Yu Nan

It’s no surprise that the team behind The Expendables 2 should want to bring a Chinese actress onboard. The first instalment of The Expendables – the testosterone-fuelled fight-fest that saw Sylvester Stallone and his merry band of action men, including Jason Statham, Bruce Willis and Jet Li, trotting round the globe, hunting down bad guys – was a huge success in China.

The film grossed more here than in any other country outside of America – a nice little sum of 217 million RMB. It was rumoured the sequel would be shot partly in China or be a co-production (presumably, so the American studio could guarantee a bigger share of the revenue from Chinese cinemas). And while that didn’t come to pass, they did manage to bag another Chinese name to join Li on the credit list.

But if they were looking purely to appeal to the Chinese market, their choice of actress Yu Nan is a strange one. Far from being an A-lister either in or outside China, she is best known on the international arthouse circuit for her collaborations with Wang Quanan, a Sixth Generation director.

The pair met when Wang was visiting Beijing Film Academy and came across a teacher admonishing a class; each student had bowed their head in shame, save for Yu Nan, who glared back defiantly. He cast her then and there as the feisty lead in his directorial debut, Lunar Eclipse; her role as a shy, retiring wife by day and a wild party animal by night won her Best Actress at the Deauville Asian Film Festival and her first recognition on the international stage.

More Best Actress awards would follow – at the 2004 Festival Paris Cinéma for The Story of Ermei (also known as Jingzhe) and the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival for Tuya’s Marriage, where her role as a love-torn shepherdess also won her a nomination at the heavyweight Berlin International Film Festival. Clearly, the girl can act – which begs the question: what the hell is she doing in The Expendables 2?

Even she seems incredulous. ‘[When] my agent told me that The Expendables 2 needed an Asian actress and they finally chose me, I was really flattered. This is the first real “big production” I have acted in,’ she says. Although it is not her first foreign film – she previously played the main love interest in the gritty 2003 French film Fureur and had a walk-on part in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008) – this is her first real crack at breaking Hollywood.

The studios and the actress herself are keeping tight-lipped over what her role will actually involve, except to say that most of her scenes will be opposite Sylvester Stallone and that her character, Maggie, will be the first woman to join the Expendables as a full, gun-toting member. Yu had to train hard for this kick-ass part.

‘We’d shoot from 5am-5pm, then I would take a two-hour stunt class. I was so tired,’ she explains. It’s not the first time she’s put in extra hours for a role: for Fureur, she ‘worked her ass off’ for three months studying French and for Tuya’s Marriage, she learned to ride a horse and camel, as well as herd sheep. At least this time, she could look to Stallone for inspiration. ‘He really impressed me, that at his age, he still does all his own stunts. I really admire that,’ she gushes.

So, does this newfound admiration for action-acting signal a change in career direction? Not necessarily. ‘I don’t divide up films,’ claims the actress. ‘I don’t see myself as someone specialising in arty films or someone who only plays certain roles. If like the script, I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an action film or an emotional drama.’

When we broach the subject of Hollywood typecasting, and suggest she was perhaps picked for The Expendables because the only role available for Asian actresses is ‘sexy action chick’, it becomes clear that her media training is as intensive as her stunt classes: she neatly sidesteps the question. ‘Isn’t that a good thing? I don’t think it’s a limit. It means we have something good that Hollywood really needs! You don’t usually see Chinese kung fu films casting white actors, right?’ she retorts with a gentle laugh.

If the line-up of films Yu Nan has worked on since shooting The Expendables 2 is anything to go by, it seems she is still committed to serious, psychological dramas. In Qin Ai (Beloved)due out in 2013, she plays a woman dealing with the death of her foster mother and arrival of her birth mother, while in the upcoming Buruqi de Nuren (literally ‘Breast-feeding Woman’ – there’s no English title), she plays a rural woman looking after the child of two migrant workers. She’s also starring in Black South-Easter (2012), a South African crime thriller. If all you needed to guarantee worldwide stardom was working hard and acting well, Yu Nan would be a household name by now.

Whether the release of The Expendables 2 will finally be her big international break, whether she’ll be the next Gong Li (or perhaps Lucy Liu, given her proficiency with weapons), remains to be seen. But whatever happens, we hope she won’t turn her back on the kind of independent movies that turned judges’ heads all those years ago.

First appeared in Time Out Beijing on September 26, 2012.