The pairing of an older woman with a younger man is not a new phenomenon. Hollywood actress Demi Moore used to be married to Ashton Kutcher, who’s 15 years younger. French President Emmanuel Macron is 24 years younger than his wife, who was once his teacher. In China such relationships are often called jie di lian, which literally means ‘romance between an older sister and a younger brother’.
As career women are gaining more financial clout, jie di lian has become increasingly common. According to a research report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of older-woman-younger-man couples rose dramatically from 13.3% in 1990 to 40.1% in 2010.
To that end, many TV shows are now cashing in on the demographic shift. Angelababy, 33, recently starred in a romantic drama series called Love The Way You Are with Taiwanese pop idol Lai Kuan-lin, who is 21. Last month, one of the most talked-about TV shows was Falling Into You. Starring Jin Chen, 32, and Wang Anyu, 24, the series dramatises a love story between a coach and her male student.
And last week, one of China’s most bankable stars Yang Mi, 36, released another new drama about jie di lian. She and Her Perfect Husband, which is exclusive to Tencent Video, follows lawyer Qin Shi (played by Yang), a woman so dedicated to her career that she’s failed to make time to date. But as she approaches her mid-30s, her parents, like many Chinese mums and dads, are desperately lobbying her to settle down.
Qin’s top-tier law firm specialises in family law. Her boss makes clear that to be promoted Qin has to be married. To that end, Qin’s brother, without his sister’s consent, changes her marital status to “married” and creates a fictional husband for her. Qin then gets promoted to become one of the partners.
Coincidentally, Qin then meets Yang Hua (played by 27 year-old actor Xu Kai). As it turns out, Yang is a genius who doesn’t have any career aspirations and makes ends meet by trading stocks at home. His pushy parents, worried about his love life, make him attend one matchmaking session after another in the hunt for suitable spouses. Fed up with these, Yang retaliates by entering into a fake marriage with Qin only for the pair to develop real feelings for each other.
If you think the plotline sounds lazy and a tad forced, you are not the only one. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the show scored so poorly that the platform disabled the rating function for the series (something it only does at the producer’s request when the scores are abysmal).
“All the screenwriters have tacitly admitted that they have not been going to work. They wanted to create an idol drama but couldn’t conjure up any romance or fantasy; they also wanted to make a workplace drama, but in the end, they made a show that insults the intelligence of the audience,” one critic lambasted.
“If Yang Mi’s latest TV series was released in 2000, it might have even been a big hit. But now, there’s absolutely no way for anyone to feel that her performance is acceptable. The storyline is so antiquated it’s hard to imagine it would appeal to any audience today,” NetEase thundered.
While the show claims that it wants to spread a positive message about contemporary career women, it seems to do anything but that. For instance, Qin’s biggest client, the president of the Women Entrepreneurs Association, warns her that being a career woman comes with major sacrifices and that she should leave the stresses and strains of the legal world to her workaholic male colleagues.
Chin’s own boss, a high-flying female partner, also resigns after failing to find a balance between family and career.
“After watching the drama, there is a strong feeling of being told to get married, because, as the story goes, you’d be nothing unless you are married,” one critic mocked.
Much of the other controversy around the series targeted the casting of Yang. Many complained that her performance was “miserable” and “hard to watch”. Others said that at 36, ironically, the actress was “too old” for an idol drama. That seems harsh: her character on She and Her Perfect Husband is only two years younger than Yang’s real age.
The ongoing conversation about Yang highlights again some of the challenges actresses in China face when they get into their mid-30s.
Several, like Liu Shishi, 35, have quietly retreated from the limelight. One of Yang’s peers, Zhao Liying, 35, opted to extend her acting career by taking on grittier roles (even forgoing makeup in one of them).
In Yang’s case, despite being a household name, producers seem to struggle to find a role for her to play naturally.
When Yang played a teenage girl in her last costume drama Novoland: Pearl Eclipse, for instance, she was singled out for taking on roles that seemed too young for her and received a lot of flak.
Critics generally believe that she has not progressed from the predictable formats and small-screen genres that made her famous and reinvented herself with a ‘second act’.
To be fair to Yang she did try to ditch the glamour in favour of more earthy ‘method acting’ for a low-budget flick she made in 2018 called Baby, but her fans disliked the movie and forced her to think again.
“Yang Mi is 36 years-old this year, and while other big-name starlets have stepped away from the camera, Yang Mi didn’t take those opportunities. She could have started a production company and created film roles for herself,” one critic concluded. “But she didn’t do any of that. She squandered those opportunities and by the time she should have transitioned to other roles, she was unsuccessful. As a result, she finds herself having to appear in idol dramas time and time again.”
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