In 2017 Zhejiang Satellite TV debuted the reality series The Birth Of An Actor, which pitted actors against one another in re-enacting scenes from famous films and TV series. Three coaches – including actress Zhang Ziyi and actor Liu Ye – gave their feedback. It was a big hit at the time, although often because of the bickering between the coaches.
The concept became so popular that the network was able to sell the format to Is Or Isn’t Entertainment, a US entertainment firm founded by Lisa Kudrow (of Friends fame).
Early this month Tencent released a similar show called Be Ready. It pits 50 professional actors – such as Sung Yun-hua from Taiwan and mainlander E Jingwen – against each other but this time round there are four famous directors sitting in judgement. These include Chen Kaige – who hails from the arthouse end of the sector – the director (and actress) Zhao Wei, and the writer-filmmaker Guo Jingming.
Since its release in early October, the series has become one of the most talked about topics on social media. Guo, who is now 36, has been generating most of the buzz. Although he has a reputation for making shallow, materialistic films like the Tiny Times franchise (see a profile of the writer in our first issue or WiC342 for the criticism of some of his films), he has impressed viewers with his punchy commentary. “What’s most important for an actor is to tame your desire to show off… There were a few scenes just now that I think you two went a bit over the top,” he critiqued one pair’s performance. In another episode, he pointed out that the performance of another contestant was “overly repetitive” and “as the director, I wouldn’t keep it”.
“Every time Guo Jingming critiqued a performance, he was so eloquent and persuasive. It is clear that he knows a lot about the methods and techniques that go into film and television performances. He also went to great lengths to explain the scenes to help the actors on his team,” Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog, praised.
“Everyone says he only makes trashy movies, but why is it that all his critiques are so on point?” Tencent Entertainment, a portal, agreed.
Guo also got into a lengthy debate with veteran actor Li Chengru, who complained that the actors on his team were so lousy (“I couldn’t make out a word they said”) and that the scene they had filmed, which was based on one of Guo’s own films, was “shallow”.
“There are so many things they could film and they chose this? And this is a best-selling book?” Li mocked. But Guo didn’t lost his cool (as the show’s producers had probably hoped) instead saying that it was his fault that the two actors were not better prepared for the performance.
He also explained the significance of the film in question, saying that it was about more than high school romance and drew on “China’s first novel on bullying”.
For some of the contestants – such as Ming Dao and Hong Kong singer Gillian Chung – the hope is that the highly-watched format could reignite their sluggish careers.
Ming admitted that his appearance on the show was the first time he had acted this year, blaming a long stretch of unemployment on his age (he’s only 39, although admittedly many of the male stars in current hits are about two decades younger; see this week’s “China Consumer”).
“I came on the show because, a while back, my friend told me, ‘I think you will never play the male lead again’,” Ming revealed to camera. “To be honest, I felt terrible. In the last few years I haven’t done anything particularly successful… so now even I am starting to look down on myself.”
The realities can be even crueller for women, with actresses in their 30s saying that it is harder to find jobs in the industry. “I used to play characters close to my own age and that was easy because I was just playing myself. But now that I’m in my 30s, no one wants to see me playing those same characters,” Bao Wenjing, another contestant, explained of her appearance on the show. “Even though I have been acting for 11 years, I don’t have any masterpieces to speak of.”
“Being an actor is so hard,” another contestant wept to a producer. “We are so passive. You are just a commodity waiting to be chosen. You have no power to choose who you want to work with. Perhaps your whole life you never get to work with directors you want to work with.”
Still, Be Ready gives audiences a better idea what goes on behind the scenes in the industry, as well as how much effort goes into perfecting the thespian’s art.
“Be Ready is like a training camp for actors. It is successful because audiences can tell right away between good and bad acting,” Tencent Entertainment commented. “If you are just messing around, you will be found out and it is probably better that you change career as soon as possible. On the other hand, those who are strong actors will be given more opportunities.”
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