Breakout performance

Actress earns kudos in role crafted for her by a market research team

Jing Tian-w

Jing Tian: finally getting some critical praise for her role in Rattan

Even if you subscribe to the showbiz maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, few actresses will want to be remembered more for their mentions in the tabloid press than their performances in front of the camera.

That’s something Jing Tian can certainly relate to. For a long time, she was rumoured to be the romantic interest of Wang Sicong, the son of Dalian Wanda’s Wang Jianlin. That was said to explain how she nabbed the female lead in Zhang Yimou’s 2016 film The Great Wall despite being little-known in her industry at the time (the movie was produced by Legendary Entertainment, a unit of Wanda).

There were also rumblings of another relationship with an influential coal baron from Shaanxi (also her home province).

Jing went on to appear in several Hollywood hits including Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Pacific Rim: Uprising a year later. Despite decent box office takings they did little to boost her professional profile. In 2019 she appeared in just one TV show and last year was a total write- off for her with no new projects.

“For a long time whether it was a movie or a TV series, as long as it starred Jing Tian people just assumed it was going to be rubbish. Even veteran stars that worked with her were accused of selling out and working for the money,” remarked Tencent Entertainment, rather cruelly.

But a surprise success in an online series is putting Jing back in the spotlight in a more positive sense. Rattan, which is exclusive to streaming platform Youku, has been enjoying strong word-of-mouth since its release in early March. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the fantasy-romantic drama enjoys a strong rating of 7.9 out of 10.

The show follows the story of a young man Qin Fang (played by Zhang Binbin), who accidentally wakes a beautiful but mysterious woman named Si Teng (played by Jing) as he visits his ancestral home. It turns out Si was a witch until she was murdered decades previously. But no worries, her supernatural powers are intact and Si declares that she is now Qin’s master and demands that he help her avenge past misdeeds.

Fans on social media are saying that Rattan is one of the rare female-centric dramas that feels original. TV shows with strong female leads had become a popular trend on Chinese television, although the genre has fallen out of favour thanks to oversaturation (see WiC470).

The problem, critics say, is that too many of the dramas follow the same plot line of women overcoming obstacles and humiliations while attracting the attention of (strikingly good-looking) men. In Rattan, however, it is the woman who delivers the insults, rather than bearing the ridicule. Si compares the new generation of men to those she knew previously very unfavourably. “All those stinky men in the past at the very least could articulate a few words. But look at the men today, they are like chives: one crop is worse than the other,” she mocks.

Audiences have enjoyed her sharp tongue, finding the scenes more refreshing to watch. “I’m so used to idol dramas that show female leads who are weak and can’t take care of themselves. So I have to admit that Rattan is more exciting. Not only is Si so confident and cruel in her mockery, she is also so singularly focused on her mission and pays no attention to anything the men say,” one netizen gushed.

The show’s success isn’t a fluke. Prior to the start of filming, Youku did market research and found that female viewers were more interested in smart, independent and decisive heroines. Male audiences were a little different, preferring beautiful and thoughtful female characters.

Rattan is a progressive show: on the one hand, it created a strong woman who is freed of thousands of years of gender stereotypes. It also drops the image of women who have to turn to men to find comfort in times of suffering,” claimed Entertainment Unicorn. “The show also smartly dwells on social problems such as marriage, domestic violence and campus bullying – doing so against a fictional backdrop to avoid directly confronting these issues.”

Netizens also say that Jing deserves a lot of the credit for bringing her character to life. “To be honest, I had no expectations for Rattan before the show premiered. I always thought Jing Tian’s acting skills were very average and it was hard to imagine she would have any spark with Zhang Binbin. But because I had no expectations, I actually found it rewarding watching the show,” one fan applauded.

“If the series sustains the same level of quality it will certainly be the best and most popular show Jing Tian has starred in her 16-year acting career,” another predicted.

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