A year or two before her big international break 21 years ago in Lee Ang’s martial arts love story Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi first caught the attention of famed local director Zhang Yimou, who chose the then 20 year-old drama student for the lead role in the 1999 romantic drama The Road Home.
The fresh-faced actress gave such an outstanding performance that she won the Best Actress Award at the Hundred Flowers Awards.
At the time, Zhang Yimou warned her to resist going into TV because making movies would help the young actress learn her craft through detailed direction on performance, lighting and cinematography. TV dramas rely more heavily on the performer’s existing acting skills, he said, and their weaknesses are more easily exposed on the smaller screen.
Zhang – who turns 42 in February – stuck to the advice, starring only in films. But last week she made a splash on social media by announcing her debut TV drama: Monarch Industry, which is set for broadcast on Changsha News Network and online streaming site Youku.
The 68-episode costume drama, which was mostly filmed in 2018, follows the coming-of-age story of fictional princess Wang Xuan, who gets entangled in a power struggle within the imperial family and ends up in a marriage with a man from a humbler family (played by 38 year-old Zhou Yiwei). Showing steel and resilience, she goes on to become a powerful ruler of the kingdom.
Viewers have commented widely on Zhang’s TV debut, although largely for a reason less to her liking: in the early episodes Zhang plays a character that’s only 15 years-old.
“In all fairness, Zhang is well-maintained among actresses of her age. But time fools nobody. No matter how much she has looked after herself or how much make-up she puts on or how superb her acting is, a 41 year-old actress doesn’t have the pure and innocent look of a 15 year-old,” critiqued Qianjiang Evening News. “In addition, there are those sunken eyes and smile lines that are inadvertently exposed when the face turns sideways. It is difficult for audiences to be fully immersed in the viewing experience.”
The majority of netizens agreed. “Although Zhang Ziyi does not look 41 years-old in the show, she definitely does not look 15,” one complained. “Even the filters can’t get rid of the lines on her face.”
“Monarch Industry should be renamed ‘the love story of middle-aged women,’” another netizen quipped. “All these actors could play mothers but they are playing teenage girls. No acting skills can make up the large age difference.”
“You should’ve listened to Zhang Yimou. Don’t act in TV shows,” was another of the most popular comments on Douban, the films and TV review site.
Zhang has defended herself by saying that the debate about her age is being instigated by the producers and the streaming platform looking for publicity, who have been marketing her performance under the tagline ‘Zhang Ziyi young lady vibes’.
“I was 38 when I played Wang Xuan and I’ll be 42 next month. Which one of these numbers has anything to do with ‘young lady vibes’,” she protested.
Zhang also made clear that she knew from the start that she would be much older than the character she portrays in Princess Wang Xuan’s younger years. “When I received the script, I knew I would have to grow up and transform with Wang Xuan. I spent a lot of time and hard work creating the character,” she wrote on her weibo.
Of course, critics have often argued that middle-aged actresses have not been given enough opportunities on Chinese TV. Now that rebuke seems to have been reversed among some audience members, however.
“Why let a 41 year-old play a 15 year old? So then what roles can 15 year-old actors play?” one netizen queried, not unreasonably.
Zhang’s situation is not wholly unusual: instead of hiring younger stars to play characters in their junior years in TV dramas, other studios have allowed better-known and more established middle-aged actresses to play the roles from start to finish – often over a hefty multi-decade age span.
The fundamental reason for this kind of casting is commercial: producers know that bankable star power brings audiences and sponsors. “There’s no shortage of talented young actors but the truth is that few producers are inclined to use them. They gravitate towards more mature actors who do not require as much training and who already boast large social media followings. However, it’s not conducive to the long-term development of China’s show business sector,” complained Tencent Entertainment.
Ironically, Zhang herself would not have got her big break if Zhang Yimou had cast an older actress in her debut movie The Road Home. Her role as the young and innocent Zhao Di is still critically acclaimed as one of the star’s greatest performances, just behind her outing as Yu Jen in the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger.
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