Famed actress Zhang Ziyi’s new TV drama sparks discussion about whether middle-age actresses should play young characters
Published: Jan 12, 2021 10:31 PM

Zhang Ziyi Photo: IC

Chinese film actress Zhang Ziyi took her first foray into TV on Saturday. However, unlike the accolades she has gotten for her performances in films from renowned directors such as Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, the show has gotten many negative responses from viewers who find the 41-year-old actress’s performance as a young teen girl stretching their suspension of disbelief. 

The age discrepancy has sparked heated debate on social media about whether middle-age actresses should play young characters.

As Zhang’s first TV drama, the 68-episode epic Monarch Industry piqued the interest of Chinese viewers when it debuted on Saturday.

The period drama follows the life of a noble princess from her younger years to adulthood, so as the show kicks off Zhang is seen playing the character at 15 and tries her best to act like a teenager, but apparently fails in the eyes of many viewers.

The drama, which has released 12 episodes to date, currently has a 6.0/10 on Chinese media review platform Douban.

Among the tens of thousands of reviews on the platform so far, a significant number of them focus on Zhang’s performance of a much younger role.

“She should have given another younger actress a chance instead of insisting on acting as a teenage when she is 40-something. The character makes me feel uncomfortable,” one review wrote.

Zhang’s performance has sparked yet another hot debate about middle-age actresses on Chinese social media platforms.

Netizens collected other examples of older actresses playing young women, including Zhou Xun and Liu Xiaoqing.

Some voices of opposition said that it was a futile effort for these actresses to ignore their age and insist on playing young roles, while some more encouraging netizens voiced approval, saying it was brave of these actresses to challenge themselves by taking on all kinds of characters and that age is never the foundation of a failed performance.

Shi Wenxue, a cultural critic and teacher at the Beijing Film Academy, agreed with the voices of encouragement, noting that middle-age actresses can play young roles well, but it requires that they find an appropriate character for themselves.

Shi told the Global Times that considering Zhang’s past screen roles, starring in a coming-of-age princess drama she should easily be able to play someone who ascends to the throne. 

The drama’s low marks are not completely due to Zhang’s character. Another major factor is that the palace drama genre has become played out. 

The theme of the drama is about the growth of a woman and the emotional entanglements the woman has with several men. This model of “all men being in love with the lead female character” has become out of date, Shi said.

The 87-episode Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace starring 40-something Chinese actress Zhou Xun also saw a similar dilemma back in 2018.

When Zhou played the character Ruyi, a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) empress as an adolescent, many viewers expressed their dissatisfaction, the Xinmin Evening News reported.