Born and raised in the northeastern city of Dalian in China, Yu Nan studied at the Beijing Film Academy, where she was noticed by Wang Quan’an, a visiting alumnus looking to cast the lead role of his feature film debut. The story goes that he entered a classroom where the teacher was reprimanding students, all of them bowing their heads in shame, except Yu Nan who audaciously held hers high, staring back in defiance. Wang was won over both artistically and sentimentally, and the two would share the following ten years of their life, on and off screen. As early as her debut performance as a woman with a double life in Wang’s Lunar Eclipse (1999) Yu Nan gained international attention : she won the best actress award at the Deauville Asian Film Festival in France. There she attracted the attention of French director Karim Dridi who cast her in Fureur (2003), an interracial love story set in the Parisian Chinatown. Already not one to half-ass any role, Yu learned French so as to not have to speak her lines phonetically ; later she nurtured her mastery of the language by sharing an apartment in Beijing for a few years with a French-speaking Italian.
Her next two films with Wang Quan’an formed a diptych on marriage in China : The Story of Ermei (2004) – about a country girl who runs away to the city after being forced into an arranged marriage – earned her four acting prizes in France and China, while Tuya’s Marriage (2006) – on the divorce an re-marriage of a young Inner Mongolian sheep-herder – won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and netted her two awards, in China and the United States. The following year she collaborated with Wang Quan’an’s fellow Sixth Generation director Wang Xiaoshuai on another Festival darling, In Love we Trust, before stepping out of the arthouse for the first time, with supporting roles in the Taiwanese romantic comedy My DNA Says I Love You starring Eddie Peng and the Canadian-Chinese adventure film Diamond Dogs, a low-budget Dolph Lundgren vehicle that went straight to video everywhere outside of China. Her 2008 output perfectly epitomized her growing defiance of pigeonholing as she took both a lead role in an arthouse Chinese film (Zhao Tianyu’s intriguing foodie psychological thriller Deadly Delicious, for which she received an award at the Beijing Student Film Festival) and a supporting role in a Hollywood blockbuster (the Wachowskis’ audacious but wildly unsuccessful Speed Racer).
2009 saw the release of Weaving Girl, her last film for Wang Quan’an, again an examination of the fragility of marriage in contemporary China, in which she played a woman who after being diagnosed with cancer runs away from an unhappy marriage to find her first love. Shortly after the shoot she parted ways with Wang, an artistic and personal break-up she initiated, by her own admission, because she yearned for more freedom. This parting of ways with the man who had kickstarted her career, and of whom she had been the muse, signaled the beginning of a new career for Yu Nan, one in which she would prove to have acquired exactly the freedom she wanted. She kicked off the 2010s with her first action role, in Gao Qunshu’s neo-western Wind Blast, in which she was paired up with Francis Ng as a duo of silent assassins and traded blows with martial arts star Wu Jing.
Then came two vastly different comedies, the glitzy Sleepless Fashion with Vic Zhou and Vivian Hsu, and Guan Hu’s satirical Design of Death, where she played a mute widow opposite Huang Bo and Simon Yam. In 2012, her fluency in English (acquired thanks to her grandmother who was an English teacher, and to friendship with an American student in Beijing) and her athletic abilities came in handy when she was cast in The Expendables 2 as a member of Sylvester Stallone’s team of action heroes, a role for which she did her own stunts and proved to be one of those few people with enough poise to shoot with a machine gun without blinking, according to the film’s prop gunsmith. She hasn’t done a Hollywood film in the years since, though she was considered for the role of Ada Wong in Resident Evil : Retribution (a role which ended up going to Li Bingbing).
