Happy one week before Tubelight comes out! And welcome to my week of coverage. If this is your first time here before a big release comes out, what I usually do is a loosely related post every day for a week before. Stuff like, the director’s last film, or a similar film from the same star. Just sort of discussion topics and background reading for stuff that might end up being relevant for the final film. And for this film, let’s start with the co-star, Zhu Zhu!
Who is Zhu Zhu? She was announced as a “Chinese” actress to co-star with Salman. But a quick look at her filmography shows she is pretty evenly split between playing a second or third lead in Chinese movies, and the Chinese character in Hollywood movies.
Let’s take a step back and talk about what being a Chinese actress even means. I am not an expert on the Chinese/Hong Kong industry, but I do know a little about them, seeing as it is the 3rd largest film industry in the world (either India or America is number one, depending on how you count, and then the other one is number two. But three is solidly China/Hong Kong), so it’s kind of important to know something about it.
China has two equally old film centers, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Shanghai was dominant in the early years of film, partially due to the strong stage tradition of Chinese Opera stars (“Opera” meaning elaborate stories with fabulous set pieces including special affects, songs, dances, and of course fight scenes. Similar to the Parsi theater tradition which inspired Indian cinema). Hong Kong, meanwhile, had it’s own smaller industry with its own smaller stars and smaller audience.
And then came WWII. First, Hong Kong survived occupation and bombing and so on better than mainland China, that was a big advantage. And second, post-war, all kinds of artists started flooding out of now Communist China (the Communists were not terribly fond of Opera and film at this point) to Hong Kong, which was still under British control. The Hong Kong industry rapidly leaped ahead.
(This is not at all what China, or Chinese films, is like. But isn’t it a pretty song?)
Hong Kong and India and Hollywood are unique in one special way, they have no state support. In France, for instance, there are government funds available to be disbursed for film production, you can get grants and all kinds of things. The same is true in Germany, most South American countries, eastern Europe/former USSR countries, Russia of course, and so on and so on. But the big three industries, they answer only to their audience (and the censor boards of course). Therefore, the Hong Kong industry is full of fun and fights and so on, and not so much government messages about agriculture.
In America, and in stereotypes, Hong Kong films are often considered equal to wuxia/Kung Fu films. Amazing fight scenes, plots about feudal warlords, that kind of thing. But along with these movies, there is a strong tradition of social comedies and romances.
And now we enter the 90s. Suddenly, Hong Kong is looking at being re-integrated back into mainland China. Meanwhile, Chinese/Shanghai cinema (thanks to sudden interest by the state in funding and promoting it) had taken a massive artistic leap forward with the rise of the “5th generation” of filmmakers in the late 80s. But then Tienanmen Square ended that era of filmmakers, and artistic growth in general, for quit a while. In the late 90s, a new generation, the “6th generation”, appeared.
(Ju Dou, from the 5th generation, I saw in one of my film classes and it was simultaneously one of the most beautiful and the most off-putting things I have ever seen)
Meanwhile, back in the US, Hollywood had suddenly discovered the Chinese market. Thanks to the opening of the Chinese market to outside imports. Mainland Chinese films became a combination of western sensibilities and so-so Chinese filmmaker (since all the really good ones had left after Tienanmen). That isn’t to say there are no good Chinese filmmakers at all, but it isn’t quite the “most exciting artistic film community in the world” that it was back for a few brief years in the 80s.
So, where is Chinese film today? Well, the Hong Kong tradition still stays somewhat apart, but is beginning to be roughly integrated into the mainland. Notably, John Woo, the quintessential Hong Kong action director, was given state funds to make a massive historical epic, Red Cliff. And the newest version of the Chinese government seems fairly committed to the film industry, funneling in huge infusions of cash and making it a semi-respectable thing to do.
(RED CLIFF!!!!!! Not depressing at all, except in that you really wish you could see it on the big screen)
Which brings me to Zhu Zhu! I don’t quite understand the Chinese film industry, putting it out there right at the start. But I know there have always been rumors/confirmed stories that the performers in the industry are under the control of the government. The Peking Opera School takes children in at a young age and they spend their entire childhoods training, their whole lives controlled. This was Jackie Chan, for instance. Actresses have been kidnapped by the mob, rumored to be forced to give sexual favors to government officials in return for financing, or passed around to important visitors as kind of a party favor.
I don’t know if any of this is true or not true. But what does seem clear is that there is little family structure to the industry (as there is in Indian film) and instead it is structured through apprenticeship that starts at a very young age. As a teenager, you are put on a particular career path, and your life is controlled from then on. Men and women have to follow a very narrow path to remain a success, never saying anything wrong, looking anything wrong, doing anything to offend. A perfect product that never malfunctions.
And now China is working on cranking out these public figures as part of their export system, which means building to different specifications. Which is where Zhu Zhu enters the picture!
Zhu Zhu is an MTV generation pop star. Meaning both that she got her start from MTV, and that she is part of that clever personality type celebrity, not just pretty, but also charming and confident and “cool”, like you want to hang out with her. And that she is kind of upperclass. Not a poor kid who entered entertainment in desperation, but a rich (ish) kid who is doing it because it is fun.
Zhu Zhu also seems to be, how should I saw this, hard to place in the Chinese industry? She started as a singer, then hosted MTV China for a while, then was a pop singer (not terribly successful), then started talking a few small roles in kind of rom-com films. Not the lead. Finally, at age 28 (old for a Chinese actress), she found her niche, playing the Chinese character in Chinese co-productions.
Zhu Zhu, without ever having a lead role in China, became China’s little ambassador to world film. She was in one straight up Chinese film (with Andy Lau! Who is HOTTER THAN THE SUN!!!!), and then immediately started working in psuedo-Chinese films. That is, Hollywood style films which were partially Chinese financed.
Zhu Zhu was in Cloud Atlas, Shanghai Calling, The Man With Iron Fists, and Last Flight. She was also in a couple straight up Chinese films during this period, none of them in major roles, and none of them major films either (they hardly even have a Wikipedia entry). After Tubelight releases, she’s going right on to working in Pacific Rim 2.
So, that is what we are getting in Tubelight. An actress who has never been super famous, or had a super difficult role. But who is very very good at navigating a variety of industries and cultures, and working hard and doing her best. I’m kind of excited. It’s a very different energy from the usual kind of actresses that we see, either super famous types, or inexperienced model types.
Oh, and also, an actress whose primary experience is in rom-com type movies, and in the music industry. NOT in the kind of wuxia/kung fu films that China/Hong Kong is usually stereotyped as making.
Speaking of, if you ever feel like dying of romance and fan girliness, check out Love On a Diet and Needing You. Everyone else in the world got into Hong Kong films in college for all the John Woo-ness of them, I got into them for the Andy Lau-ness of them.