Pushing Chinese stars beyond gimmicky roles
Popular Chinese actress Li Bingbing will be in the next Transformers movie. (Ashley Pon/Getty Images)
Actress Li Bingbing is the latest comely Chinese face joining a major Hollywood production — in this case, Michael Bay's upcoming big-budget fourth instalment of Transformers.
With Hollywood so eager to tap into China's massive, tech-savvy, movie-going audience, it's de rigueur now to score a beautiful, popular Chinese star for so-called tentpole films — doing so helps a studio land foreign financing, score a coveted co-production label, access exotic shooting locales and leapfrog the country's restrictions on the non-Chinese movies allowed into theatres.
Li's casting follows in the recent footsteps of peers, like the similarly named Fan Bingbing — who you probably didn't see as a medical assistant in Iron Man 3 (unless you watched the China-only cut and caught her blink-and-you'd-miss-it performance) — and Summer Qing, the award-winning actress who plays a key but mostly non-speaking role opposite Bruce Willis in 2012's futuristic Looper.
Popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, currently an It-Girl at the Cannes Film Festival, only appeared in Iron Man 3's Chinese version. She's also been cast for the upcoming X-Men movie. (Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
Like any moviegoers, Chinese fans undoubtedly enjoy seeing domestic stars pop up in international blockbusters. Still, for some that is no longer enough. Audiences are starting to chafe at nonsensical scenes in China-only versions of Hollywood movies and homegrown superstars basically serving as "Chinese cheesecake" (as an apt colleague dubbed the practice which director Zhang Yimou has called "beautiful vases" — actresses looking gorgeous in empty roles).
As well, both Li and Qing have earned kudos and worked with internationally acclaimed Chinese directors (in Tsui Hark's action-packed kung-fu whodunit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Chen Kaige's lush and philosophical drama Life on a String, respectively).
It's true that some Chinese performers might struggle with language issues, but let's not forget Jet Li and Jackie Chan's early forays into English-language movies. Nor ignore the ability of crossover predecessors like the incredibly talented Gong Li and Maggie Cheung, who can bring life and nuance to movie characters through physicality alone.
Transformers-bound Li slowly has made her mark in a handful of English-language films in recent years, taking on the popular video game character Ada Wong in Resident Evil: Retribution, portraying a silver-haired witch and master martial artist in the cartoon-y live-action film The Forbidden Kingdom and playing dual roles — one historic, one contemporary — in the novel-inspired indie drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Though the Transformers franchise doesn't quite call for Oscar-calibre dramatic performances from its cast, my fingers are crossed that Li's inclusion will go beyond a walk-on and signal a shift towards improved roles for Chinese crossover actors. She's not just a pretty face: she delivers a spirited action sequence, too.
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