*One of my rare attempts to translate a full Chinese article. I apologize in advance for any typos & mistranslations (please do kindly advise if you find errors with this translations…I did try to retain the original meanings and intents). Now, why am I translating this? For a few reasons: 1) I’m obviously a Li Yifeng fangirl; 2) I got bored waiting for his trailer for Mr. Six; and 3) I like Li Yifeng’s interviews in general because his interviews are usually pretty educational and/or witty. In this article, you shall get a glimpse of the current Chinese filming industry. Click here for the original article.
Since Li Yifeng’s second wave of popularity because of Legend of Ancient Sword, he has been a “hot commodity” amongst many big film production companies and directors. With the exception of Forever Young which has already been released for public view, his first big screen film project is actually Mr. Six which is directed by Guan Hu (The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel; Design of Death; and Cow) and starring the legendary director-turned-actor Feng Xiaogang. This film has closed the recent 72nd Venice International Film Festival in an out-of-competition screening.
This film has received many positive acclaims. In the film, Li Yifeng portrayed as Xiao Bo, the son of Feng Xiaogang’s character, Liu Ye. Due to his father’s strict teaching and the death of his mother, Xiao Bo has never approved of his father’s gangster/hooligan ways and perspective. One day, Xiao Bo runs into trouble outside and has offended a rich second generation (who also happens to be a new generation leader of street gangsters), Xiao Fei (portrayed by Wu Yifan). This incident marks the turning point of the father and son relationship as Liu Ye gives out all he got to save his only son.
Li Yifeng’s performance in this film might not be absolutely stunning, but he has successfully portrayed the character to the satisfaction of the director and audience. Also, this film is deemed as his first step to transform from an idol actor to that of a “real” actor. Li Yifeng mentions that when he took on the film project, he was initially worried that “Gangster Gang” (Feng Xiaogang’s nickname) might not accept him because the legendary director has never worked with any idol in his films before. However, all that worries were unwarranted because they’ve become great friends since the filming. With regards to acting skills, Li Yifeng admits that he still could not be said to be a qualified film actor, but he still has a great passion for acting and ambition for winning awards.
Sohu Entertainment (Sohu): When did Director Guan Hu first invite you for this film and how did you two come to an agreement?
Li Yifeng (LYF): It was last winter. At first I was pretty shocked, because I didn’t understand why someone (great) like him would want to meet me. After he introduced Xiao Bo’s character to me, I thought someone who grew up in the alley of Beijing was very different from my reality, so I told him that I would think about it. Director Guan then said that I should take on the film project because no matter which aspects, this project could bring me to a whole new level in performance, and also that it would be a great opportunity to learn from him.
We met two times (in total before the filming) and he let me see all these photos of alleys (one of the main settings of the film) during the second time we met up. This time, he told me that I would definitely accept this film project. At that time, I wasn’t even sure that I would accept, so I wondered how he could possibly know my final decision. However, perhaps there’s a charm about this film project and the production team. In the end, I did join the team as he predicted.
Sohu: This film seems to have a strong geographical affinity and the character grew up in Beijing since birth (Northern background). Since you’re from Southern background, did you prepare anything with regards to the understanding of the character?
LYF: Mainly, I spoke with Director Guan and when I received the script, the script itself already gave me pretty good clues about the foundation of the character. Perhaps the common ground between me and the character is that we’re both young people. As a youngster, Xiao Bo might not necessarily have the same habits as his father. His personality is still more on the modern side. His personality differs from mine, but some of our views are probably the same more or less because we are around the same age. I’ve never been as rebellious as him.
Sohu: He initially thought of his father as pathetic, but then there’s a change later on in the film.
LYF: That’s correct. Mainly, he and his mother have never received much attention and care from his father. When his father was young, he was a famous gangster, so he might have paid more attention to his brother-like friends. Liu Ye definitely loves his son, but the way he goes about expressing it might not be as free as if he was with his brothers – not a very straight-forward approach. His father would bury a lot of things in his heart, even until old age.
