Chloe Maayan wants to meet at a jazz club. This is odd, primarily because the last real Shanghai jazz club, the last to really hark back to the city’s indulgent 1920s (when Shanghai’s intelligentsia first embraced the influx of Western music and movies) closed in 2016. Today, the JZ Club’s ghost resides, for branding purposes only, in a fluorescently-lit concrete complex now called Found 158. Wading through the drunk, Friday night club kids scarfing Homeslice next door, I flick the actress a WeChat message. Is this the right place?
The week before, Maayan’s publicist said that we ought to meet. The two of us reminded her of each other, she thought. We’d both come from academic families in the hard sciences. She’d graduated from the Communication University of China, then finished her studies at Tisch in New York the year I’d moved there. So much in common.
The publicist leaned in. I’m telling you, she is one of the few who can really act. She raised her voice to a loud whisper. Did you know that she put on weight? A sip of tea and pause for effect. For a role? Leaning back again, satisfied with her broadcast: That’s how you know she’s really good.
Is it? Setting aside my ideological outrage that a woman’s appearance – not to mention her weight – could ever be considered a litmus test of talent, the reality remains that ability is certainly no prerequisite for fame, and Chinese actors (both male and female) are increasingly judged on a spectrum of “little fresh meat” (小鲜肉) the hysteria-inducing appeal of baby-faced, delicate, mincing, waifish youth.
But even with her dimples and doe eyes, 30-year-old Maayan is assuredly a woman. A woman with the “audacity” to grab an industry by the balls, to forgo vanity and transform for a role with the same mesmerising decisiveness as Gong Li, the Chinese-born Singaporean actress who has spent a career challenging Chinese film’s projection of women.
The role in question is Maayan’s 2018 take on a sexually-liberated prostitute, ecstatic to be pimped out by her titular Three Husbands. The final installment of Fruit Chan’s prostitution trilogy affords our leading lady few words with which to weave the film’s twisted commentary on modern Hong Kong, but she still succeeds in building a layered character, navigating the trappings of ownership and taking control of female identity on behalf of, what felt like, China’s 700-million-odd women. In true Maayan fashion, this first lead role of her career attracted a Golden Horse nomination (the Chinese language equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Leading Actress. She was the youngest nominee in a category full of multi-award-winning veterans, peddling tried and tested narratives of mobster love, family drama and feuding ancient kingdoms.
With no Golden Horse but three Hong Kong film industry Best Actress wins under her belt, Maayan’s Chinese name has become synonymous with serious acting. Her four-character name is unusual and is typically derived from ancient surnames or transliterated from minority tribes. The rest of us mere mortals go by two or three character names, but not 曾美慧孜 Zeng Mei Hui Zi: a name that reads like “Helen of Troy” or “Joan of Arc” or “Warrior Queen Boudica of the Iceni”. Something to the effect of “Chloe The Intelligent and Industrious One Who We Once Only Acknowledged For Her Beauty But Now We Know Better”.
“I got your message!”
Maayan is breathless, confused, and luminous in iridescent purple make-up when she joins me at the back of the crowded polyester-red-velvet club. “Did the original shut down? I don’t remember it being like this.” Yeah, I say. She wrinkles her nose.
I love your work, I start, lamely. There’s a thorn in her smile. “Did you watch my movie from when I was a kid?” She shrugs, then almost to herself, “I’d wanted to act since I was a child.” Indeed, her first ever film role was at age 14, playing Dong Dong, a university student, in Lou Ye’s sobering Summer Palace (2006). As the film peaks, in the raging chaos of a student demonstration, Dong Dong’s face wrestles to contain the fear and panic of a young adult desperate to know the answers. Her gasping attempt to find words is quietly devastating.
I also watched Three Husbands, I tell her. Maayan perks up. Director Fruit Chan ran his set with military discipline and few takes. “He knows his story and characters so precisely and completely,” she gushes. “I aspire to that laser focus when it’s my time to be on the other side of the camera.” She considers this a little more. “Honestly, actors often have fairly limited room to move on the range of a character. We meet the character through the writer or director, so to speak, and then our job is to complete it.”
It’s here that she senses an immense opportunity for the Chinese film industry. Until recently, “independent film” had been a catch-all phrase for the darkest, grittiest, most bootleg “art films”. They were difficult to watch in contrast to the blockbusters and romantic comedies preferred by audiences. Now, as the West becomes more accepting of Chinese language films and the market begins to open up, a new generation of meaningful storytelling is emerging.
“We, as actors, can take on more of that writing role because it’s a more collaborative process,” she says. “The change demands me to be better, and have more integrity with every script I read.” Honouring the female condition is paramount for Maayan. As more purposeful and less dollar-led storytelling begins to challenge the messages that movies are disseminating to millennial China, the role of women in those narratives is being questioned too.
“When you think about it, women are inherently the best vehicle for a full range of complicated, multi-dimensional, emotional depth. From love through to hatred and everything in between, it really is what is demanded from a leading role.” It’s the same sentiment that drives her interest in one day tackling biographical films. She wants to take on the weight of what an individual has lived, with all its physical and psychological manifestations.
She’s riding solo, too. In a market where even the greenest star comes with a fully-fledged entourage and strings attached, Maayan is a lone ranger without an agent, steadily working her way through every script thrown at her, cherry-picking only 11 over a 16-year career. The large majority have been supporting roles selected, she tells me, for who they are, rather than screen-time or potential accolades.
She’s indifferent to the peculiarity of this approach. “I’m the one who needs to improve myself,” she stresses. “I’m the one who needs to learn new skills.” She believes that a team or middleman would detach her from reality and the people she needs to portray. “I do sometimes feel lost being on my own and have to take a step back to assess whether I should be adopting these industry norms.” But the answer is always no.
In the jazz club, Maayan is impassioned, shouting over Duke Ellington. People around us in the club look over. A girl at the bar whispers to her boyfriend. Isn’t that…? He sneaks a glance. That Chloe? He nudges his mate. That’s “Chloe The Intelligent and Industrious One Who We Once Only Acknowledged For Her Beauty But Now We Know Better”, right? The gig is up.
Outside, Maayan muses on “gaining recognition” as a more “fascinating life experience” than fame. She references Zhang Ziyi’s character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and her outward pursuit of “jiang hu”: literally meaning “rivers and lakes”, but abstractly, a freedom of thought that operates beyond the limitations of mainstream societal structures. “But once she really experiences the world, those boundaries disappear, and she discovers that the real ‘jiang hu’ lies in her self-awareness.”
Shooting her latest film The Wild Goose Lake (2019), which competed for this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, gave Maayan her own philosophical revelation. “I’ll never forget it. We were shooting this scene on a tiny boat on a huge lake at the crack of dawn in May. Every tiny movement we made would just rock the boat so disproportionately.” Her character had to dive into the icy depths, and it wasn’t until later, when reviewing the daily rushes, that she saw how close she’d been to a number of whirlpools forming in the lake. “Every time I think of that scene, I think how close the magic that’s presented by nature is to being dangerous to humans. Film is really that missing link, don’t you think?”
“Between humans and nature?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “Between magic and danger.”
Makeup Regia Lu, Hair Xiangzi, Production Margaret Zhang and Jeffery Sheng