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For decades, Hollywood movies have favored Western stars like Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp and Julia Roberts. Only a few Chinese actors, old names like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li, have made it big in Hollywood, and most roles for these stars have been limited to martial arts films.
Yet recently, in a slew of new Hollywood blockbusters, such as Looper, Cloud Atlas and Resident Evil: Retribution, a group of new Chinese faces have emerged on the big screen in the US, and they are likely to blaze a new trail for Chinese actors. Despite this move, it's still unclear whether these new faces in Hollywood will become superstars like their predecessors.
Future looks bright
In the past few months and the months to come, five major Hollywood films, The Expendables 2, Looper, Cloud Atlas, Resident Evil: Retribution and Iron Man 3, have been or will be released in the Chinese mainland, putting some familiar Chinese faces on the screen.
While these lucky Chinese movie stars, Yu Nan, Xu Qing, Zhou Xun, Li Bingbing and Wang Xueqi, are well known in China, they are fresh faces to most Western audiences. They are also given prominent roles in the blockbusters, signaling a shift away from casting Chinese to appear with one or two lines before leaving the screen for the rest of the film.
Actor Wang Xueqi is a typical example. Wang, 56, is a familiar face in many domestic movies and TV dramas, such as Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), Sacrifice (2010) and Caught in the Web (2012), but seldom stars in overseas works.
In the upcoming Iron Man 3, he will appear on screen as Chinese scientist Chen Lu, who turns into supervillain Radioactive Man, playing opposite Robert John Downey Jr as Iron Man.
Actress Li Bingbing landed a leading role as Ada Wong in Resident Evil, and her costume will include a specially designed red qipao, a traditional Chinese dress, and a wig.
In addition, Chinese actors are finally likely to break the set image of kung fu fighters, which for a long time dominated almost all Chinese roles in Western movies.
Zhou Xun plays two roles in fantasy movie Cloud Atlas, with one appear with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, atypical for a Chinese actress in Hollywood.
A bigger appetite
To some degree, this phenomenon of Chinese actors now being able to get more important roles in bigger films is due to Chinese stars' showbiz savvy.
According to a report from Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly, though at the moment Chinese stars still have limited choices, they prefer to choose branded Hollywood works like The Expendables and Iron Man, which sees them competing for many of the same roles.
Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly said before Yu Nan and Li Bingbing were chosen, casting crews of The Expendables 2 and Resident Evil met with a number of top Chinese mainland actresses. After Iron Man 3 was rumored to have certain Chinese characters, there were reports of several Chinese movie stars, such as Fan Bingbing, Chen Kun, Andy Lau, getting consideration for the cast.
As insiders told Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly, popular mainland actors like Huang Xiaoming and Feng Shaofeng also met with Iron Man 3 producers. Though they may be cast in minor roles, a film credit alongside Downey Jr is still attractive to these stars.
Even more enticing than billing with a star is the chance to work on well-established movie brands. An anonymous insider who handles publicity for a top mainland actress told Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly that working on a famous Hollywood movie is very helpful in building one's name, especially when the film comes to domestic theaters.
"Since Li Bingbing stars in Resident Evil, most of the promotions in Hong Kong and Taiwan are about her," said the anonymous source. "Even her refusal to attend the premier in Japan made news."
Show me the money
While it's clear that Chinese actors benefit from appearing in Hollywood movies, US film producers are seeking them out for a very good reason.
"Hollywood cares a lot about the market," Li Zhong, a movie critic, told the Global Times. "Recent years have seen huge domestic box office sales and an increase in the number of cinemas in China, which brought more revenue to Hollywood."
"[It is useful to cast local talent] to attract domestic audiences and make the movies' names known to a bigger crowd," he continued, adding that even though more new faces are entering Hollywood today, this is not necessarily because of their acting skills.
On the marketing side, a veteran insider who likes to be referred as "Y" agreed that this relationship is mutually beneficial.
"When Hollywood chooses an actor, it will consider whether the star is popular at the moment and has a place in market, while the star is interested in films that will be released around the world and whether they can be featured prominently in promotions in Asia," the veteran insider told Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly.
Li further noted that Hollywood filmmakers may also care about which talent agencies will be negotiating the actor's contract and running local publicity, as some companies are better versed than others in how to promote a movie in China.
Yet, even though domestic movie stars are eyeing the global stage, many put their projects in China first.
Ji Xiang, actress Li Bingbing's agent, confirmed to Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly that producers of The Expendables 2 had also thought about Li in the beginning and hoped she could travel to Romania for a month-long training. But because she was shooting I Do, a domestic romantic movie, at the time, she refused the offer.
"But it depends on the importance of the Hollywood movie, as well," Li countered. "A leading role in a bad domestic film is less attractive than a minor supporting role in a Hollywood blockbuster."
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