When Yan Bingyan began her career as a dancer in 1984, the thought of becoming an actor never even crossed her mind, let alone the notion of winning the best actress title at the Golden Roosters, the mainland's most prestigious film awards. But then she did exactly that two years ago, when her turn in Teeth of Love won her the plaudits.
In her 15 years of acting, Yan has starred in more than 40 films and TV dramas, including films by young auteurs. Her latest film, Knitting, was directed by Yin Lichuan, and took home the best film award at the International Feature Film Competition for Women Directors in Germany this month.
Can you talk about your character in Knitting? I play a Sichuanese woman who intrudes into her ex-boyfriend's life in Guangzhou. This character is pretty different from the real me. She looks as if she's tough but inside she's sensitive and fragile. When it comes to love, she can be needy and clingy because she feels so insecure.
Why have you acted in low-budget arthouse films? I didn't deliberately search for those productions; most of the time they came to me. The market in China is limited. People love easy and light-hearted films that can give them a good laugh after a busy day at work. But more people now realise the value of auteur films, with the more serious ones requiring the audience to figure out the message themselves.
Also, starring in those films helps me keep up my passion for performing [even though] their budget are usually very small. I'm an actress because I like acting and performing, not because I want to make a fortune out of it.
What are the main challenges of making auteur films on the mainland? We don't have much money both for production and promotion. Few people know the films even exist because of the lack of promotion. It has frustrated me at times. But there has to be someone making these films. It's very different working on auteur films [versus] TV dramas and commercial films. Even with a very small budget, everyone tries their best to put things together.
Why did you quit dancing to become an actor? When I was a dancer, I loved performing on stage and communicating with audiences with just my body language. I never thought about becoming an actor. But then I realised dancing was a tough job [and] ... [because] I was [so] young, I didn't have enough understanding about life, love and music so I failed to deliver the message or emotion in the dance.
Acting is like an extension of dancing, only I get to use many other ways to communicate with audiences. I decided to become a full-time actor after winning a Golden Eagle Award [China's Emmys] [for my role in] The Red-Cross Brigade in 1998.
How has winning the Golden Rooster award helped your career? Winning the best actress award was a huge surprise. I was grateful enough to be nominated. So when they announced the result, I couldn't believe it was true. I hadn't even prepared a winning speech.
I definitely got more opportunities after winning. Most importantly, the award ceremony was a big chance to promote our film, first-time director Zhuang Yuxin's Teeth of Love. [As a result of the award], many people knew about the kind of films [we had] been trying to push forward.