Singapore Film Fest: Yao Chen on Producing Her Own Films, Ageism in the Chinese Film Industry

Courtesy of SGIFF
Yao Chen in 'Send Me To The Clouds'

The phenomenally popular Chinese actress, who won SGIFF's cinema icon award, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her new film 'Send Me to the Clouds,' the first release from her production company.

Yao Chen's stellar year continued Saturday as the Chinese star received the Singapore International Film Festival's (SGIFF) cinema icon award.

The 40-year-old actress, philanthropist, social media influencer and newly minted producer provided the wattage at the 30th SGIFF awards ceremony held at the National Museum of Singapore. Yao was recognized for a career that has encompassed a wildly popular television series (Lurk) and award winning films (All is Well).

To further celebrate Yao, SGIFF also screened her latest film Send Me to the Clouds, a role which won Yao the best actress award at this year's Tokyo Film Festival and a nomination at the Golden Rooster Awards.

The debut film from director Teng Congcong, Send Me to the Clouds, stars Yao as a single woman who finds out she has ovarian cancer, news that sets her off on a journey of self — and of sexual — discovery. 

The issues and situations raised — such has how China’s “leftover” or unmarried women are considered by society — are tackled in a manner that is both refreshingly frank and tinged with wicked humor. In traditionally conservative China, the film and the issues it raises continue to set Internet chat rooms alight. Little wonder considering Yao has a social media following of around 80 million people.

In a Q&A session with a post-screening audience at the SGIFF — and later during a quick sit-down chat with The Hollywood Reporter — Yao offers that she has been delighted by the response to the film, as much as she was to tackle a character that was “very close to my heart.”

“Good cinema crosses all barriers of culture, of language, of issues, so it’s great that this film does that,” says Yao.

There’s been a great response to Send Me to the Clouds, which is your first as a producer. What made you take on this new challenge and start your own production company?

I realized that in many countries, including China, there is a shortage of roles for actresses aged between 30 and 40. The role of an actor is usually passive but the current state of the industry and society has prompted some of us to be more active instead. Many talented actresses overseas are also taking on the role of a producer, including Nicole Kidman and Lucy Liu, and I want to be like them. I also hope to be able to choose my own projects, and to leverage the role of a producer to chart my own artistic direction. That way I can be part of projects which express more of my own thoughts and feelings.

Were you expecting that the film would find an audience and why do you think it has struck a chord?

It’s a film from a first-time director and it’s a low-budget production, so we didn’t have high expectations but it’s resonating wherever it screens. In China the issues we raise have resonated and the film has become a hot topic that has been discussed nationwide. Many women have been using this film as a platform through which to share many thoughts and feelings about love, relationships and sex which were previously not shared publicly. So I think the film has given these women the strength to express themselves.

What attracted you to your role and to the storyline of Send Me to the Clouds?

The script moved me a lot with its realistic portrayal of every character. It also relates to many people around us. These characters are like the people who could be standing right next to you. At the same time, it has a dark sense of humor, which I particularly like. The role had many areas though which I could express myself creatively. There were many scenes where I could reflect on what I have experienced and what I have come to understand about life. When I read the script, I also thought about how it was a different type of film. So when people started talking about it, and it became a hot topic, I guess it was a surprise, but also not a surprise as there are not many Chinese films that examine themes related to female characters pursuing love and sex.

Are you looking to explore more such themes and productions?

What we should be seeing is female-centric themes running through films of all types and scales of films. They shouldn’t just be found in smaller, independent type films. As for our company, we are still quite new so we would like to start with these small-scale films first to gain experience and then we want to explore bigger-scale films in the future.

What are some of your upcoming plans?

I have a few projects in the pipeline. This includes another debut feature for a director that involves all non-actors performing, which I will also produce. In addition, I’ll also be involved in a commercial TV series about police investigations. We have just finished writing the script for it. But what we are finding with the production company is that it will take some time for us to [come up with] original storylines.

It’s been a huge year for you in terms of work, your travels to festivals and your awards. How are you feeling about your career — and your life?

Well I’ve always tried to explore as many different roles as possible, right from the start. But I have also had doubts and questions about whether I should ever have become an actress. There have been many situations when I wanted to just switch jobs and give up. But I continue to be attracted to the spotlight that’s projected onscreen and the many human characteristics and relationships we can explore as actors. I think that’s why I have continued on this journey.