[With the US release this weekend of《The Expendables 2》, in which Chinese actress Yu Nan (余男) plays the first female expendable, a closer look at the actress and her career to date might be of interest. The following is a slightly abridged translation of an article that originally appeared in the Shanghai magazine The Bund Pictorial earlier this summer. Comments in brackets, like this paragraph, are those of this site's editor, added where he thought clarification or additional information was desirable.]
Yu Nan: an artistic woman wields a submachine gun
When this reporter encountered Yu Nan looking for her gate at the Beijing airport, she was dressed in black, not wearing sunglasses or makeup, her hair tied casually at the back of her head. She looked nothing like a career actress, and her plain and simple appearance made her look even less like a fashionable young woman.
However, there is a considerable gap between the on-screen image and the real person. On the big screen, the 34-year-old is always featured with her sexy lips and a strong air of Eastern beauty; while in real life, she is just an ordinary girl from northern China. "In the movies, I need to be the focus, but in life, it is not necessary at all," said Yu.
[left, Yu Nan in paramilitary uniform in 《The Expendables 2》
Yu Nan is also known for taking up a diverse variety of roles. In《Tuya's Marriage》,which won the Berlin Golden Bear, she played a Mongolian woman who agrees to divorce her disabled husband so that she can remarry a man willing to take care of both of them and their children. In《Design of Death》released this April, she plays a mute widow, using only her eyes and hands to express her character's deep down sexiness; and in the movie《The Expendables 2》, to be released this summer, she will take up a machine gun and fight side by side with the elite group of men known as the best mercenaries in the world.
"Guns Aren't Sexist"
When Yu Nan was selected for《The Expendables 2》, a report in the foreign media said, "No matter whether you believe women are no match for men in the world of violence, they can still wield a gun against bad guys. Guns aren't sexist."
Beginning with Gong Li, a typical route to success for Chinese actresses has been to forge long-term alliances with powerful directors, and Gong Li's alliance was with director Zhang Yimou. For Yu Nan, this was supposed to be with Wang Quan'an, one of the best-known sixth-generation directors. But to everyone's surprise, Yu did not follow Gong's path, and instead struck out on her own.
Her feature film debut in Wang's《Lunar Eclipse》(1999) earned her the Best Actress award at the Deauville Asian Film Festival. She made three more films directed by Wang: 《The Story of Ermei》, which gained her the Best Actress Golden Rooster Award and the Best Actress prize at the Paris International Film Festival in 2003;《Tuya's Marriage》for which she won the Golden Bear prize in 2007 at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Actress prize at the Chicago International Film Festival; and《Weaving Girl》, which won the Jury Special Grand prix and the FIPRESCI prize at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival.
Yu has also worked with other major Chinese directors, including Wang Xiaoshuai in 2008's《In Love We Trust》, which won the Best Screenplay Silver Bear prize at the Berlin International Film Festival the same year, and Ning Hao, in his Chinese Western film《Western Sunshine》in 2010.
[right, back home in Beijing, Yu Nan presents a more civilian look]
This year, Yu Nan has made seven films, including《Design of Death》,《The Expendables 2》and the Tsui Hark-directed《Zhua Hou》(抓猴) [literal English title《Catching Monkey》, official English release title not set]. After that, she immediately left for South Africa to join the crew of《Black South-easter》, a crime film from South Africa-born female director Carey McKenzie. Although they had agreed two years ago to work together, the actress and the director had never met, but after having seen each other's work they discussed the possibility online.
Doing Her Own Stunts
《The Expendables》movie franchise is known for its all-star cast of strong male leads. While the first movie saw the role of women confined to that of damsels in distress, the sequel will see Yu standing side by side with her male team members and wielding her own weapons. She plays Maggie from China, assisting the character Bruce Willis plays.
The story behind her casting is a little unusual, not least because she landed the role unprepared. When she was notified that she would be auditioning for the part, she was shooting another movie in Thailand [action film《The Five》]. At this time, another Hollywood studio also sought her out, for《Resident Evil: Retribution》, which [Chinese actress] Li Bingbing is now making.
