Who’s the busiest Chinese filmmaker in the first half of 2018? The answer is definitely Xu Zheng. In three films of A OR B, HOW LONG WILL I LOVE U and DRUG DEALER, Xu Zheng served as the actor and supervisor at the same time. He could be well praised as the model worker of the year. During this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, the production team of the documentary Movie Chaser followed Xu Zheng to his alma mater-Shanghai Theatre Academy, starting the tracking record of the 6th filmmaker in the 1st season of Movie Chaser. Xu Zheng said that the purpose of returning to school is actually looking for the initial mission.
As a student of Shanghai Theatre Academy who attended the performance class in 1990, Xu Zheng has graduated for 25 years. In this summer, the film DRUG DEALER has become a phenomenon-level popular one, in which Cheng Yong acted by Xu Zheng turned from a poor God oil shopkeeper to a savior for many CML patients. This film has won widespread praise from the audience. Now it is widely discussed on social media how many Best Actor titles Xu Zheng can win via DRUG DEALER. The success of the role-Cheng Yong is definitely not accidental. It is the inevitable achievement attributable to Xu’s insistence on art for many years and his guardianship of initial love for performance.
Returning to Shanghai Theatre Academy to Recall Childhood Spent in Performance
In the third grade of the elementary school, Xu Zheng got the chance to make his debut of performance in life. At that time, because he was relatively cute, well-behaved and good at telling stories, he was selected by the teacher of the Children’s Palace to act as the son of a landlord in the one-act play. After that, he spent almost all of his spare time in the drama group of the Children’s Palace. In the second year of junior high school, Xu Zheng participated in a teleplay. The dubbing for this TV series was completed at Shanghai Theatre Academy. It was the first time that he came to Shanghai Theatre Academy, and it was also for the first time that he knew that there was such school in the world. From then on, he became attached to Shanghai Theatre Academy. In 1990, Xu Zheng successfully entered the Shanghai Theatre Academy, where he completed four years of performance courses and had his first bald head in life.
During the short period of the morning, Xu Zheng returned to the campus’ hair salon and the cafeteria to taste the famous meat buns with the production team…Every year, he would take time to return to his alma mater, not only because “the most important years of youth were spent in college”, but because he wants to come back to experience the initial mission for performance.
From the Theatre, TV Screen to the Film Screen, He has Always Been the Same Actor–Xu Zheng
In 1994, Xu Zheng graduated from Shanghai Theatre Academy and then entered Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center, becoming a professional drama actor. In 1998, Xu Zheng self-directed and acted in two pioneering dramas: CROWDEDNESS and NATIVE LANGUAGE, winning great popularity in the field. Perhaps no one would have thought that what made Xu Zheng popular across China is a costumed mythical comedy – SUNNY PIGGY. He used to feel vexed and helpless because of the label of “Sunny Piggy”, but slowly Xu Zheng began to accept mainstream commercial works and completely open his own perspective, thus gaining more space for art creation.
In 2006, he played the villain Feng Dong in the film CRAZY STONE directed by Ning Hao. While the film turned out a huge success, the three comedy brothers of Xu Zheng, Ning Hao and Huang Bo also officially became attached to each other for film cooperation of more than ten years, during which they jointly created such masterpieces as CRAZY RACER, NO MAN’S LAND and BREAKUP BUDDIES. In 2010, the road comedy LOST IN THAILAND directed and acted by Xu Zheng was screened, which not only refreshed the highest record of Chinese box office at that time, but also made Xu Zheng who directed a film for the first time rank into the billion-yuan-box office club. Creating a character with the identity of a director, and then interpreting it with the identity of an actor—such film creation is a way out for Xu Zheng to make breakthroughs. “Passivity” is the commonality of the actor’s profession. For Xu Zheng, the original intention of being a director is to let himself have a better role to play.
Supporting New Directors and Safeguarding the Initial Mission of Performance
As partnering brothers for many years, Director Ning Hao thinks that Xu Zheng is not only an actor, but also a creator who has been trying to find his own boundary and breaking through such boundary all the while. The new director Wen Muye also commented on Xu Zheng’s performance in DRUG DEALER like that: “Perfect! I’ve never seen Xu Zheng in such way. He’s one of the rare well-rounded actors in China. There’re only a few actors like him in China. ”No matter on the stage, or on the small screen, or on the big screen, Xu Zheng uses actions to present the greatest explosiveness and creativity that an actor can develop. Director, screenwriter, supervisor, producer… All his identities are aimed to guard the initial mission of being an actor.
