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Yao Chen on the Search for Chinese Talent in Shanghai and the Bond She’s Formed with the UFC’s Zhang Weili

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Officially, Yao Chen was a part of the team judging the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival’s Projects initiative for in-development productions, but the actress-producer freely admits she came to town keen — as ever — to take on as many roles as possible.

Yao was also actively seeking out production opportunities for her Bad Rabbit Pictures, as well as possible acting turns for herself. And she was looking for talent to work with in the future.

Yao’s career has been built on such hits as 2018’s Lost, Found, the wildly successful TV series All Is Well (2019), and the critically acclaimed feature Send Me to the Clouds (2019). Her social media community has hovered around the 100 million followers mark. She arrived in town having recently finished shooting her latest film, the Li Yu-directed After Typhoon, a female-led, against-the-elements drama is that is already capturing attention in China because which features the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Zhang Weili in what is the mixed martial arts world champion’s first acting role.

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Yao talked to THR about how fests like SIFF offer the opportunity to scout new talent and projects for her and her production company, and the bond she’s formed with Weili: “Watching her work so hard inspires me.”

How important has SIFF been to your own career as an actress and a producer?

I can’t actually remember the first time I came to SIFF but it was so important to me when [2019’s] Send Me to the Clouds was selected [for the Asian New Talents competition] because that came at an important time with the launch of my company. Being up for Best Film [in SIFF’s main Golden Goblet competition] for Lost, Found was the same feeling. This recognition is so important and it shows that your work is being recognized. I still haven’t won an award here yet though and that makes me hungry to do so.

What role do you think the festival plays in terms of Chinese cinema?

It really recognizes creativity and the very best in Chinese cinema — and that’s why it is so important to us.

You’re working for the festival but do you also cast your eye around as a producer for talent you like to work with?

Oh yes definitely. Over the years I have also participated in new projects programs, like SIFF Projects, but this is my first time working on a jury and judging them. As well as enjoying all this new talent I find new inspiration or even new team members at them, and I walk away wanting to start new adventures with all these new talents. Also, as an actress there’s even a chance to become involved in some of these projects. We’ve seen a lot of diversity in content and in the past we’ve even invested in five projects from such programs, so I think they are a great opportunity for everyone.

How have you approached the role as a jury member?

The first thing I would do is use my instincts to look at the projects purely from an audience’s point of view. What would the emotional experience of the project be? Then I would look at the script — how it is shaped, but also how it deals with the characters and how easily it is for an audience to connect with them. I also look at what type of person the director is and what they want to express with this story. Basically, I try to judge on a combination of all three things.

You’ve just come off the set of Next Typhoon with Zhang Weili. What can you tell us about that relationship?

We’ve actually been training together for two years. We have a really good relationship. Before I started training with Weili I never thought I could do combat sports. You know, I thought you had to be really big, with huge muscles, to train that way, but that’s not the case at all. As soon as we started training, I realized it’s not so much about your body as it is about your mind. You are not competing against another person, you’re competing against yourself. She’s so diligent and spends so much time perfecting her art yet she enjoys it some much. I have learned a lot from her.

Anything you can take into the film world?

I think in life you can be inspired by so many different people and their different qualities. Just watching her work so hard inspires me to do the same.

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