Zhang Ziyi shot to stardom when director Lee Ang cast her in his unconventional martial arts-cum-love story Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After starring in the Oscar winner, Zhang won more roles in Hollywood. In 2005 she played the heroine in Rob Marshall’s $85 million Memoirs of a Geisha. And in the 30 or so movies she’s made since her debut in 1996, she has worked with most of China’s top directors (Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai, Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaogang and John Woo), featuring in higher-brow movie fare (The Road Home; 2046; Forever Enthralled) as well as a Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 2 and the two forthcoming Godzilla blockbusters.
In other words Zhang has what is termed as ‘range’ in movie industry speak. However, the star has surprised some of her longtime fans by agreeing to stretch that range even further by now appearing on a TV reality show.
Viva La Romance, which is now in its second season on Hunan Satellite TV, follows the wives of four celebrity couples as they go on ‘holiday’. Their husbands offer commentary while watching the footage back in the studio.
Viva La Romance is Zhang’s first reality television show, although the actress has worked as a guest judge on the talent show The Birth of Actors. She admits that the decision to go on a reality series was “unconventional” but say she wanted the public to see her in a different light.
“People have known me because of a variety of different characters, and have given Zhang Ziyi a specific label and definition,” she wrote on her personal weibo. “However, since getting married in 2015, I have gained two special very precious angels! Being a wife and a mom gave me a different understanding on life and these two new titles made me happy and curious at the same time. Maybe in the new programme, you’ll be able to see the real me… I’ll just be myself, wife Zhang Ziyi.”
Based on the first two episodes that have aired, the 40 year-old actress is surprisingly down-to-earth and relatable. She makes her own bed in the morning; she calls her daughter excitedly when she sees a snowman; and gets into a discussion about the minutiae of breastfeeding.
On the show, she also talks about how the public scrutiny of her marriage to rocker Wang Feng almost tore them apart. “It is easy for a marriage to thrive when everything in life is going well. But, it is in adversity that makes two people stronger than ever to weather the storm. My husband and I walked through hell to be where we are today,” she tells the audience.
One factor in Zhang’s decision to do the reality show is to bolster her image. As we pointed out in WiC401, one of her best PR moves was to release a set of black and white photos last year where she appeared more ‘real’. In the shots she wore less makeup and didn’t try to touch up the images. The portraits won widespread praise for being authentic – with one popular blogger saying Zhang was aging gracefully in the manner of an elegant Parisian.
Longtime readers of WiC will know that in spite of her early cinematic success, Zhang’s public image hasn’t always been a positive one in China. Netizens and the media have been cautious in acclaiming her success and disapproving of aspects of her personal life. One low point was when photos went viral of the actress lying topless on a beach next to her then boyfriend, the Israeli billionaire Vivi Nevi (netizens called the images “shameless”). For a while pretty much every story about Zhang seemed to have a negative slant. By contrast, her acting rival Fan Bingbing seemed to be able to do no wrong and was soon eclipsing Zhang in commercial contracts and red-carpet events.
Now it feels like the pair’s fortunes are moving in opposite directions. While Fan’s career prospects took a nosedive last year thanks to a highly publicised tax scandal (see WiC427), Zhang seems to be making something of a comeback (she has a TV drama scheduled for later this year called The Monarch Industry and a role in the two forthcoming Godzilla blockbusters).
Her appearance on Viva La Romance is another instance of cultivating her profile, softening her image at a time when Fan is yet to recover from her own troubles.
Zhang is definitely ‘on message’ in other respects too. As we have pointed out previously, the government has a target of getting 300 million Chinese onto skis or ice skates ahead of the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing. So there was a definite subtext to the first two episodes of the reality show when Zhang and the other stars took skiing lessons at a resort in China’s northeast. Zhang turns out to be a gifted skier, with the instructor praising her as “the best celebrity skier I have ever taught”.
That said, some felt Zhang’s dabbling in reality television had debased her cinematic achievements. “First you go on a TV show and then you appear in so many variety shows. Enough is enough. You are just like all the other celebrities going on reality TV shows. You have gone so low that no matter how many new fans you gain I am not going to follow you again,” one former admirer ranted online.
Other critics saw Zhang’s reality series as an acknowledgement of something else: that her opportunities to play the leading lady were diminishing due to the entertainment industry’s preference for younger starlets. “Women this age have to compete with young actresses, along with the cruel reality that it is just impossible to find roles that are made for older women,” reckoned Tencent Entertainment.
Other actresses have found themselves in a similar predicament. When it was announced recently that Zhou Xun, 44, would star in the remake of The Deer and the Cauldron, based on a novel written by the late Jin Yong (see WiC431), netizens were soon complaining that she was “too old” for the show even though her role hadn’t even been revealed.
“Perhaps Zhou Xun is not going to play the lead actress, but the lead actress’s mother?” one mocked.
“Let’s be honest, TV dramas usually save the leading roles for young flowers,” was the verdict of Tencent Entertainment.
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