Attractive actresses often take on ugly roles in search of a breakout performance. In Monster, Charlize Theron wore mottled makeup and crooked teeth to play a serial killer. Playing crazy won her an Oscar for the best actress in 2003. She also bulked up her slender frame and shaved her head in Mad Max Fury Road to play a one-armed warrior. More recently, she packed on 50 pounds to play a mother of three in Tully.
Chinese actress Yang Mi did not go quite this far for her role in Baby, but her transformation was sufficient for critics to rave about her “sacrifice in the name of art”.
The fashionable actress is no stranger to these pages. She is mostly known for her roles in idol dramas like Eternal Love and the sales she generates whenever she endorses a brand (see WiC400). But while many of her projects have proven huge commercial successes, they have largely left the critics unimpressed. On Douban, the TV and film review site, few of the dramas Yang has starred in get above a 6 out of 10 rating.
The 32 year-old has thus decided to prove that she has serious acting chops. In Baby, an indie film, Yang plays a woman who was abandoned at birth. The plot sees her try to save a disabled infant girl left to die by her parents. Shot in a gritty, pseudo-documentary style, the film is a harsh critique of the rigidity of China’s welfare system as well as the routine discrimination against women and the disabled.
Her performance is a big departure from her previous glamorous roles – fans are used to seeing the beautiful actress heavily made-up with barely a hair out of place. This time round, with her hair dishevelled and clothing askew, Yang’s make-up gives her a sickly and sullen look.
“Yang Mi is the latest A-list star hoping that by ‘playing ugly’ it will transform her acting career,” commented Entertainment Unicorn, a blog. “At 32, Yang knows the rules of the entertainment industry: that fame is fleeting and only the best works can stand the test of time.”
Director Liu Jie denies that he cast Yang solely for her star power, insisting that she has the spirit of a crusader. “The most important thing is she is perfect for the role. It would be impossible to cast someone unsuitable just for the sake of her popularity. What’s impressed me the most about Yang is her tenacity,” Liu told reporters. “And besides, she is very slim, so she is perfect to play someone who is very sick and frail,” he added.
Yang is by no means the first actress in China to trade in glamour for kudos. Gong Li, for instance, put on weight to play a farmer’s pregnant wife who was searching for justice in Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju. Zhao Wei ditched the make-up and sported a choppy haircut to play an emotionally shattered rural mother in Dearest.
Both actresses went on to win acting accolades. Gong won Best Actress at the 1992 Venice Film Festival while Zhao was named Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2014.
But Yang’s move beyond her comfort zone has not won over critics. Instead, she was slammed for not having the capacity to take on such a complex role. On Douban, Baby got a rating of just 5.6 out of 10. Meanwhile at the box office, the film collected just Rmb23 million ($3.4 million) in its first week.
Some say the film tries to do “too much” and deemed the subject matter “too heavy”. The portal Jiemian had this to say: “Compared with other recent social dramas like Dying to Survive and Lost, Found [a story about a single mother seeking her abducted child], whether it is the quality of the film itself, or the performance of Yang Mi, Baby just did not meet the expectations of the audience. It is a perfectly good story but is wasted in the hands of the bad filmmaking and acting.”
“There is no denying that Yang worked really hard for the role – she learned sign language and to speak with a Nanjing accent. It’s obvious that she wants so badly to take off the ‘celebrity halo’ by playing an ‘ugly’ character. But the superficial acting – relying only on eyebrows and eyes to convey emotions – is simply not enough to move the audiences,” was the verdict of Entertainment Unicorn.
“Deliberately playing ugly may win over fans in a short period of time, but it also means that there is nowhere to hide the bad acting,” reckoned NetEase, a portal. “Compared with the ‘ugly’ Yang Mi, the audiences much prefer the dazzling actress who stuns in every frame.”
Some think critics have been overly harsh on the actress. A lot of Douban users conceded that they gave Baby one star before even saw the film simply because they “didn’t think Yang Mi can act”. In fact, a few years ago, the online review site had to stop internet users from rating a film before it was released because so many were giving Yang’s films one star simply out of spite, noted Jiemian.
“Evaluating an actor is different from evaluating a film. If you hate a film because you are prejudiced against an actor, that is not objective,” one critic wrote. “The problem with these superstars is more often than not, they make the bulk of their income from commercial jobs. So now that they put aside their public persona to seriously play a role in the name of art, no one believes them.”
Indeed, the acting range of A-list starlets has become a popular topic in China’s entertainment industry of late. The performance of Angelababy in TV series Entrepreneurial Age, for example, was widely ridiculed online.
However, Yang’s showing in Baby has even attracted negative reviews from state-run newspapers.
“Yang Mi’s acting is simply hopeless,” noted Beijing Daily, a newspaper run by the Beijing municipal government. The website of the People’s Daily then republished Beijing Daily’s unusually biting article.
The state mouthpiece is not best known for its film reviews, but they can be significant: before leading actress Fan Bingbing was investigated by Chinese authorities and fined more than Rmb800 million for tax evasion, the People’s Daily had also picked apart her acting skills…
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