The personal story of actress Liu Tao has all the makings of a TV drama. When she was 15, she was chosen to join a performance troop of the People’s Liberation Army in Nanjing, where she learned skills from singing and dancing to crosstalk (a traditional style of comedy in China). Liu then became a household name as the female lead in the TV series Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils in 2003.
In 2007, she met her husband Wang Ke, marrying him after three weeks of dating. The four-day wedding, which cost Rmb40 million ($6.4 million), lasted nearly as long as the whirlwind courtship. Liu then left acting to become a stay-at-home mother.
But the good times didn’t last. Wang’s business fell apart within a year of the marriage, leaving the couple on the brink of bankruptcy. Friends turned their backs and Wang began to suffer from depression. Liu had no choice but to start working again, appearing in as many as six TV dramas in 2011 alone. Netizens praised the starlet, saying that she epitomised the definition of a “good wife” (see WiC185).
Given her reputation, Liu is often cast as the strong independent woman. In 2015’s Langya Bang – a show described as China’s Game of Thrones (see WiC314) – she played the strong-willed Princess Nihuang, an army commander from Yunnan. Similarly, in Ode to Joy, another hit though set in more modern times, she plays a no-nonsense, career-focused lead.
Liu’s latest series is Star of Ocean. Exclusive to Hunan Satellite TV, it has a semi-biographical tinge, telling the story of an orphan-turned-businesswoman. The protagonist Jian Ai (a play on Jane Eyre in Mandarin) drops out of school because her family is too poor to give her a college education. Instead she moves to Guangzhou – alone – as a migrant worker. She finds a job as a dishwasher at a small restaurant but resigns after the boss tries to grope her. She ends up becoming a tea lady (akin to an office assistant) at a foreign trading company.
With her sharp business acumen and competitive spirit, she quickly advances within the firm to the role of business manager. Eventually she decides to establish her own rival trading company, although the global financial crisis derails her plans. Of course, there is also time for Jian to fall in love with tycoon Fang Hengzhi, played by Hong Kong actor Raymond Lam. She later finds out that Fang is already engaged to another woman…
Reviews of the show have been polarising. Some viewers have disparaged Star of Ocean as yet another “Mary Sue-style drama” – that is, a female character who is perfect, lacking flaws. Others called it “cringing” to watch the two seasoned actors perform in what feels like a “middle-aged idol drama”.
“Aren’t they over 40 already? Yet still starring in these idol shows? Also, the script is so lame,” one netizen laughed.
As the drama starts with Jian as an 18 year-old, the 43 year-old actress took some flak for playing the younger character. In an interview Liu admitted that she was hesitant about becoming a teenager in the show (no doubt reminded of how actress Zhang Ziyi was the subject of online ridicule for playing a 15 year-old in a costume drama earlier this year) but the producers were insistent. “At the end of the day, an actor’s job is to serve the script and perform according to the direction of the screenplay. The director and producers suggested that I take the role as there aren’t that many scenes where I play the young character. And if I kept saying no, it would seem as if I was being difficult,” she explained.
Audiences were less sympathetic to the choice that Liu faced. “When Liu Tao, with a face that has lost its collagen, and two pigtails, appears on screen to play a working girl, it is hard not to be startled,” one complained.
Others took a different line, saying the experience of Jian as a character overlapped with much of Liu’s own backstory, sometimes making it hard to tell the two apart.
“[The role of] Jian Ai doesn’t represent much of an acting breakthrough for Liu Tao. In fact, when I was watching the series, I was wondering whether I was watching Liu play herself on TV,” one critic told Phoenix News.
Despite the grumbling, Star of Ocean has been a ratings hit, taking plaudits as the most-watched show in its time slot. One possibility is that the negative word-of-mouth has piqued viewer interest, turning curious netizens into watchers of the drama.
“It is precisely because of so many audiences complaining about Star of Ocean – saying that the story is old fashioned and that the female lead is using her own experience to gain attention and so on – that makes it so successful. After all, the greater the controversy, the more attention a show can receive,” another entertainment sector blogger claimed.
For Liu, the interest in the show marks another win in a prolific year for the actress, even by her own hardworking standards. “This year, when you turn on the TV, you can find Liu Tao in seven TV series, at least one variety show in which she is the guest, and countless other evening galas where she is the host,” New Weekly remarked. “She has even joined Taobao Live to be a livestreaming host. If there’s a screen, she is there. She is a tireless superwoman.”
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