Long gone are the days where tough guys like Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen dominated the Chinese box office, and in their place, an array of young, fresh-faced, and flawless-looking teen idols known to many as xiao xian rou (little fresh meat). While Ip Man and Police Story will forever remain classics, the power of this new generation of male Chinese actors is not to be underestimated.
Lu Han, a former EXO boy band member, has had over 100 million comments on a single post on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, breaking the Guinness World Records for most comments on a Weibo post; he even crashed the internet when announcing his girlfriend on Weibo in October.
Along with Kris Wu, Yang Yang, and Li Yifeng, the four are considered China’s most influential “little fresh meat” actors, with a combined fan base of over 132 million people, the majority of whom young girls between the ages of 12 and 24.
Beginning 2015, these young, attractive male actors started appearing on the big screen. Without prior acting experiences, Kris Wu starred in Xu Jinglei’s Somewhere Only We Know, and despite criticism on Wu’s acting, the film grossed $37.81 million within the first week, exceeding the director’s expectations.
Shortly after the success of Somewhere Only We Know, another coming-of-age film, Forever Young, featuring pop star Li Yifeng, was released. The film received widespread negative reviews and was rated 4.1 out of 10 on movie review site Douban. Regardless, the box office reached $38.5 million in its three-day opening weekend, five times the national average of other domestic films released in the same period. The same year, Li Yifeng won Best Supporting Actor at the prestigious Hundred Flowers Award for his role in Mr. Six, a drama crime film, which sparked controversy as Li was chosen among more experienced and qualified actors for the award, possibly due to his popularity.
It was no surprise that propaganda films eventually turned to these “little fresh meat” to tap into the unbounded market potential of China’s post-millennials.
When the 2017 film The Founding of An Army was released, it quickly became obvious that almost half of the cast consisted of popular “little fresh meat” actors, including Lu Han, Li Yifeng, Ma Tianyu, and Zhang Yixing. As a film that was commissioned by the Chinese government to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the unusual casting choices were a clear attempt at changing the way propaganda films are traditionally perceived—old-fashioned and non-mainstream—and engaging younger moviegoers who have little interest in the revolutionary history.
Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Andrew Lau, the film has been widely criticized for its casting decisions since opening last July, but the government’s official endorsement and the popularity of the actors still helped it earn approximately $60 million in ticket sales.
However, the relative success of The Founding of An Army was soon overshadowed by Wolf Warriors 2, another patriotic film released on the same day and eventually became the highest-grossing film in China, with ticket sales totaling at $608.6 million. Directed by and starring Kung Fu actor Wu Jing, Wolf Warriors 2 tells the story of a Chinese soldier as he embarks on a special mission in Africa.
It is inevitable that the two films would be compared, and the popularity of The Founding of An Army’s cast members made the success Wolf Warriors 2 uncertain before the release. Director Wu Jing later said in an interview that he does not base casting decisions on an actor’s popularity, or their commercial value; he wants to find the right actors. Interestingly, while Wolf Warriors 2 did not heavily cast xiao xian rou, it did feature Zhang Han, a good-looking young actor who has starred in many idol dramas. In response to critics blaming “little fresh meat” actors for their poor performances in films, Wu encouraged industry professionals to educate the younger actors and be role models for them, instead of overly criticizing their lack of professionalism and acting experiences.
The unexpected success of Wolf Warriors 2 challenged the idea that films with a patriotic theme are less appealing, and do not have the potential to be commercially successful without the help of a star-studded cast. It also begs the question whether casting “little fresh meat” actors has become a shortcut to ensuring box office success, how sustainable the strategy is, and what long-term effects this has on the Chinese film industry. While having attractive young actors play important political figures is certainly refreshing, is it the best way to educate the youth on the country’s most important historical events?
Additional research by Chen Zeng.