“With the commercialization of Chinese cinema, the younger entries into the media sphere aspire to be the kind of stars like Zhang Ziyi: she went to the Central Academy of Drama, she’s become a massive star, she’s paid a lot of money, she does huge advertising campaigns, she’s gone to Hollywood,” says Leung.
In researching this article, we interviewed several young Central Academy graduates whose parents were also in the business. Each member of the younger generation lamented a lost sense of integrity which they believe older Chinese actors possessed. “For my parents’ generation, the important thing was to have a job. They entered this industry with the goal of just doing it really well,” said Zhang Boyu, a TV drama actor whose father, Zhang Fengyi, played in Farewell my Concubine. “Now, people will sell their souls for fame and money.”
That “soul-selling” might also be because these young grads are entering a much more insecure job market than their parents had to deal with. In Mao-era China, the state guaranteed actors jobs for life; now, they’re on their own. In addition, the competition is fierce; there are, by some estimates, about 300,000 actors in Beijing. Even Central Academy graduates, who pay the highest tuition out of any university students in China, have no guarantee of finding work.
Chinese government controls have also stifled the film industry. “China’s entertainment industry is still not diverse enough, because of censorship, so even though in the past few years the film industry has grown tremendously, it hasn’t been growing fast enough to cater to what the market needs to absorb all the talent,” says Wu Hao.
Zha Wenhao, a 2011 graduate from the Central Academy, says many of his fellow alumni have already given up acting, and those who have held on, like him, are struggling to find work. “When you graduate and actually get out into the world, you come up against every kind of difficulty, and you start to doubt whether you’re really cut out for this work,” he says.
It’s not all dire news, though. Producer Zheng Junshen says actors born in the 80s are far more business-savvy than Chinese actors even a few years older, who tend to focus their energies on improving their acting skills rather than promoting themselves. “These young actors are adapting much more quickly to the modern business of the film industry,” he says. “They’re very familiar with the internet, and they know how to promote themselves.”
And, he says, their more self-centered attitudes, while bad for the team, can be a good thing on-camera. “For a great performance, you need that strong sense of self-confidence,” he says. “These young actors are more independent, and ready to run with their own ideas. And that can make the whole industry better.”