An Era of Greatness

IFFAM's Actress IN FOCUS Yao Chen talks about her career and life

Yao Chen,the Actress IN Focus at the 3rd edition of the International Film Festival & Awards • Macao (IFFAM), is a household name in the Chinese mainland, known for her exquisite performance in over 40 films and TV shows, and her active engagement in philanthropy and social initiatives. She was appointed ‘UNHCR National Goodwill Ambassador for China’ by The UNHCR in the field of International Humanitarian Affairs and named one of the world’s 30 Most Influential People on the Internet by Time in 2015 and The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women by Forbes in 2014 and 2015.

The IFFAM this year screens three films she starred in, ‘Lost, Found’ (2018),‘Caught in the Web’ (2012), and ‘Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back’(2017).  

In the ‘In Conversation with Yao Chen’ session on Monday, the actress talked with Nansun Shi, a widely respected Hong Kong producer and IFFAM International Advisor, about her two decades of acting career and her struggles as a mid-age actress and a working mum.

In the beginning of the talk, Yao admitted that she became interested in acting after seeing a film produced by Tsui Hark, ex-husband and occasional co-producer of Nansun Shi. She recalls, ‘I first gained interest in films after watching “The Legend of the Swordsman”. I was completely blown away by the lead character Dongfang Bubai. How could there be such an alluring and coquettish character that transcends gender boundaries and depicts the depths of an individual so vividly?’ 

The fictional character Dongfang Bubai is the leader of an ‘unorthodox’ martial arts sect. In his quest to dominate the wulin (martial artists’ community), he castrated himself to fulfil the prerequisite for learning the skills in a martial arts manual.

‘The character became imprinted on my mind, and I was thinking, I want to be like that. Although at that time I wasn’t clear if I wanted to be like Dongfang Bubai or the actress who played him,’ Yao laughs.

As the passion for acting grows, Yao decided to quit her job at a provincial dance troupe and pursue a new direction. She studied in the Beijing Film Academy from 1999 to 2003.

In 2006, she rose to fame almost overnight for her role as Guo Furong in the ancient sitcom ‘My Own Swordsman’. ‘My feelings were mixed. I was excited, but at the same time terrified, because all of a sudden I was gazed upon by many, and I felt at a loss. Nobody told me what I should or should not do as a “star”.’

Her acting career continued with more successes, with leading role in around 20 drama series, including spy drama ‘Lurk’, urban drama ‘Divorce Lawyers’, as well as 26 films, three of which are screened at the IFFAM. Her latest work ‘Lost, Found’ premiered this October, and received critical and public acclaim. 

In the film, Yao Chen played the lead character, Li Jie, whois a successful lawyer but recently divorced from her husband and fighting him about the custody of their daughter. She works hard in order to support the family as a single mother and luckily she has a helpful nanny in Sun Fang who looks after her child. But one day after work, she gets home to find her daughter and her nanny missing. In the frantic search that ensues, she starts to realize that everything she thought she knew about Sun Fang is a lie.

‘We’ve seen films on similar subject before, to play a mother who loses her child can be very tricky—it’s easy to over-act and appear hysterical. But Yao’s performance is very precise, controlled and layered,’ comments Nansun Shi. 

‘I saw in this film my control over a character, I would say it reached 85%. Over the years I’ve been in the film industry, I find it that the results are not always satisfactory. Moments of failure outweigh moments of success. But in “Lost, Found”, basically everything I wanted to present has been presented, and I’m thrilled to see the results. Of course, I’m grateful for the entire team, they all did a great job and no department “dropped the ball” in the process,’ says Yao.

The film also marks Yao’s newest attempt outside acting. Bad Rabbit Pictures, which Yao founded with her husband Cao Yu in 2017, co-produced ‘Lost, Found’. This was probably her answer to the dilemma facing her as a mid-aged actress, which she openly admitted and triggered public discussion.

In a public talk titled ‘The embarrassment and confusion of a mid-aged actress’, the 39-year-old actress talked about her situation after giving birth to two children within five years, ‘I missed many amazing projects by excellent directors during the five years. When I came back from maternity leave, my career was in a very embarrassing situation. Although I’ve come to maturity as an actress, there are fewer and fewer roles for actresses of my age. That’s why I want to take the initiative and create roles myself.’

The film character Li Jie is a working mum, like Yao Chen herself and many women in China, where the female participation rate in labour markets reaches over 60% (World Bank, 2018). The misfortune of Li Jie was echoed by many viewers. As Yao pointed out previously, ‘The world is asking too much of a woman. If you want to pursue your career, people will say you disregard your family and are a terrible mother. If you choose to be a stay-at-home mother, they’ll say it’s your natural duty and cannot be respected as a job. The fact is, working hard gives me the freedom to choose, and becoming a mother gives me the courage to face the cruelty of life. The two identities are not contradictory.’

She reaffirms to Nansun Shi and a roomful of audience, ‘As a Libra, I certainly like balance. But in fact, it’s almost impossible for career women to strike a balance between work and family. I can only be true to myself and teach my kids to live a real life. I want them to have free souls, and to know that their parents also have flaws, just like everyone else.’

The name of her production company, Bad Rabbit, may be a hint of her ambition to break norms and stereotypes. ‘Bad means to break free from rules and conventions,’ Yao explains. 

The success of ‘Lost, Found’ encouraged Yao and her company to venture further into realistic theme films, ‘This small-budget film took over 200 million RMB at the box office, and you can see the rise of more and more realistic films in recent years. People go to the cinema nowadays and want to see stories that can relate to them. It’s an inspiring message to us.’

‘The era we are in has its greatness, and absurdity. It its worth writing and recording, with many enchanting people and stories. I hope to make more realistic them films in the future,’ Yao concludes at the talk.