Modest role for Chinese actress due to cuts

Kong: Skull Island's director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and actress Jing Tian (above).
Kong: Skull Island's director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and actress Jing Tian (above). PHOTO: WARNER BROS
Kong: Skull Island's director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (above) and actress Jing Tian.
Kong: Skull Island's director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (above) and actress Jing Tian. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Actress Jing Tian is a movie star in her native China, having appeared in Police Story 2013 with Jackie Chan and in The Warring States (2011) with Francis Ng before making her English-language debut in The Great Wall (2016), the Zhang Yimou film starring Matt Damon and Andy Lau.

But in her latest movie, Kong: Skull Island, her character - one of the scientists sent to track down the giant ape Kong - hardly does or says a thing.

She is a prime example of what Chinese critics derisively term hua ping, or Chinese for "vases" - actresses whose roles are so insignificant, they amount to little more than set decoration.

The term has taken on new meaning as Hollywood casts more Chinese actors in supporting roles so that its blockbusters can be better marketed in the lucrative Chinese market.

At a Kong: Skull Island press event in Los Angeles last month, The Straits Times asks director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Max Borenstein why the 28-year-old actress does not have a bigger role in the film, or if she originally had a meatier role that ended up being cut.

Borenstein says: "There was a little bit more in the script, but it becomes, as with any of these things, a matter of real estate in the movie because of time."

He concedes that Jing's biologist character San Lin and her fellow scientist Houston Brooks, played by Straight Outta Compton (2015) star Corey Hawkins, are there mainly to explain key elements in the story (although even here, Hawkins has more dialogue than her).

"You've got a big ensemble of characters and (with her) being one-half of that science team, the challenge with them is not to make it a 100 per cent exposition or speculation about the creatures, but that becomes a lot of what they end up being there to do," says the writer, who also penned Godzilla (2014).

Despite her modest role, the actress, who did not attend the press day with her co-stars, has received lavish praise from Vogt-Roberts, 32.

The director, who previously directed the indie comedy Kings Of Summer (2013), says: "I wish there was more of her in the movie. The reason her fans love her so much is because she's so emotive and expressive and can do so much, and I'm excited for where they might take her character (in any sequels).

"Unfortunately, when you make a movie like this, there are so many different threads and plot lines and you really have to boil it down to what's absolutely necessary. There were a lot of moments I had to cut that I loved."

Asked what it was like to work with Jing, he says she was "such a pro and so committed", although he admits "it's so hard with the language barrier to really understand someone".

But he reveals that there was a moment when the rest of the cast and crew realised they had not fully appreciated what she was like as a performer or a person.

"We were out one night and saw her dancing - she was trained as a dancer - and she was just so alive and full of energy, and it's so in contrast with this beautiful, proper, talented but quiet person that you meet.

"And we all realised she's funnier, smarter and more alive than all of us ever knew."

Alison de Souza

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline Modest role for Chinese actress due to cuts. Subscribe