China’s Young Actors and Actresses Confront Backlash Against “Emoji Acting”

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6:00 PM HKT, Tue December 19, 2017 4 mins read

Young Chinese actors — especially the pretty and popular ones dubbed 小鲜肉/“little fresh meat” (for men) and 小花/“little flowers” (for women) — have long been criticized by picky audiences and film industry professionals for their wooden, robotic, “emoji acting”, which is often coupled with ridiculously high salaries.

Little Fresh Meat

For example: when acting shocked, actress Yang Mi typically looks like this:

When acting sad, another actress — Tang Yan — strikes this pose:

A year-end summary of “渣演技” (terrible acting), written by Yuan Mo and posted on professional film review site DUSHE Movie (link in Chinese), lists many different examples of these dramatic and unbearably awkward on-screen moments.

And bad acting isn’t even the worst part of this phenomenon — several veteran actors have publicly condemned certain young actors for not showing respect, and for conducting themselves in an unprofessional way:

“[A young actress] shouted: ‘12345678’, then the director told her ’you’d better say your lines.’” — Li Youbin

“He didn’t come [to act] but sent so many body doubles. He never remembered his lines, just said ‘1234567’… shameful.” — Li Xuejian

“This actor is so expensive, 1 million RMB [~$150k] per day. When he was supposed to act with me, I never saw him… it was just his body doubles. All of them were doubles. All of them.” — Zhang Guangbei

“What is the use of good acting? Will you have a support group? Will you have a fan meet-up? Will someone paste your photo in their bedroom?” — Wang Gang

“Not that one should focus on how much they’re paid, but I’m just wondering if you did the work and got so much money, if you deserve your audiences and how you did your work. That’s what I value.” — Chen Daoming

“They think they are big stars when they come to the set. After two scenes people would say, ’You worked so hard.’ What’s hard about that? Not at all. There are 8,000 people around you. All you need to do is put on some makeup and come to the set. The action part is already done by stunt doubles. You just come here and breathe. Then, ok, it’s done.” — Jackie Chan

“Now a lot of — not all of them — but I can say a lot of Little Fresh Meat just show up with a feeling that they are experienced actors already. But they don’t spend time and effort on creating their characters. They only care what kind of clothes are beautiful, and they fight for it, even if it doesn’t fit the scene. They don’t care what kind of characters they’re playing, as long as they look pretty. All that veteran actors on set just wait for them, because they’re so late. Sometimes after you practice the lines with one of these actors for quite a while, he’ll say, ‘I have so few lines. I don’t want this scene.’ What kind of person is this?” — He Saifei

While the conflict between Little Fresh Meat and “老戏骨” (older actors; literally “Old Drama Bones”) has gotten intense, several TV shows have started emphasizing their actors’ specialties and discussing the art of acting. One of the more famous of these is The Birth of Actors (演员的诞生), produced by Zhejiang TV and hosted by Zhang Guoli, a director, producer and actor well known throughout China.

This reality show includes three mentors: Zhang Ziyi, one of the most awarded Chinese actresses and among the best-known Asian actresses in the West; Liu Ye, one of the top actors in China, who has received international awards since 2000; and Song Dandan, a popular and experienced skit and sitcom actress. Along with ten film industry professionals and 300 audience members, this trio applauded and cried for performances by the talented but not (yet) popular actors that appeared on the show, while also making harsh and direct comments when contestants showed a lack of preparation or ability to act properly.

The Birth of Actors (演员的诞生)

The show gave some good actors an unexpected chance to become much more popular, and gave audiences a chance to encounter young actors with great potential. But it is a reality show after all, and The Birth of Actors found itself in the middle of a scandal when it was revealed that the show had edited some parts of a veteran actress’ performance to intentionally make her look bad. This gaffe overshadowed the program’s contribution to the industry.

Besides Zhang Ziyi, another one of the “Four Dan Actresses” (the four best Chinese actresses of the early 2000s, “Dan” referring to the female lead in traditional Peking Opera), is Zhou Xun. Zhou has co-hosted the talk show “Actors Talk” on CCTV’s public access film channel since the beginning of last month, and in that time has invited 12 award-winning, A-list actors for deep conversations about their experiences, insights and acting theory. She also founded an acting school, Dome Studio, with some famous friends (actor Chen Kun and director Chen Guofu), aiming to improve young actors’ skills and creativity.

Actors Talk

Zhou Xun and Huang Bo on Actors Talk

Additionally, the 3rd China Film New Power Forum took place in Hangzhou on November 27, sponsored by the SAPPRFT (the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China) and hosted by CCTV.

During the forum, which was aimed at young professionals in China’s film industry, viewers saw many Little Fresh Meat and Little Flowers, more than on any award ceremony or year-end show. It was quite interesting to see all these young actors talking about acting, a topic about which most of them are usually criticized. Du Sir, founder of the DUSHE Movie site, posted an article titled “Jing Tian, Yang Mi and Angelababy, don’t forget what you brag about today” (link in Chinese) as a representative movie fan’s reaction to the all-star event.

Little Fresh Meat and Little Flowers at the forum

Popular actress Angelababy emphasized the “original intention” that brought her from a modeling career into the film industry, against the backdrop of an article on DUSHE Movie that claimed she used to use eye drops to pretend she was crying, and only showed up for 69 days of a four-month film shoot.

Jing Tian, who starred in Zhang Yimou’s latest film The Great Wall with Matt Damon, shared her experience working in several Hollywood movies, which led to questions as to how she got the roles with her below-average acting.

Chen Xuedong said that “film is a road of no return,” and talked about how he’s become crazy about acting — a comment that fell flat with audiences who think his acting is the thing that drives people crazy.

Yang Mi, one of China’s most popular actresses, and someone who has driven billions of views in online traffic this year, disclosed that some directors would just praise her acting without imposing higher standards — even as she was trying different ways to express and act, or even after she had asked to film more takes — due to their tight schedule and high investment cost.

As capital continues to flow into China’s film and TV industry, improving the quality of the products in terms of acting, technique and script-writing is definitely not only the responsibility of actors. However, as professionals who are making top salaries, they have to contribute a better product to their consumers, as audiences expect an ever higher standard. As for how to improve young popular stars’ acting when they have less and less opportunity to experience an ordinary life — this will be a top problem for the industry to figure out.

Cover image: Sohu

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