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    Jia Ling’s Latest Hit Sparks a Debate About Body Image in China

    The popular actor-director behind “Hi, Mom” dropped 110 pounds to make her latest film, “Yolo.” Some critics worry that the negatives of that choice outweigh the positives.
    Feb 14, 2024#TV & film

    Imagine if Greta Gerwig declared she was not just casting herself to star in her next film, but also planning to lose upwards of 100 pounds to play the role.

    A similar scenario has played out in China over the past few weeks, as Jia Ling, the actor-director behind the massive 2021 blockbuster “Hi, Mom,” shared her story of losing 110 pounds to make her latest film, “Yolo.”

    The film, which takes its English name from the phrase “you only live once,” centers on a reclusive woman, played by Jia, who takes up boxing after feeling disconnected from society. But while Jia has emphasized that the film is not about weight loss or makeovers, talk of Jia’s physical transformation dominated discussions of the movie after its release late last week, with “Jia Ling lost 110 pounds,” “Jia Ling’s abs,” and “Jia Ling is really shocking” all trending on social media platform Weibo as critics accused her of promoting “body image anxiety.”

    “It is normal for a celebrity to lose weight since she has a professional team behind her, so using it for marketing only causes body anxiety for ordinary individuals,” reads one representative comment on Weibo.

    In response, Jia has defended her decision to lose the weight, saying she had not intended to promote any particular body type, but to show her character’s mental and physical transformation. “I hope that the audience sees that she has become stronger, not just thinner,” Jia said in an interview with Chinese media Saturday.

    It’s not unusual for professional actors to lose or gain weight for roles, but there are few examples of female actors undertaking such a radical transformation in China. According to Jia, who said she started by gaining 44 pounds to make the eventual transformation seem more stark, she was motivated in part by the feeling that her previous physique had typecast her, limiting her options as an actor to “happy and carefree” women.

    “I’ve always given audiences a happy vibe, and they’ve sympathized with me, so if I gain weight it just seems cute,” she said in the interview. “(I had to) make audiences look at me differently, to get free of my previous image and break down their deep-rooted impressions of me.”

    At least some moviegoers came away convinced. Li Ran, a 32-year-old Shanghai resident, said she went into the theater concerned that the film would aggravate her own body anxieties. “Jia’s weight loss had been pushed throughout the promotion cycle,” she told Sixth Tone Tuesday. But she walked away impressed by Jia’s performance, not just in the film, but in interviews and public appearances since the controversy broke.

    As of publication “Yolo” had grossed over 1.8 billion yuan ($250 million) at the Spring Festival box office, according to industry platform Maoyan.

    The film’s success likely comes as a relief to Jia, who has been open about the costs of her diet while making the film, saying that she was “so hungry and tired” that the yearlong shoot felt much longer.

    “I managed to lose 110 pounds and get the look of a boxer,” Jia wrote on social media in early January. “The night we finished shooting, I sat alone on the edge of the bed, the moon shining on my back, and I ate five packs of 30 chocolate wafers, shirtless.”

    (A poster for “Yolo.” From Douban)