Exhausted from her work in Thailand, Yu was extremely reluctant to audition for the role. When she landed in Beijing at one in the morning, her agent told her, "You have to try out for《The Expendables 2》. If you land the part, you'll start shooting in three days." So less than ten hours after she had arrived, she found herself once more at the Beijing airport with her bags, headed to the United States. As soon as she arrived in Los Angeles, she was handed over 10 pages of script for the audition.
After going through several lines with Yu, director Simon West realized that she was completely unprepared and asked if she had even read the script, which led to an argument between the producers and Yu's agent, each blaming the other. In the end, Yu had to act as peacemaker, saying: "Let's have the audition right now. What do you need?" After it was all over, Yu went to her hotel room and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next morning her agent phoned to awaken her, saying "Pack your bags, you'll be leaving for Bulgaria tomorrow." She had landed the role.
When Yu Nan arrived at the set in Bulgaria, she found that it had been transformed into a 1940s New York street littered with debris from many things blown to pieces. She went to introduce herself to Sylvester Stallone, who was sitting in a truck with its motor running, surrounded by people carrying guns, getting ready to shoot a scene. Yu said to him, "Hey, hello!" Stallone replied, "Hello. I'll talk to you tomorrow, but right now I have to go "kill" a few people." After saying this, he started the truck and drove off. Yu Nan stood there laughing, feeling that the serious-faced Stallone had quite a sense of humor.
For an actor to win the respect of others ultimately relies on performance. Yu Nan stayed on the set for two months. The first month was spent training for her action scenes, and the second filming the actual scenes. One of her few previous action films was《Diamond Dogs》, and arriving on the set in Bulgaria she was surprised to see a familiar face, as the action director was the same director she had worked with in《Diamond Dogs》. "I told you that you can fight. Remember that?" he said.
Yu Nan's training sessions began at eight in the morning with a two-hour warm-up followed by running, kungfu and side kicks. After she completed her training for the day, she would have to sit and rest for more than an hour. However, despite the difficulty of her training, it was nothing compared to the actual grueling filming itself. Jet Li once remarked that making《The Expendables》had been like a holiday for him, because he received the best treatment, and could hang out with the other action stars, eating and drinking and having a good time bragging about their movies. But the demands on Yu Nan were different. Stallone expected her to do her own action stunts because her stunt double was not able to do them as well as he wanted. So the others all said to Yu, "You're young, and we're old, so you shouldn't need a stand-in." And that is how Yu Nan came to perform all her own action stunts.
Although she had wielded handguns in other movies, Yu Nan had no training with a submachine gun, in fact had never even touched one. When it came time for her to use one, the director handed it to her and said, "There are 12 rounds in it. Shoot when you are ready." The first time she held it, she staggered underneath its weight. At first she thought it would be too difficult, but she kept very calm, aware that the male actors were watching her, a bit amused at her nervousness. When she was done firing, the director came up to her and asked, "Why didn't you blink at all when you were shooting?" Yu Nan replied, "I didn't? Really, I didn't even notice. The gun was shaking so much I just concentrated on holding it steady." Yu Nan thought there was nothing unusual about this, but later, a crew member told her, "Do you know, very few people can shoot without blinking, especially not a woman."
Foreign Languages Open Foreign Doors
On the set of《The Expendables 2》, all the principal cast members had their own individual shed to rest in on breaks from filming. Initially, most of the others were unacquainted with Yu Nan. As she sat in her shed, she could hear others outside, whispering, "This actress just sits there all day, and never says anything." So Yu Nan took the initiative to approach the others and say hello and "How are you today?" Gradually, everyone got to know each other.
Yu Nan's work ethic and relative fluency in English made it easy for her to make friends with the other lead actors. However, unlike most Chinese actresses who began studying English only after becoming famous, she learned it when she was young from her grandmother who had been an English teacher. It was always expected that her English abilities would lead to her studying at a general, comprehensive university, but she surprised most who knew her by enrolling at the Beijing Film Academy instead.
