May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

When she was a child, “I never talked,” says Bai Ling, 27. “When teachers asked me a question, I wouldn’t say anything.” Ling, who grew up in China during the repressive Cultural Revolution, was separated from her parents, both college professors, at 14, when she was recruited into the People’s Liberation Army. With military illogic, the timid youngster with no previous theatrical aspirations was assigned to become a musical entertainer. But onstage, instead of freezing up, she opened up. “There was a rich world inside me, and acting was and is the way for me to express myself,” she says. “Otherwise, I’d explode.”

After her service, she became a notable screen presence in China, and now Ling, who came to the U.S. seven years ago, sets off fireworks with an A-list of Western leading men. She costarred with Richard Gere in last year’s Red Corner. Later this year, she’ll join Jon Bon Jovi in the drama Row Your Boat, and in 1999 she’ll ride with Will Smith and Kevin Kline in The Wild Wild West. It’s not only her deep sienna eyes and raven hair that captivate the camera. “She has the same arresting qualities as Garbo,” says West casting director David Rubin. “Sensu-ousness and a sense of mystery.”

Ling, who is single, is puzzled by the on-your-face Hollywood glamor thing. In China, she explains, the ideal is “something half-open, half-hidden—that’s considered cultured and attractive.” As for powder and pancake, she says, “I’m very private, so when I’m in the makeup chair and I don’t know the person, I feel very uncomfortable.” She’s not vanity-free, though. Her prized waist-length hair, she concedes, is “always getting caught in car doors. It even gets under strangers’ arms at restaurants.” The 5’5″ actress’s secret? “Eat a lot and sleep a lot. And no exercise.”

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