Interview: Yu Nan

China's art house star talks guns, Stallone and The Expendables 2

Having starred in gritty indie flicks such as Tuya’s Marriage, Yu Nan’s latest role sees her appear opposite Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables 2. Time Out asks her if she’s turning her back on arthouse cinema

It’s no surprise that the team behind The Expendables 2 wanted to bring a Chinese actress onboard. The first instalment of the franchise – a testosterone-fuelled fight-fest that saw Sylvester Stallone and his merry band of action men, including Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke and Jet Li, trotting around the globe, hunting down bad guys – was a huge success in China. The film grossed more here than in any other country outside of America – a nice little sum of 217 million RMB, to be precise. It was rumoured the sequel would be shot partly in China or be a co-production (presumably so the US studio could guarantee a bigger share of the revenue from Chinese cinemas). But while that didn’t come to pass, they did manage to bag another Chinese name to join Li on the credit list.

But if the producers were looking purely to appeal to the Chinese market, their choice of actress Yu Nan was a strange one. Far from being an A-lister either in or outside China, she is best known on the international arthouse circuit for her collaborations with Wang Quanan, a Sixth Generation director. Wang plucked her out of the Beijing Film Academy while she was still a student to play the female lead in his directorial debut, Lunar Eclipse.

Yu would later recall how he came to the academy and saw a teacher admonishing a class. All of the students had their heads hung in shame except for one girl who glared back defiantly. That girl was Yu Nan; he cast her instantly. Her feisty performance in Lunar Eclipse as a shy, retiring wife by day and a wild party animal by night won her Best Actress at the Deauville Asian Film Festival and her first recognition on the international stage.

More awards would follow – at the 2004 Festival Paris Cinéma for The Story of Ermei (also known as Jingzhe) and the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival for Tuya’s Marriage. Both were directed by Wang and saw Yu putting in moving portrayals as the films’ complicated female leads. For Tuya’s Marriage, in which she portrayed a shepherdess who seeks a new husband after her first one falls ill, she was nominated for an award at the heavyweight Berlin International Film Festival; the film itself won a Best Picture prize. Clearly, the girl can act – which makes us wonder, what the hell is she doing in The Expendables 2?

Even she seems incredulous when we put the question to her. ‘[When] my agent told me that The Expendables 2 needed an Asian actress and they finally chose me, I was really flattered. This is the first real “big production” I have acted in,’ she says. She’s not wrong. Although it is not her first foreign film – she previously played the main love interest in the gritty 2003 French film Fureur and had a walk-on part in the Wachowskis’ hyper-kinetic 2008 action movie Speed Racer – this is her first real crack at breaking Hollywood.

The Expendables 2

Yu plays Maggie, the first woman to join the Expendables as a full, gun-toting member and had to train hard for the part. ‘We’d shoot from 5am-5pm, then I would take a two-hour stunt class. I was so tired,’ she explains. It’s not the first time she’s put in extra hours for a role: for Fureur, she ‘worked her ass off’ for three months studying French and for Tuya’s Marriage, she learned to ride a horse and camel, as well as herd sheep. At least this time she could look to 66-year-old Stallone for inspiration. ‘He really impressed me; he still does all his own stunts. I really admire that.’

So, does this newfound admiration for action-acting signal a change in career direction? Not necessarily. ‘I don’t divide up films,’ she says. ‘I don’t see myself as someone specialising in arty films or someone who only plays certain roles. If I like the script, I’ll do the film. It doesn’t matter if it’s an action movie or an emotional drama.’

When we broach the subject of Hollywood typecasting, and suggest that the reason she opted to join The Expendables 2 was because the only role available for Asian actresses in US-produced movies is ‘sexy action chick’, it becomes clear that her media training has been as intensive as her stunt classes. ‘Isn’t that a good thing?’ she asks, sidestepping the question. ‘I don’t think it’s a limitation. It means we have something good that Hollywood really needs! You don’t see Chinese kung fu films casting white actors.’

If the line-up of films Yu has worked on since The Expendables 2 is anything to go by, however, it seems she is still committed to serious dramas. In Qin Ai (Beloved), due out next year, she plays a woman dealing with her foster mother’s death and the arrival of her birth mother, while in the forthcoming Buruqi de Nuren (Breast-feeding Woman), she plays an urbanite who moves to the countryside and develops a unique relationship with an old man and his grandson.

Whether the release of The Expendables 2 will be her big international break, and whether she’s the next Gong Li (or perhaps Lucy Liu, given her proficiency with weapons), remains to be seen. But for the moment at least, it doesn’t seem as though indie cinema has lost her to Sly and co forever.

Gabrielle Jaffe with additional reporting by Wang Ge.

The Expendables 2 is in cinemas from late September (Date TBA).

Read The Expendables 2 film review and watch the trailer.