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    She’s China’s Biggest Director. Can Jia Ling Finally Get Some Respect?

    The mastermind behind “Hi, Mom” and “Yolo” is one of the most popular and bankable directors in the world. So why is everyone still talking about her body?
    Feb 29, 2024#TV & film

    Jia Ling should be on top of the world. “Yolo,” the actress and director’s follow-up to her 2021 hit “Hi, Mom,” just dominated the Lunar New Year box office. She’s one of the most successful and bankable filmmakers working today. Even her choice to lose 110 pounds for her role in “Yolo,” though initially controversial, has largely been hailed by fans.

    So why was she crying? In behind-the-scenes footage from the making of “Yolo” — the film’s English title is a reference to “you only live once” — Jia is walking down a long hallway when she catches sight of herself in the mirror and starts to tear up. Recalling her conflicted emotions on set in an interview with state media outlet Xinhua: “That hallway was 12 meters long, but I realized then that I’d probably spent a year walking that path, or perhaps 42 years.”

    Once a full-figured comedian typecast as an unlucky-in-love best friend or mildly raunchy clown, the press tour for “Yolo” has been a coming-out party of sorts for Jia, who trimmed down and bulked up to play Du Leying, the loner-turned-boxer at the center of the film. But Jia’s stunning physical transformation was a red herring. This was always her true self: a perceptive filmmaker with the potential to rewrite the rules of China’s film industry. Except nobody bothered to notice until now.

    Even prior to the success of “Hi, Mom,” which earned 5.4 billion yuan ($750 million) at the box office and temporarily made her the highest-grossing female director in the world for a single film, Jia was one of China’s most popular comedians. That said, her rise was far from preordained. Born into a working-class family in the small central Chinese city of Xiangyang, she failed the national college entrance exam for art students on her first try before redoing her senior year and testing into the crosstalk program at the Central Academy of Drama.

    The world of crosstalk — a traditional comic art form from Beijing involving a back-and-forth routine by two performers — is as male-dominated as it is insular. And after graduating, she was unable to find a steady job, instead making ends meet as a host and personal assistant before landing a position with the China Broadcasting Performing Arts Troupe in 2005.

    There, while learning under Feng Gong, a master of the crosstalk form, Jia’s career took off. She won awards at competitions organized by China Central Television, had a starring role in a popular Beijing sketch show, and appeared in CCTV’s 2010 Spring Festival Gala — the most-watched television program of the year. Of the 10 women enrolled in her initial crosstalk course, Jia is the only one still working in the sketch comedy industry.

    In the span of five years, Jia had gone from unknown to a household name, but her relentless performance schedule was taking a physical toll. Although she always had an average build, she talked in a recent interview about feeling intense pressure to lose weight to better meet the industry’s expectations for female on-camera talent. These diets played havoc on her body, causing her to break out in rashes and experience other serious health problems.

    Nevertheless, she continued to diet, but the pressure of her filming and touring obligations caused her weight to balloon. What came next was unexpected: Rather than cost Jia her career, her new figure made her more popular than ever.

    Her chubbiness and the lack of sexual appeal it implied gave her a particularly universal charm. Her fans, who took to calling her Pistachio — literally “happy fruit” in Chinese — liked to joke that she was the only woman who could profess her love for stars like Andy Lau or Jerry Yan without arousing the ire of their famously jealous fanbases.

    But this also robbed her comedy of its bite. Jia only ever made fun of herself, and her weight was the butt of almost every joke. This extended to her nascent film career, in which she exclusively played supporting roles and comic relief. She was more famous than ever, even as — or perhaps because — no one took her seriously.

    That’s why, when she finally got the chance to star in a film of her own making, expectations were low despite her fame. The resulting film, “Hi, Mom,” benefitted from strong word-of-mouth reviews on its way to becoming a surprise hit, taking in billions at the box office. Yet the movie, which explored the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, was dismissed as a fluke by the male-dominated industry.

    Her latest hit has received a similarly cold reception in some corners, with critics complaining that Jia used her weight loss as a marketing gimmick.

    It’s an unwinnable game, the rules of which are familiar to any woman. Gain weight, and no one takes you seriously. Lose weight, and you’re just making a play for attention. The criticisms are also flatly untrue. Jia spent three years writing and revising the screenplay for “Hi, Mom,” producing over 1 million words for what ultimately became a 30,000-word script. For “Yolo,” she first gained 40 pounds to make her character’s social isolation more believable. As she filmed, she rewrote the script to incorporate details from her own life to make her character’s transformation more believable.

    Neither “Hi, Mom” nor “Yolo” are complicated films: The former centers around the mutual appreciation and support between mother and daughter, the latter on the need to reconcile with disappointment, misunderstanding, and social ridicule. But they aren’t simplistic, either. They’ve resonated with such a wide audience because they reflect something real. They are female-centric films that unabashedly challenge the male gaze. And their box office success proves that the industry’s longstanding truisms — that female-led movies will fail and that actresses must look a certain way to be appealing — are false.

    It’s a shame that so much of the discourse around Jia’s work centers around her figure. But I suppose it’s also fitting. She’s made two films that honor the diverse and nuanced lives of contemporary Chinese women, and she did it by reclaiming what’s hers: her career, her story, and her body.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Wu Haiyun.

    (Header image: Jia Ling showcases boxing movements to an audience at a movie theater in Xiangyang, Hubei province, Feb. 15, 2024. VCG)