Zhao Wei was always an exceptional student. At the age of 20, she entered the competitive Beijing Film Academy’s Performance Institute after attaining one of the highest scores in its entrance exam. Now the 37-year-old’s directorial debut So Young, a graduation project for her master’s degree in directing at the academy, has made more than 700 million yuan (HK$880 million) at the mainland box office to date, making it one of the top 10 grossing films in Chinese cinematic history.
Zhao has consistently been one of the mainland’s most popular and prolific actresses since her 1999 breakthrough in the television drama Princess Pearl. She has appeared in a number of blockbuster films such as Shaolin Soccer (2001), Red Cliff I (2008) and II (2009), and Painted Skin (2008) and its last year sequel.
Over the course of her career, the Anhui native has metamorphosed from someone who people associated primarily with Princess Pearl’s adorable Xiaoyanzi (Little Swallow) into one of the most independent and influential women in the mainland film industry.
Zhao looks exhausted as she nears the end of a long day of publicity duties for So Young, but it’s clear that she is in control of the proceedings: she knows how many interviews are left, and directs the wardrobe changes for her photos. While rubbing her tired eyes, she reels off facts and figures about her first feature film.
Reflecting on the film’s commercial success, the actress-turned-director calmly states, “I did expect the box office to be pretty good, but for it to be this good is a nice surprise”.
The initial goals of her first film were modest, she says. “I just didn’t want to embarrass myself. After all, I am an actress with some achievements already.
“I wouldn’t want people to laugh at me. That’s why I have to give all that I can, and at least produce something that I will be proud of.”
So Young centres on love-crazed university student Zheng Wei (played by 26-year-old actress Yang Zishan). Zheng begins university in love with her childhood friend Lin Jang (Han Geng) but then finds her attention and heart captured by the ambitious Chen Xiaozheng (Taiwanese actor Mark Chao Yu-ting).
Moving from the early 1990s into the new millennium, the drama shows a journey of love, joy, and pain through a group of mainland young women – Zheng Wei and her three dormitory mates, Ruan Guan (Maggie Jiang Shuyin), Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao) and Zhu Xiabei (Liu Yase).
Why does she think that this 130-minute coming-of-age drama has become such a big hit in her homeland?
“Because we in the mainland didn’t have a youth,” Zhao says. “We were all busy being hard-working in our youthful years. We were studying hard, working hard, getting married and buying a flat, and striving to give the best education to our children. The pressure of trying to survive is so heavy in China.”
The top student recalls her mother, a primary school teacher, urging her to study hard every day when she was a child.
“It was always about preparing for the future. She would sometimes say, if I didn’t study hard, I would end up begging on the street,” says Zhao, the mother of a three-year-old daughter. “Youth is not for enjoyment, and definitely not a luxury for us,” she says.
That’s why she thinks people felt sad after seeing So Young. “Some audience members realised they hadn’t really had their youth. The film stirred discussion about what youth is on the mainland, and how we should live in our youthful years.”
Zhao believes audiences in Hong Kong and Taiwan will have a very different perspective. According to her, youngsters in Hong Kong or Taiwan are trying to live better, while their counterparts on the mainland are just trying to live.
But she acknowledges that times have changed. Many mainland youngsters have the freedom to make choices, and cinema can inspire them to think, says Zhao.
“On the surface, different generations may look at youth in a different way, but inside it is the same. When they love, they are courageous, and willing to do anything, including stupid things. When they get heartbroken, they cry as hard as they can,” she says.
Based on Xin Yiwu’s popular novel To Our Youth That is Fading Away, So Young’s screenplay was written by maverick writer Li Qiang and its Chinese title translates into English as “A Tribute to Youth”. Rather than go with that litreal translation, Zhao decided that the film’s English title should come from the title of a 1993 song by Britpop group Suede.
“Some people suggested the film should be called ‘Too Young’ instead. But it doesn’t mean the same thing to me. Some say So Young sounds strange. Well, so be it,” she says.
In Xin’s novel, one of the female leads is a rock music fan, yet it wasn’t specified which band’s music she particularly favours. To decide whether to cite a particular mainland or foreign band, or simply make up one, Zhao listened to more rock music while making this film.
In the process, she discovered that, “I like the fact that Suede is melodic and the lyrics have substance. So Young not only suits the theme of the story, it suits the timeframe as well, as we are talking about the mid-1990s,” she says.
What’s even better is that, when the story jumps to the new millennium, the London alternative rockers still play a symbolic role.
“In the film, the couple tried to meet at a Suede concert to say a last farewell, and it is true that Suede played in Beijing on February 4, 2003,” Zhao again shows her attention to detail by citing the date.
“All the [band] posters you saw in the film are from the real collections of diehard fans. We sourced them especially for the film.”
Other posters include those of Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk hanging prominently in the girls’ dorm room. Along with hearing Zheng Wei belting out Hacken Lee Hak-kan’s Canto-pop mega hit Red Sun to declare her love to Chen Xiaozheng, these will remind local audiences of the influence that Hong Kong culture had on mainland youth in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The poster of Maggie Cheung in Centre Stageis a personal tribute from Zhao to So Young’s producer, Hong Kong art house filmmaker Stanley Kwan Kam-pang. Zhao, who regards herself as an apprentice to the award-winning veteran, describes Kwan as “harsh, serious and hard working”, and she appreciates the way he shared invaluable insights about filmmaking with her.
She recalls how he told her that if he wanted something, and the boss didn’t grant it, he would throw his money on the table, and tell the boss he would rather not be paid himself; he would prefer to get what he needed for the film.
“Towards the end of production, when we were running over budget, he got really worried and urged me to finish the film quickly. I told him that I had not been paid yet, and he smiled and said, ‘good’.”
With her first directorial outing, Zhao established herself as a hard-working, tough and demanding director – at least according to her young cast. Actress Liu Yase recalled that Zhao slapped her in the face to trigger her emotions, and the lips of Yang Zishan and Mark Chao became swollen when one of their kissing scenes ended up taking more than 12 hours to shoot.
The debut director confesses she has no idea what she was like on set – declaring that she became so absorbed in her work that she only wanted to work and shoot.
So when the publicity work began and her cast was recalling how demanding she has been, Zhao was taken aback by their stories. “I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I was kind of upset when they said those things,” Zhao says.
After two decades in the entertainment industry, Zhao has every right to be a hard taskmistress. After all, she understands the hardships an actress has to endure on the way to stardom. “Maybe I scared these ‘babies’, but I believe all success comes from hard work,” she says.
What’s more, the cast have been given so many film offers, she feels they did not suffer for nothing. “Yes, you suffer at the beginning, but what you gain from that will last you a long while.”
So Young opens on June 13