Last time, we looked at three types of male actors who have dominated the Chinese entertainment industry since the 1980s. From Chow Yun Fat’s (周潤發) square-faced hero, to Pu Cunxin’s (濮存昕) down-to-earth officer, to Vic Chou’s (周渝民) flower boy, each group has endeared itself to a different generation of viewers. In the second part of this article, we will continue our look into how the ideal Chinese male aesthetic has transformed in the past 30 years.
4. The Man of Steel
Representatives: Zhang Hanyu, Liu Ye, Hu Jun, Jiang Wen
As shown in the previous three categories, the palates of female viewers tend to shift to the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, and the ebbing tide of the flower boys was no exception. The next group to step up represented mainstream media’s return to masculinity. These so-called men of steel, personified by mainland Chinese actors like Zhang Hanyu (張涵予) and Liu Ye (劉燁), shared similar, irresistible traits: a tall and sturdy figure, a firm expression in their eyes, and a resounding and powerful voice. Unlike the pale-skinned, clean-shaven flower boys of the past, men of steel were of a healthy bronze color and some even had attractive facial hair.
To some, the man of steel can be interpreted as a return to the age of heroes. Lao San, Liu Ye’s character in the film The Underdog Knight <硬漢> and its sequel, could not resist uncovering tricksters when he caught them in the act. Assembly <集結號>, which is hailed as the Chinese version of Saving Private Ryan, showcased the undying devotion of army captain Gu Zidi, portrayed by Zhang Hanyu, toward his unit’s men.
But this new type of hero was different – men of steel did not have to hold a positive or sunny image, nor did their characters speak like they were reciting poetry. Their words were more down-to-earth and occasionally even vulgar, and their hands rarely left their guns. Given the right type of story, men of steel could even portray gang members – an impossible feat for the heroes of the past.
5. The Multi-faceted Heartthrob
Representatives: Huang Xiaoming, Chen Kun, Eddie Peng, Mark Chao, Wen Zhang
With the lingering presence of flower boys, and the satisfying appearance of men of steel, the appetites of female viewers were sated until 2008, when their tastes began to thirst for something more high-end. A new group, the multi-faceted heartthrob, soon emerged.
Heartthrobs were an amalgamation of their predecessors: handsome and exquisite, they had neither the overly effeminate appearance of flower boys, nor the overt manliness of men of steel. They also turned heads due to their ability to take on different types of roles. Mainland Chinese actors Huang Xiaoming (黃曉明) and Chen Kun (陳坤), arguably the two most well-known examples of heartthrobs, have played characters from all over the spectrum: emperors, scholars, generals, and flower boys.
Perhaps in an attempt to subvert their “idol” or “flower boy” labels, heartthrobs have recently taken to attempting bolder, new roles, even if the characters are considered ugly. Huang Xiaoming went for the bearded gang leader look in An Inaccurate Memoir <匹夫>, and completely upended his image by playing a bespectacled loser businessman in American Dreams in China <中國合夥人>. Similarly, Chen Kun accepted wrinkles to portray scientist Qian Xuesen (錢學森) in a biographical film last year, and he will be appearing as an insane 70-year-old doctor in the upcoming Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon <狄仁傑之神都龍王>.
For many, heartthrobs mark an important cornerstone in the Chinese entertainment industry. The current big names have been staying strong, and new members of the group are constantly cropping up, such as mainland Chinese actors Wen Zhang (文章) and Hu Ge (胡歌). Taiwan has also provided well-known additions, with Golden Horse Best Actor Award winner Ethan Ruan (阮經天) leading the pack, along with Mark Chao (趙又廷), Eddie Peng (彭于晏), and Wallace Huo (霍建華).
6. The Fresh-faced Newcomer
Representatives: Chen Xiao, Kai Ko, Lin Gengxin, Jiang Jingfu, Cheney Chen
Although heartthrobs are likely here to stay, the newest batch of popular male actors shows a slight shift from the heartthrob demographic. Young, good-looking, and talented, these fresh-faced newcomers are neither aloof nor arrogant. Rather, they play up their innate cuteness, coming across as perfect lovers to young women, and as endearing sons or nephews to the older generation.
In a time when technology can make or break one’s career, newcomers are adamant about self-marketing. Taiwanese actor Kai Ko (柯震東) and mainland Chinese actors Chen Xiao (陳曉) and Lin Gengxin (林更新) frequently update their Sina Weibo accounts, counting on their good looks and charisma to naturally draw in possible fans.
Unfortunately, the perpetual eye of the media can have drawbacks as well. After his explosion in popularity after starring in You Are the Apple of My Eye <那些年，我們一起追的女孩>, Kai Ko was mostly absent from headlines, except when the news reported about his relationship with singer Elva Hsiao (蕭亞軒). Some felt he was simply lucky to land a starring role in a popular movie, and that it would be difficult for him to repeat his success in the future.
The future of these newcomers may be hard to pinpoint, but many think that Chen Xiao, whose popularity seems to show no bounds, has the potential to become the next Huang Xiaoming. Thanks to the support of his fans and producer Yu Zheng (于正), Chen Xiao’s upcoming productions are almost guaranteed to become a hit. His past works, such as Swordman <笑傲江湖> and Legend of Lu Zhen <陸貞傳奇>, have also been testaments to his acting chops. However, only time will tell if he can attain the long-lasting popularity of someone like Chow Yun Fat, the original square-faced hero.
This is part two of a two-part article series written by Joanna for JayneStars.com.