When Yu Nan first entered the Film Academy, there were very few students in her dormitory on weekends, and often she was the only one there. When she would have nothing else to do, she would listen to foreign music or take a favorite book down from the shelves to read. She had a cousin who was studying at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, who found a female foreign student with whom Yu Nan could exchange English-Chinese conversation practice. The two girls hit it off, and began spending their free time together. Studying English became a major spare time pursuit for Yu Nan, and when other dorm residents would stop by to see her hard at learning the language, they would ask: "What are you doing? Preparing to go abroad?"
Her mastery of French came later, after she had graduated. 《Fureur》, her second movie, was made in France, and required she learn some French. After returning to Beijing, she rented a house with an American girl who couldn't speak a word of Chinese, so all their conversations had to be conducted in English. Later, another girl joined them, an Italian who spoke French fluently. The three young women lived together for a few years, and it was through her everyday interactions with her housemates that Yu Nan gained her own fluency in the two languages.
Her multilingual abilities have been an asset in landing her roles in foreign movies. At the same time, making artistic films has honed her performing skills and shaped her very distinctive personality and image. But in 2008 she experienced a low in her career and in her personal life when she parted ways with her long-time collaborator, director Wang Quan'an. It was Yu Nan who made the break, saying at the time that she chose to leave because, "I want more freedom." [In the following year she was twice quoted as saying her decision was due to "aesthetic fatigue." In other words, she had tired of making art house movies, Wang's specialty.]
After that, Yu Nan began appearing in commercial films, paired with Francis Ng in《Deadly Delicious》and in Ning Hao's《Western Sunshine》, then in Gao Qunshu's《Wind Blast》and Tsui Hark's《Catch Monkey》. Her performance in these films was nothing surprisingly different, but seemed rather a natural adjustment to the different atmosphere of the commercial film.
"Maybe this is growth. I never thought I could do these things before. But if you don't give it a shot, you'll never realize your true potential," said Yu Nan.
"I'm Someone Who's Always Adjusting"
Reporter: You really surprised me by becoming a hit woman. You're still an artistic young woman, what led you to make this career move?
Yu Nan: It's very interesting, but action movies actually found me, and I'm not the least surprised. It was not because I had a foundation in kungfu, but I found I could do it, although I don't know why. It might be because I love sports, or it might be related to my personality, I like doing things that are tough. But even my family asked why did I suddenly want to switch from making purely artistic movies to doing fight scenes.
Reporter: Many people who ordinarily make artistic films, and then turn to making commercial films, find it feels strange to them. But you go between commercial films and art films almost without a hitch. How did you bring off such a conversion?
Yu Nan: I have to approach my work wholeheartedly, regardless of ability, or what the motives of others might be. In fact, I'm someone who's always adjusting, and the moment I'm not acting I relax myself. At those times I restrain myself.
When I first [changed genres], it created some personality problems for me, but I didn't know it then. Nothing is certain in this world, and we must always be aware of our surroundings, the world we are living in. I slowly came to realize that while you might want things to go a certain way, they will follow their own direction, not yours. You can strive to achieve little things, and with some success, but not necessarily with the big things. And I've become a bit more comfortable with that. You know, we can't control our own lives and deaths, but we can control our relaxing on the road from home to workplace.
Reporter: It can't be easy for an actor filming in someone else's movie culture. Do you agree with that?
Yu Nan: It's true in my case. I've been fortunate in that there's been nothing in my work that I had to do, which would be especially difficult for me. Agencies can sometimes be tough, finding some difficult roles that they think you have to play, for example in《The Expendables 2》, but in the end it all turns out OK. I really dread having others pressuring me, pushing me. But when I go to do the job, I feel like it's fully in my control. I don't want to get up early, but I have to get up early to make movies, these are the choices you make in work and life.