Interestingly, her last film that year was a South-African crime thriller, the little-seen Cold Harbour, making her the first high-profile Chinese actress to ever act in a South-African film. After 2012 the balance between arthouse festival darlings and mainstream genre films started tilting towards the latter. In an interview with Time Out Beijing, she declared “I don’t divide up films, I don’t see myself as someone specialising in arty films or someone who only plays certain roles. If I like the script, I’ll do the film. It doesn’t matter if it’s an action movie or an emotional drama.” In 2013 and 2014, after two intimate dramas – Li Xinman’s ambitious BeLoved and Yang Yazhou’s inscrutable Feed Me – she raised her profile further by appearing in a string of critical and commercial hits, from Fei Xing’s courtroom thriller Silent Witness and Ning Hao’s neo-western No Man’s Land, to Chen Sicheng’s romantic anthology Beijing Love Story and Tsui Hark’s wartime adventure The Taking of Tiger Mountain. Lost in that A-list shuffle was the numbingly stupid and relatively unseen jungle actioner Angel Warriors, her third fighting role. Which brings us to 2015, where she typically stretched, appearing both as a stern commanding officer in Wu Jing’s highly successful Wolf Warriors and a lovelorn single mother in the slightly sickening romantic comedy Lovers & Movies.
There’s a real freedom to Yu Nan’s filmography. She has been in Chinese, Taiwanese, American, French and South-African films, she has paraded as much in festivals around the world as at the top of box office charts. Her talent has led her to work with some of the most celebrated Chinese directors (Wang Quan’an, Wang Xiaoshuai, Tsui Hark, Ning Hao…) and to consistently earn acting awards. Physically, her grounded beauty allows her to switch effortlessly and convincingly from wholesome to sultry, from plain to glamorous. Truly, her career is defined by challenges (learning French, camel-riding, martial arts…) and reinvention (action lady and arthouse muse) rather than by labels and social exposure : her private life is a mystery and she doesn’t sing (yet). It’s a varied, unpredictable career for a wonderful actress, and it’s just beginning.
FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS
Lunar Eclipse (1999 – Wang Quan’an) – Best Actress Award at the Deauville Asian Film Festival
Fureur (2003 – Karim Dridi)
The Story of Ermei (2004 – Wang Quan’an) – Golden Phoenix Award for Best Actress, Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress, Jury Award at the Beijing Student Film Festival & Best Actress Award at the Paris Film Festival
Tuya’s Marriage (2006 – Wang Quan’an) – Silver Hugo for Best Actress at the Chicago International Film Festival, Chinese Film Media Award for Best Actress
My DNA Says I Love You (2007 – Yun Chan Lee)
Diamon Dogs (2007 – Shimon Dotan)
In Love We Trust (2008 – Wang Xiaoshuai)
Speed Racer (2008 – The Wachowskis)
Deadly Delicious (2008 – Zhao Tianyu) – Students’ Choice Award for Favorite Actress at the Beijing Student Film Festival
Looking for Jackie (2009 – Fang Gangliang & Jiang Ping)
Weaving Girl (2009 – Wang Quan’an) – Asian Pacific Screen Award Nomination for Best Actress
Wind Blast (2010 – Gao Qunshu)
Sleepless Fashion (2011 – Yin Lichuan)
Child Lost (2012 – Kang Zhanghao)
Design of Death (2012 – Guan Hu)
The Expendables 2 (2012 – Simon West)
Cold Harbour (2012 – Carey McKenzie)
Feed Me (2013 – Yang Yazhou)
BeLoved (2013 – Li Xinman)
Silent Witness (2013 – Fei Xing) – Hundred Flowers Award Nomination for Best Actress
Angel Warriors (2013 – Fu Huayang)
No Man’s Land (2013 – Ning Hao) – China Film Directors’ Guild Award Nomination for Best Actress
Beijing Love Story (2014 – Chen Sicheng)
Wolf Warriors (2015 – Wu Jing)
Lovers & Movies (2015 – Niu Chaoyang)
Male Joy / Female Love (2015 – Huang Yao)
Blood of Youth (2016 – Yang Shupeng)
Lord of Shanghai I & II (2017 – Sherwood Hu)
Lost in the Moonlight (2017 – Xia Gang)
Wolf Warrior 2 (2017 – Wu Jing)
Explosion (2017 – Chang Zheng)
Catching Monkey (2017 – Peter Mak & Tsui Hark)
Fierce Police (2017 – Huang Huan)
Time Out Beijing : http://tinyurl.com/nqvlely
Time Out Shanghai : http://tinyurl.com/pff2rvm
The Chinese Mirror : http://tinyurl.com/q36k7cv