Second act

Banned from the stock market, Vicky Zhao is back stronger than ever


Zhao: the actor-director is dominating the air waves right now

Actress Rachel McAdams was 25 when she appeared in Mean Girls, a 2004 movie in which she played a teenage bully. Tom Holland was 24 when he was cast as teenage superhero Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise. In both cases the actors were somewhat older than the characters they portrayed.

But it will be hard to beat Carina Lau, 54, who plays a woman half her age in the TV drama Eighteen Springs, which is based on the late Eileen Chang’s 1930s Shanghai novel Half a Lifelong Romance.

To give her a more youthful appearance, Lau’s hair is tied in a double ponytail and the camera lens is heavily filtered to be more forgiving. However, netizens haven’t been convinced, complaining that the age gap between Lau and the 27 year-old character she plays is simply too big to ignore.

“This is just ridiculous. Carina Lau is the same age as the actress who plays her mother on the show,” one netizen mocked.

Others questioned why an established actress like Lau would even consider the role (the pay cheque probably helps).

Lau could learn a few things from Zhao Wei, who has pivoted away from acting to directing as a means of resuscitating her career. Last week, Zhao also released Hear Her, an eight-episode monologue series about women’s rights. It has been streaming on Tencent Video since mid-November.

Inspired by the BBC’s 2018 short-film series Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives, which features an all-female line-up of writers and actors, the first episode of the Chinese show, directed by Zhao herself, follows the story of an internet influencer, played by actress Qi Xi, who is insecure about her physical appearance and hides behind heavy makeup and beautifying camera filters.

In the second episode, starlet Yang Zi plays a character who comes from a broken family and has to put up with an overbearing mother. She says in her monologue: “The greatest love you should have given me is to love yourself first.”

In an interview, Zhao says she first watched the British programme two years ago and was inspired to make a show that tells similar stories about the struggles of Chinese women.

The series also addresses some of the issues faced by women in China today, including the pressure to marry and have children by a certain age and some of the challenges encountered in the workplace.

Although she doesn’t direct all of the episodes in the series, Zhao is said to have personally invited various stars, including A-listers like Yang Mi (who will appear in the yet-to-be-aired eighth episode) and Bai Baihe, to appear.

“They (the women) need more encouragement, and they also need to confront their various problems and face head-on the different challenges,” Zhao explained.

Reviews online have been complimentary, with netizens saying that they find the portrayal of the characters very realistic. “The show directly pokes at our sore spots, exposing our vulnerabilities. Because the content is so real, audiences can recognise snippets of themselves, or other women they know, in the stories,” one admirer wrote.

“The content of the stories is very meaningful: self-confidence and substance are so important,” another claimed.

The slew of new projects point to how Zhao has redeemed herself after a career dip in 2017, when she talked up a takeover bid for a little-known animation studio despite lacking the financial resources to complete the deal (see WiC389). At the time, regulators claimed that Zhao and her husband had “seriously misled the market with fake information” and barred the actress from China’s securities markets for five years.

Her rebound only goes to prove the 44 year-old’s resilience and celebrity clout. Her recent role as the director-mentor on Be Ready (see WiC471), a reality acting competition also streamed on Tencent Video, has also helped her rehabilitation in the industry. Zhao is gentle with her feedback for contestants, who she also directs in short films. These potted dramas have consistently come out on top in the competition, beating the contributions of more famous filmmakers like Chen Kaige.

Nevertheless, Zhao still has her critics, some of whom have been accusing her of hypocrisy in her latest series. The actress recently signed up as brand ambassador for the domestic cosmetics label Legend Age, which crops up regularly on Hear Her. “So on the one hand you are talking about appearance anxiety but on the other you are touting facial masks. What a way to mislead audiences,” one netizen thundered.

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