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Although he’s virtually unknown in the West, 25-year-old Chinese pop star-turned-screen neophyte Lu Han has emerged as the de facto face of Hollywood in China.
Last Tuesday, Disney revealed that Han had been named the “official ambassador” for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in China. This uncommon title comes with obvious weight: The pic is all but certain to be the biggest international movie of 2016, and China is now the world’s second-largest movie market.
In his capacity as Star Wars “ambassador,” according to Disney, Han will serve as an honorary member of the “Jedi Order” in China, appearing in local advertising spots and at promotional events, while a special remix and music video for his forthcoming single “The Inner Force” will be the official Chinese promotional theme song for Force Awakens.
Han is also putting his personal brand to work on behalf of DreamWorks Animation. On Wednesday, he released “Deep,” a music video promoting Kung Fu Panda 3, the much-anticipated U.S.-China co-production from the Oriental DreamWorks joint venture. The video, in Mandarin and English, was directed by Raman Hui, the filmmaker behind Monster Hunt, which became the highest-grossing pic ever in China over the summer (video below).
Next, Han will appear opposite Matt Damon and Willem Defoe in director Zhang Yimou’s period epic The Great Wall, from Thomas Tull’s Legendary Pictures — arguably the second most-anticipated U.S.-China collaboration of 2016 behind the Kung Fu Panda sequel.
So, who is this Chinese pop phenom, and why are so many Hollywood heavyweights banking on him?
Thank to his boyish looks, messy mop of hair and legions of young female fans spanning Asia, Han has often been described as the Chinese answer to Justin Bieber. Born and raised in Beijing, he pursued university studies abroad in South Korea, where he was scouted to become a founding member of South Korean-Chinese boy band EXO. In October 2014, Han broke from the group and began a solo career, as well as a transition into film acting, starring in 20 Once Again and The Witness. Both films became sizable hits in China over the summer (20 Once Again grossed just under $60 million; The Witness opened to $17.8 million, topping Ant-Man in its second week).
Perhaps more valuable to Disney and DreamWorks, Han has cultivated an influential celebrity brand on Chinese social media. He counts nearly 12 million followers on Weibo and holds the Guinness World Record for most comments on a single Weibo post (the tweet in question concerned British soccer club Manchester United, also wildly popular in China). His post announcing his Star Wars gig last week — “I am honored to be the Star Wars ambassador to China, May the Force be with you!” — has been retweeted some 1.5 million times.
Han’s appeal among young female filmgoers may also have been a decisive factor for Disney, as young Chinese women have emerged as an increasingly vital demographic for movie marketers there.
“As a popular young idol, Lu Han is a good fit for our promotional approach for Star Wars,” John Hsu, Disney’s vp and general manager in China, said last week (translated from Chinese). “He’s also a Star Wars super fan himself. I believe he will do a great job at raising the Chinese audience’s anticipation and enthusiasm for The Force Awakens.“
Give it a few years, and Justin Bieber may come to be known as the U.S. answer to Lu Han.
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