For example, he goes and checks on his son secretly because they don’t live together anymore after Xiao Bo grew up. He would buy his son’s favourite food and ask his son’s friend to give it to Xiao Bo. Also the same with the telephone calls, he would keep giving himself excuses. Basically they would often end the call after only a few words. Xiao Bo, from the depth of his mind, he believed his father’s way of thinking was already outdated – “You keep insisting on your old ways in this modern society even though you were never that successful to begin with. Even though you think you so great, that you keep your promises, and that you value brotherhood, but what have you bring for your family, for yourself, and for me? Therefore, you’re nothing to me.” He didn’t think his father was qualified at all as a father.
Sohu: The sentiment of young people’s rebellion, have you experienced it personally?
LYF: When I was child, I wasn’t that rebellious at all. My childhood is rather uneventful. This is because the way I communicate with my parents is very much like friends. I can tell them anything and almost anything is discussable. When I was attending school, I even told them that I was dating.
Sohu: The main atmosphere and temperament of this film and production team are mostly very macho-like and almost everyone comes across as tough individuals. For instance, Feng Xiaogang doesn’t like the label, “fresh meat”. He thinks such a label is an insult. Do you agree?
LYF: Every individual would have his own perspective…His definition comes from his life experience, so there isn’t any right or wrong view about such terms. If you think he is right, you can certainly side with him. Personally, I don’t mind about labels so much. For example, coming to Venice this time and filming Mr. Six are all learning opportunities for me. A reporter asked on another day if I have thought of stealing the spotlight, I said that it didn’t even cross my mind to do so (because I’m just fortunate enough to be here).
Perhaps I’m still not a qualified film actor, but because of this opportunity of coming here to such a historical and world renowned film festival as a film actor, I can further appreciate the dedication and efforts of everyone who works in the filming industry. I’m already very happy about just coming here and experiencing this intense movie atmosphere. I even got the opportunity to have my breakfast by the beach. It was a very comfortable experience. There are many industry seniors who have come here, so as a new film actor tagging along with the filming crew of Mr. Six to come here, it is a very happy event.
Sohu: So we can safely assume that this event is one of your important experiences, especially since this festival is one of the top three most important events in the filming industry, and you already get to come here at such a young age.
LYF: Of course, this is an unforgettable experience. However, I believe that I would still have many opportunities to come here in the future. Though, the first time is always unforgettable.
Sohu: You’ve not only worked with Director Guan and Director Feng (Feng Xiaogang), but you’ve also hung out with them on a regular basis. They’re all macho men from the north, love to drink and live their lives very spontaneously. Have they influenced you in any way?
LYF: I especially love to chat with them because they have great knowledge and experiences to learn from. Every time I meet up with Director Feng, we would drink and chat, but not necessarily to discuss about filming and movies. We can chat and joke about almost anything. Hanging out with him is a very relaxing experience.
Actually, I worried a bit initially when I haven’t met him in person yet. Most of what I knew about him came from the media and the image that was built around him – he was “Gangster Gang”, so I did fear and worried a bit, especially since he had never worked with any “idol actors” before. I was worried that he might not accept actors like me. So, I hoped that through this collaboration, I was able to change his mindset a bit – just like how my character in the film, I want to change Lao Pao Er’s (means old gangster, also the Chinese name of the film, Mr. Six) definition of young people.
We (the youngster) have our positives, and of course there are areas for improvement too. After all, we are young and it is inevitable that young people would make mistakes. Life is long, so it is impossible to know the game right at the beginning. That would be meaningless. Every stage has that particular stage’s unique colour. If you chose to pretend, then life would be tiring. Also, it would give out an insincere impression. Therefore, whenever he (Feng Xiaogang) asked rather I was nervous, I would answer honestly and told him that I was. However, I think I shouldn’t miss out the opportunity to act with him simply because I’m nervous. I should bring out my best in attitude and performance to let him see my sincerity. It would be enough if he saw my sincerity.
Sohu: What do you think is special about Director Guan (from other directors)?
