's why we put down roots here."

She likes that "everyone can put their talents to full use here", and hopes to help Singapore's wushu community reach greater heights.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on January 26, 2014. For similar stories, go tosph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.

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