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Zhang Ziyi’s TV Drama Debut Draws Mixed Reviews as Star Claims “That’s Not Me!”

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An extravagant historical drama starring Chinese superstar Zhang Ziyi sounds like a pretty straightforward recipe for success. But Zhang is currently getting bashed on the Chinese internet for her first-ever small-screen starring role in Monarch Industry (上阳赋), which debuted this weekend.

Although the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers has made small screen appearances before, this is Zhang’s first time leading the cast of a TV costume drama after a film career spanning 25 years. Famed film director Zhang Yimou reportedly once told her to steer clear of doing TV shows, for fear it would tarnish her reputation.

Filmed in 2018, Monarch Industry — also billed as The Rebel Princess on some review sites — has long been anticipated by fans who adore Zhang Ziyi’s work in film. But Chinese viewers seem to be largely disappointed. The drama currently has a score of just 6.0 out of 10 on reviews site Douban, after being rated by over 26,000 viewers — though it has at least clawed back up from an initial rating of 5.8.

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While some appreciated the drama’s beautiful set and cinematography, many reviewers took issue with Zhang’s acting, and in particular found the 41-year-old actress’s portrayal of a 16-year-old heroine unconvincing.

“You should’ve listened to Zhang Yimou. Don’t act in TV shows,” reads one of the most upvoted reviews on Douban.

The backlash has reached a point where Zhang Ziyi responded publicly on Chinese microblogging account Weibo. In a post on January 9, she accused the production of exploiting her appearance, saying, “There is nothing wrong with looking youthful, but that is not me!”

“If you were not fit for the role, then why did you accept it? Because you got paid loads and now you won’t let people criticize you,” reads one of the top comments under the actress’s post on Weibo.

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Like Zhang, many critically-acclaimed actors have jumped onto the TV drama bandwagon in recent years, including Zhou Xun, Tang Wei, and Zhang Zhen — no doubt attracted to the juicy paychecks (Zhou was reportedly paid equivalent to 8 million USD for her leading role Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace). And despite his reported warning, even Zhang Yimou is getting involved in TV production this year.

Despite — or perhaps because of — all the hype, many of these stars have drawn similar criticism and patchy reviews, while female actresses Zhou and Tang have also been criticized for trying to appear younger than their actual age.

Part of this appears to be because the internet still holds female stars — especially older ones — to much higher standards than their male counterparts. As frank discussion of women’s issues gradually gains traction in China, we can only hope that a kinder online environment for female actors will follow.

Lola Yang
    Born in Beijing and raised in Canada, Lola currently studies Asian Studies and English at the University of Michigan. She is an aspiring journalist with a deep interest in East Asian cultures and media.