Celebrity Spotlight is a monthly column where we introduce a famous individual from China (or of Chinese heritage) that you should know more about.
In China’s male-dominated film industry, Jia Ling has been pushing the status quo, establishing her place at the forefront of the Chinese movie scene after she smashed records with her debut directorial effort Hi, Mom.
Released during the 2021 Lunar New Year holiday, the film became the second highest-grossing film of all time at China’s box office, beating out the highly anticipated Detective Chinatown 3 which was released at the same time.
The wildly successful film also cemented her as the world’s highest-grossing female director for a single film — beating out Patty Jenkins who previously held the title for directing Wonder Woman. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Jia is also a successful comedian and actress and has founded her own production company called Big Bowl Entertainment.
Here we introduce you to the woman behind (and in front of) the camera.
From the beginning, Jia has been making waves in China’s male-dominated entertainment industry. She first made a name for herself in the comedy arena — successfully performing traditional Chinese xiangsheng or ‘cross talk’ comedy. Cross talk is one of the most popular forms of comedy in China. Typically performed in a duo, comedians will engage in a rapid exchange of banter, with both attempting to outwit the other.
She graduated from Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama in 2001 and began looking for performance work. However, the fact that cross talk comedy is a male-dominated world meant that Jia had a difficult start in the industry. She has previously said that after graduation she spent years looking for any type of work she could, even living rough and working odd jobs to stay afloat in the industry.
In 2010 her perseverance eventually paid off after she secured a spot during CCTV’s New Year’s Gala television show, which is often pegged as “the world’s most watched TV program.” Her segment — Gala Talk — was extremely popular and voted as the night’s third favorite performance.
Jia Ling’s “Hi, Mom” Becomes World’s Highest-Grossing Movie by a Female Director
From there, her career has gone from strength to strength. She has starred in numerous television comedies and films, solidifying her status as one of China’s top female comedians.
However, her career hasn’t been without controversy. In 2015, she performed a sketch about Hua Mulan that drew criticism from the Mulan Cultural Research Centre. The institute demanded an apology over her portrayal of Mulan as a gluttonous, naive girl who was tricked into signing up for the army. Fans immediately jumped to her defense though, calling out the reliability of these types of institutions.
In 2016, she founded Big Bowl Entertainment with Hi, Mom being their first production — initially a play before being adapted into a movie.
Though most of her career has focused on comedy, Jia has used her deeper personal experiences and relationships to inspire her work. Hi, Mom draws on Jia’s relationship with her mother who died when she was 19. The touching film, starring Jia, sees her transported back to 1981 where she befriends her mom before the accident that kills her. The bittersweet comedy delves deeply into the emotions that Jia had at her mother’s sudden death and not being able to see her before she died. Though the story’s background is a sad one, she said “I want to show the audience the happy days I spent with my mum. Those are the most precious days in my life.”
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The rawness of emotion that she put into the film paid off. It pulled at the heartstrings of many during the Lunar New Year period — a time when people were home with their families. Raking in over 848 million USD at the box office, it became the highest-grossing film of 2021 as well as making her the world’s highest grossing female director for a single film.
Jia’s success has become a testament to the growth of, as CGTN has coined it, “She Power” in the Chinese film industry.
Over the last decade, an increasing number of female directors have been making a significant impact within the male-dominated film industry. In 2010, Xu Jinglei became the first female director to make 100 million RMB at the Chinese box office with her film Go Lala Go! Subsequently, 14 female Chinese directors have hit this milestone, and there’s been a significant increase in the number of women entering the industry as budding filmmakers. In 2018 alone, three of the top 10 grossing movies were all directed by women.
The industry is continuing to change for the better as feminist movements and #MeToo spark increased conversations and focus on women. In recent years, numerous film festivals that pay tribute to female directors have sprung up across China with the China Women’s Film Festival, that takes place in Beijing and Hong Kong, playing a key role in highlighting the important work of female directors and showcasing their films to a large audience.
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The historic nature of Jia Ling’s achievement has served to hugely bolster the status of women in the industry. With Hi, Mom becoming the second highest grossing film in Chinese box office history, she has proved that even in a historically male-dominated arena, women should not be overlooked.
From her rise to fame as a comedy actor, to her wildly successful debut as a director — Jia Ling defies the boundaries and stereotypes that have been placed on women within the entertainment industry, paving the way for future female filmmakers to continue to change the face of Chinese film.
Cover image via IMDb
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