LYF: This is actually my first big screen film. I haven’t work with many mainland Chinese directors prior to this film project. Through this first collaboration, I feel that I’m working with a director who has a unique and nostalgic point of view with regards to the story and characters of this film. He is a very serious and earnest director.
For example, for the drinking scene rehearsal, I remember that we’ve filmed the actual scene at night. However, I arrived very early that day. Quickly, Director Guan took me to the area where the scene would be filmed. He would tell me approximately how the scene would be like such as there would be a group of actors sitting on that side. I have never experienced this before. Perhaps you might think that what he described to you – like how these actors would stand here, who they consist of, like how a pair of mother and daughter would sit in this area, how the waiter would stand on this side – are not very useful. In actuality, he was letting you know ahead of the time so that you could get into your comfort zone more easily. He wanted you to know that tonight, we’ll be filming a particular atmosphere and you need to be familiar with this environment especially since you’re supposed to have lived in this area for a long time – perhaps you’ve come here to eat many times before after getting off work or off school. You need to be very familiar with this environment as this overall atmosphere is very life-like. After he illustrated everything, he would leave you be, allowing you to form the scene in your head all by yourself.
In fact, Director Guan didn’t set much limits and he didn’t know how I would portray the character. He was worried, but he also didn’t want to give me too much pressures. He would often tell me to relax. That moment, I was no longer nervous, I was excited instead. I felt that I would definitely enjoy filming the scene and Director Feng’s acting style is very relax and lively. During meal time, Director Guan would ask if I needed to drink more and I would tell him that it was alright. I drank two glasses of red wine first and got ready for filming. That time, I was holding a bottle of vodka and Director Feng was holding a bottle of white wine that he often drank. Then, we exchanged the bottles. I don’t drink white wine, but then I thought ‘oh what the heck,’ and just gulped down the white wine and started filming. The first take was very successful and I can see that they (Director Feng and Director Guan) enjoyed themselves too.
After Director Feng’s part was done filming, he had already finished half of the vodka bottle. Then, it was my turn. The filming crew told Director Feng to take a rest for the night and no need to continue filming because he was already at his drinking limit. However, he refused to take a rest and insisted to film with me. I am already very thankful and satisfied because at least he must have thought that I am still a passable actor. Through this one film, I think I’m quite successful because I am able to reserve a spot in the back of his mind.
Sohu: You did not start out with any formal acting education. Do you think there are any differences between those actors who came from a formal acting background and those who aren’t?
LYF: There are definitely some differences. Even from one actor to another, there are differences from acting methods to perspectives about the same event. For example, if an actor is a very strong person, mentally speaking, it is possible that he might think crying is unnecessary in the scene for his character. Or, if the actor is a sentimental person, then he might find the scene very touching and he would definitely treat the scene differently. Let’s not separate between those with formal education and those without first, I am personally the kind who really pays attention to the general atmosphere – from the other actors to the overall environment. Perhaps, I won’t give out the same expression or reaction every time, but I tend to like to have a little bit of change every now and then, because even my own emotions cannot be the same every time I’m faced with a similar event. Of course, if that’s a requirement (giving out same the expression or reaction), then I will definitely try my best to comply.
Sohu: Would you give an example of your favourite actor or your favourite style of acting?
LYF: I like to act relatively peculiar roles similar to those acted by Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio – pretty much character with a strong personality and impression.
Sohu: But your acting method isn’t like theirs.
LYF: Of course my method is not as good as theirs.
Sohu: They all used very westernized methods of performance.
LYF: I like their stage presence. If I used the westernized method, I definitely cannot act like them especially since our ways of living is different. This westernized method of acting would not be well-received in Mr. Six or any other Chinese film for that matter because it would seem out of place since a character portrayed with this method does not exist in our daily lives (in China). If the character is supposed to be an overseas Chinese student, then this method would work perhaps. I think their personality (Johnny Depp et al) overwhelms the characters they portrayed in general – they’re able to use their charisma to magnify the foundation of the characters in which they portrayed.
Sohu: So for example, the westernized method can be considered for characters such as the Monkey King, but not for the characters in Mr. Six.
LYF: Yes. What you’re saying is correct.
