The Yang Mi effect

China’s biggest actress returns to her comfort zone in new costume drama


She’s back: Yang Mi’s new drama has enjoyed massive viewing figures

Actresses Yang Mi, Liu Shishi and Tang Yan first met on the set of Chinese Paladin 3, a costume drama released in 2009. The three starlets – in their mid-20s at the time – quickly became friends. They appeared on each other’s social media posts and were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Their careers followed a similar trajectory too: in 2017, a poll among college students picked the three out as their favourite actresses (first place for Yang, followed by Liu and Tang).

While Tang, now 37, and Liu, 34, have largely retreated from the limelight, Yang remains one of the most prolific actresses in Chinese show business today. And last week she unveiled another of her highly anticipated costume dramas Novoland: Pearl Eclipse, which premiered on Tencent Video and Beijing Satellite TV.

The show dominated the ratings and social media chatter. The first episode has already accumulated over 200 million views online (by way of comparison, the highly anticipated HBO drama Succession scored 1.4 million viewers for the debut of its third season, according to website The Wrap).

In Novoland: Pearl Eclipse Yang plays Ye Haishi, a girl from a mythical fishing village where the residents are a cross between mermaids and humans. While Ye’s family are being threatened by attackers a court official called Fang Zhu (played by heartthrob William Chan) passes by, saving her. He offers to take her under his wing so the heroine disguises herself as a boy and learns martial arts. Those familiar with the genre will be able to guess some of the unlikely twists that follow (Ye becomes a personal guard to the emperor, who after finding out her real identity, wants her to become his wife, defying court protocols. But of course, Ye has already developed feelings for her rescuer Fang…).

The series is adapted from the hugely popular novel of the same name by Xiao Ruse, whose other Novoland books have been turned into TV dramas too. But despite the popularity of the novels, most of the Novoland TV series have been rated as mediocre, with scores on Douban, the TV series and film review platform, of 5.9 and lower.

This time round, even Yang’s star power couldn’t lift the rating for Pearl Eclipse either. In fact, it scored so poorly that Douban disabled the rating function for the series (something it only does when scores are abysmal). “It is not hard to understand why a lot of fans would want to boycott the show,” one of the critics agreed. “The truth is, they are correct. No matter how you look at it, the drama can be summed up in one word: cheesy.”

Other criticism of the series made similar complaints to the recent rebuke of Liu Tao, a 42 year-old actress tasked with playing an 18 year-old character (see WiC563). Yang is now in her mid-30s, with netizens complaining that she was also too old to be starring in an ‘idol’ drama and be cast in a much younger role. “It is impossible to feign the innocence of a teenage girl. And even though there are special effects in post-production, Yang’s image is so deeply rooted in the hearts of the viewers that it isn’t possible for audiences to pretend they don’t know her age,” added NetEase Entertainment.

Putting to one side the debate over age-appropriate casting, Yang has also been critiqued for her failure to explore new ground as a performer. Pearl Eclipse is another in a long line of similar formats and seems to suggest that the actress prefers to stick to tried-and-true costume dramas, rather than take a risk with the edgier genres that might earn her best actress nominations.

The star, who found fame with her roles in a string of historical dramas like Eternal Love and Legend of Fuyao, did try to reinvent herself by dabbling in the 2018 indie production Baby. However, the experimentation phase now appears to be over.

“It seems like Yang Mi has given up on getting outside her comfort zone. After Pearl Eclipse, all of her next projects are costume idol dramas. But it does beg the question, how long can she cash in on cute idol dramas when she is already 35 years-old?” another netizen wondered.

“Almost all the post-35 year-old starlets have encountered this problem in their careers. Their age and increase in experience forces them to pivot. But although Yang Mi has tried [other genres] before, the outcome wasn’t desirable,” Mala Gege, another critic, claimed.

Still, the advice was that Yang should try something different: “Starring in costume idol dramas can bring a lot of traffic and online views but audiences are feeling bored. The market is saturated with so many different costume dramas.”

Of course, were this merely a point of contention among casting directors, it might be less of a concern for Yang’s future earnings potential. But the actress is something of a commercial force in her own right, forging marketing partnerships with a wide range of companies. At last count she was endorsing no fewer than 21 brands, extending from Estee Lauder and Adidas to Caltrate calcium pills. The loud and mostly critical response to her latest performance in Pearl Eclipse could do damage to her franchise value and lessen the sales allure brands had counted on when associating with her.

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