To the manor born?

Nepotism debated as celebrated director’s son finds fame in new hit drama


In the spotlight: Chen Feiyu, the actor son of top director Chen Kaige

For centuries, children born into rich and powerful families have enjoyed advantages in life, inheriting business empires, wealth and status. In some cases, those who have done well have gone on to surpass their parents’ successes. And in the world of entertainment and show business, there’s no shortage of what some call “nepotism babies” too – stars that, as talented as they might be, have got a head-start in their careers because of their family tree.

In China Chen Feiyu is arguably the best-known ‘nepo baby’ on the entertainment scene at the moment. The 22 year-old actor is the son of Chen Kaige – who directed the 1993 classic Farewell My Concubine – and of actress Chen Hong, who was a household name before she married the filmmaker and largely left the limelight in 1996.

That pedigree means that Chen junior got his first acting gig when he was just 10, appearing in the film Sacrifice, which was directed by his father. By 17, he had won the lead role in Secret Fruit, which also starred actress-singer Ouyang Nana.

The 2017 movie did little to supercharge Chen’s career, however, scoring a poor rating of 4.6 out of 10 on Douban, the TV series and film review site.

Luck was lacking in some of his other roles too. After the runaway success of the 2019 gay costume drama The Untamed, which propelled the two male leads Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo to stardom, Chen was cast in a similar project called Immortality. But the genre wasn’t a favourite of the country’s censors, which banned subsequent shows from release including Chen’s.

Immortality, which was said to have cost Rmb250 million ($35.36 million) to make, was shelved from screening indefinitely.

“It can be said that ever since his debut, Chen Feiyu has been standing on the shoulders of his parents, receiving one good job after another. But he has never shown any signs of becoming popular. In fact, other than his famous parents, he’s not very memorable as an actor,” one reviewer opined a few years ago.

Others have questioned his talent over the years as well. “In the eyes of the outside world, Chen Feiyu’s acting skills are mediocre. He doesn’t have much of a personality. If it weren’t for the fact that his parents were very famous, he would easily be lost among the ‘little fresh meat’ of the show business world,” another detractor claimed.

But Chen has suddenly changed that narrative. Since taking a role in the romantic drama Lighter and Princess, his popularity has skyrocketed.

“Lately whenever you go online, it is hard to avoid ‘Arthur’,” one netizen laughed, referring to Chen by his English name.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Twentine (a writer from Jinjiang Literature City), Lighter and Princess was released on Youku in early November. The series tells an uplifting story of a romance between two college students Li Xun and Zhu Yun as the two start to start to navigate the adult world together.

Chen plays Li, a programming wunderkind who comes across as aloof and distant (or as Qilu Evening News puts it, “a role that doesn’t require too much complicated acting”). To appeal to the female audience, Chen has bleached his hair (to seem more edgy, perhaps), although co-star Zhang Jingyi plays more of the bookish girl-next-door.

Despite the-less-than-original storyline, Lighter and Princess has been the hottest TV hit of the moment, surpassing Thank You Doctor, which features A-lister Yang Mi and which was released around the same time.

On Douban, the series also received a fairly presentable rating of 7.2 out of 10, though some of the commentary from netizens seems to focus on the flawless appearance of the lead performers. “This is the first time I have watched Chen Feiyu. I must say, he is very handsome,” one viewer gushed.

Another added: “I originally thought it would be another mindless idol drama. But after watching four episodes, I found that it was actually quite good.”

The unexpected enthusiasm for the series prompted some to speculate that most of the buzz about the series was being generated by the production company and Chen’s backers.

“I haven’t even figured out what the show is about yet but I’m already surrounded by all the Weibo topics [about it]’,” another netizen observed.

Since the debut of Lighter and Princess, Chen has added over a million fans on Sina Weibo in a single week, climbing to 11.4 million followers.

Yet it could still be a challenge to dispel his ‘nepo baby’ image, critics have asserted. “Needless to say, the short-term surge in his popularity, and the increase in his commercial activity and magazine covers, all suggest that Chen is now a big celebrity. But is this going to last? Once the show finishes broadcasting, does he have the staying power? If he wants to shake off the title of ‘Chen Kaige’s son’, Chen Feiyu needs to hone his acting skills and deliver more memorable work,” Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment sector blog, suggested. “After all, it’s only when the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.