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About face

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-03-18 16:04

About face

The mystery of a foreign star's appeal in China deserves more than tabloid coverage. Its unraveling may help shape the face of future global blockbusters and advertising campaigns

Leonardo DiCaprio's win at the 88th Academy Awards did not come as a surprise. It was the way Chinese film fans had been rooting for him that could be a revelation, especially to those in Hollywood. To quote a commentator, "it was as if Leo represented China all along and had been unfairly losing." You would get the idea only if you compare it with the winning of an Olympic athlete - and in a sporting event Chinese truly care about.

Where I used "Leo", the Chinese original was "Little Li", which is an affectionate nickname built on the similarity in sound to the first syllable of his first name. It is a sign of special treatment. Only a few foreign stars have received this unofficial honor. Sure, part of the reason is, his name has a convoluted pronunciation in Chinese, with nine syllables. But an epithet like this often bespeaks something more subtle and profound than even an entry in Wikipedia.

Take Benedict Cumberbatch. The star of the British series Sherlock has a Chinese moniker that sounds nothing like his English name, which would also be a mouthful in full Chinese translation. Instead, it was inspired by his look. I don't know who came up with "Curly Fortune" (Juanfu), but it seemingly captures the persona, or at least how Chinese perceive him.

A nifty pet name in Chinese is the surest sign of a foreign star's popularity in this country. Of course, stars with short and catchy Chinese names have a natural advantage. Nicole Kidman or Keira Knightley, as far as I know, do not have Chinese nicknames, but their Chinese first names have only two syllables.

Rosamund Pike could be the first Western star who is said to have officially commissioned or sanctified a Sinicized name. However, neither the elegant sounding Pei Dunhua nor the person behind it has caught on. Yes, her performance in Gone Girl is frighteningly unforgettable, but the movie was not available in Chinese cinemas.

It has always fascinated me why certain foreign entertainers have a sizable following in China while others, equally accomplished and renowned, simply fly by without registering significantly with the Chinese public. It has come to my attention that one widely exposed piece of work could account more for fame in China than a whole body of work; and a winning persona is more relevant than acting ability.

Four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn is known to few Chinese, but Audrey Hepburn made a lasting impression with Roman Holiday, which was screened in China as late as the 1980s. She came across as the perfect princess - almost like one out of a fairy tale. That explains the occasional appearance of her image licensed for advertising Chinese products - two decades after her death.

I don't think an ordinary Chinese can readily recall a movie - or a television moment for that matter - associated with Marilyn Monroe. But the image plus the Chinese name Menglu, which means "dream exposure" somehow clicks with the public, though what's received on this side of the Pacific could well diverge from the persona in her home country.

After years of unscientific sampling and parsing, I have detected some vaguely meaningful trends in the West-to-East influence of gigantic big-screen luminaries. Western stars who receive a disproportionate share of Chinese love tend to have facial or physical features that seem to be a mix of Caucasians and Asians. French actress Sophie Marceau is a case in point. Her face is not strikingly European, but much softer. At least that's how many Chinese see her.

Most Chinese have very different - sometimes opposite - aesthetics when it comes to feminine beauty. They prefer women to have medium height, lily-white skin and smooth facial features. The supermodel type works only in - well, in the modeling business, where otherness overrules easy relatability. And this applies to Chinese as well. I have seen advertisements of Fortune 500 companies using Asian women with high cheekbones and healthy skin to hawk skin-care products. I could instantly figure out that the ads were designed in New York, not in Beijing or Shanghai, and were definitely not market-tested.

If there was a point in time when Chinese looked up to exotic looking Chinese (or other Asians) as role models for beauty, it was the 1980s when perming your hair and dressing like a foreigner would elicit a wave of envy. But we are so far beyond it that even Chinese-Americans on Hollywood screens do not excite us any more. Otherwise, Lucy Liu and Ming-Na Wen would be raking in big endorsement deals in China.

I don't want to go into depth on this topic because I'd have to start with Anna May Wong, who was very controversial and misunderstood when her fame reached the land of her ancestry.

Chinese filmmakers are probably not rich enough to cherry-pick Hollywood stars for their projects. If they do, DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt could be the top trio of male stars. You may counter "They are the biggest anywhere", but I would not include George Clooney or Tom Hanks even if I move back a decade or two. Again, it may have something to do with the physicality - no matter how elusively hard it is to measure.

When an ordinary Chinese watches a foreign movie or a foreign spokesmodel, he or she would expect a certain level of "foreignness". If it's seamlessly Chinese, they would use a different set of benchmarks for judgment. The "foreignness" of the faces that may win the biggest Chinese audience depends on many variables and may not stay the same, but the trick is a balance between exotica and familiarity, or a fusion of the two. Casting directors and corporate advertisers oblivious to such cross-cultural nuances would risk selecting the wrong talent for their China-targeted products.

If all this sounds illogical or politically incorrect, just reverse the equation and see which Asian stars have better chances in Hollywood movies, and you'll realize that the process of accepting foreignness is gradual.

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