Sohu: Do you feel that importance over artistic performances is deteriorating in the current industry?
LYF: Perhaps just like Director Feng said, everyone has to look at the box office because no one really knows how the market is like, not even Hollywood knows. Therefore, no one can confidently say that the market would absolutely love this or that movie. I agree with Director Feng very much in the perspective that although people like new directors or new genres of films now, the older generation of directors still should not just blindly follow the mass. The older generation also has their own specialty that they could bring to the table. We need a wider variety of directors and directors with specialties. As an actor, this would make it easier for me to understand if I were to collaborate with, say a certain director, I would know what to expect because I know his specialty. The individual directors’ styles are more distinctive over at Hollywood, like David Andrew Leo Fincher for example. Different directors have different filming styles.
We need and should encourage variety. Like actors, we also need a variety of actors with distinctive styles – from sunshine to gentle and feminine to masculine. Having a wide variety could only help the Chinese filming industry to evolve. We shouldn’t just be satisfied to be known for only one genre of films. Right now, we are in a very fortunate position, but the filming industry is still developing, perhaps just as Director Feng said, everything tends to follow with the wind – if this movie has a good box office hit, then all others would simply follow suit. This is a bit like when I was a singer – if this song is popular this year, then all the later compositions would have a similar melody as the popular song. There’s no creativity involved.
Or like us, the younger generation – it is still better for each of us to have our own personality. Perhaps, having individuality would bring a lot of controversy and could easily offend others, creating misunderstandings. However, aren’t everyone praising Jay Chou nowadays for his individuality and even think of him as representing the small voices of public? This is unlike Nicholas Tse’s era where having individuality can be seen as a vice. Hey, even now Nicholas Tse is popular with his cooking show. So now, it’s only Edison Chan that’s left. In fact, time is different now and I think it’s good for each era to have its unique personality and colour. Anyways, at the end of the day, it is good to best display one’s individuality given that it wouldn’t influence others negatively.
Sohu: When Director Guan first looked for you and gave you his promise that this film project would ascend your performance to a whole new level – to put it bluntly, to turn you from an idol actor into a real actor – do you think he has kept his promise? Alternatively, do you think you’ve succeeded?
LYF: I believe that I have portrayed the character that he had in mind. It is up to the media and the audience to decide if I’ve successfully made the switch from an idol actor into a real actor. This is not something that I can comment on hastily. I can claim that I am a “real actor”, but the outcome could dictate that I’m not. I can also say that I’m an “idol actor”, but there would be people who don’t think I look good enough to be an idol. They may even say “how did you become an idol if your face looks like that? Look at who and who. Now, Leonardo DiCaprio is an idol! Look how handsome he is!” One never really knows where he stands on such definitions. I don’t think I need to make the transition from an idol actor to a real actor right away or the vice versa. I just need to give it my all and treat each project with sincerity. I think that would be enough.
Sohu: A lot of people say that Taurus is very ambitious when it comes to career. Do you hold such ambition? For example, like setting a goal to get a certain number of awards within a certain timeframe?
LYF: I don’t think I’m getting the New Film Actor award this year, and of course if I don’t get it this year, then I definitely won’t be getting it next year since I won’t be a new film actor then. Each individual would, no doubt, wish to hear more praises and receive more approvals. This is a natural way of thinking regardless of occupations. If I have the skills and the opportunity to win the award, then why not try and win it? Giving me the award also serves as giving approval to the younger generation. Actually, it is the same if the award is given to someone else, so it doesn’t have to be me.
This is our opportunity. The market and the professionals in the industry are accepting and approving us. Us, the younger generation should always persist and strive – don’t say stuff like “I don’t want it”. Why not take it? If you’re given the opportunity, then you should just go and take it. If you don’t have the capabilities or don’t have the opportunity now, then wait. Wait until the opportunity arrives and take it. Of course, it’s okay if the opportunity happened to slip away. It is your life after all. Like how you are not actually filming a movie just for the sake of winning awards, but you are actually doing it because you enjoy the process and want to enrich yourself. After all, you still have a life outside of filming.