In the first half year, Xu Zheng put forward three latest works: A OR B, HOW LONG WILL I LOVE U, and DRUG DEALER. The three films all have innovations and breakthroughs in subject and production, and are all films that Xu Zheng cooperated with new directors. He said, “As I get older and become a middle-aged man, I am willing to retreat behind the scenes. If I can do some to help young people, I will have a sense of accomplishment and be very happy.” Once, we thought that LOST IN THAILAND would mark his peak moment in films, but he turned around and started a series of groundbreaking cooperation with new directors; just as we think that he will turn his focus to behind-the-scene work, he came to act in DRUG DEALER that can be brilliantly recorded in the history of Chinese films.
As a filmmaker, he does not mind what kind of identity he would assume in a good touching works. Because he believes that whether he is a director, or an actor, or a producer, if the film is popular, he will have the same sense of accomplishment. Supporting new directors, paying attention to the works itself, focusing on the result of the creation… We have enough reasons to believe that his success in DRUG DEALER is only the beginning.
Some people say that Xu Zheng is a versatile filmmaker. Some people say that he is a model of transformation on the film and television road. Some people say that he has both the mind of a businessman and the temperament of an artist. However, Xu Zheng said, he just wanted to have more expressions and attempts with his original love for performance. We believes that the actor Xu Zheng is to usher in countless peaks in the performance career, and he will bring us countless surprises in the future.
Q:I heard that you would return school from time to time. How do you feel when returning school?
A: I think that several important years of your youth were spent in the university. You have established values, art views and world views in the school. In fact, it is the feeling of finding the initial mission. For an actor, you cannot stop enhancing your capacities. You should return to the campus to get re-sharpened from time to time. Return to a point where you have all your glamour off and just take a performance class again. In fact, it is a process of recharging yourself.
Q: What’s your most impressive or favorite drama or episode when you were a drama actor?
A: Every drama left a very deep impression on me, because I was in a very embarrassing state then. No one came to ask me to act in a teleplay or film. Later on, I directed two dramas myself. At that time, this drama was rather pioneering or experimental. I remember that in one scene, I acted as a person who felt very crowded in a bus. He himself has large quantities of monologues and lines. Those scenes left deep impressions on me. Because it was the first time that I directed a drama, I had to do everything on my own. I participated in all work related to costumes, styles and the way to take pictures.
Q: After you acted in SUNNY PIGGY, you came to give us an impression that you’re favorable for comedy. Were more similar plays inviting you to act later on?
A: I was initially recognized by the audience via this comedy. It is easy for the audience to give you a positioning, i.e. comedy. In fact, I rejected it at first, and did not want to accept it. But I gradually came to find that it is nice to have a positioning accepted by the audience. When everyone gets familiar with you, you could seek breakthroughs slowly but surely and look for other favorite roles.
Q: Which part in the CRAZY STONE’s script attracted you most? Why did you volunteer to act this role?
A: At first, they wanted to invite Tao Hong. I happened to see the script. I said to them, “Do you need an actor? I can act free of charge.” I felt that this script was very good and wisely created. I did not expect this film to be so popular later. I only thought that I would benefit from it. It was really embarrassing.
Q: What’s the most torturing scene for you in NO MAN’S LAND?
A: It should be the scene in which a barrel of gasoline is poured on me, although it was not real gasoline. But the barrel did contain gasoline earlier. We hoped to smell a little bit like it, which would cause physiological reaction in performance. It was shot at two to three o’clock at night. It was very cold. You have to pour the water overhead.
Q: Where does your inspiration of performance come from? What’s the point that makes your energy explode?
A: The premise of every creation comes from a kind of life and certain observation in life. Or, it is the problem I’ve observed, or the problem of myself I’ve observed. It contains both and is the collection of many people. It is the problem faced up by friends, colleagues, and corporate partners in your life. If you find that the film subject is also a concern of them, you would get a premise of communicating with the audience. That is a platform.
Q: You did very well as an actor. Why did you want to be a director?
A: Actually the original intention for me to be a director was that I could have a better role to play. Because when you are playing in other people’s works, you always feel that you have not played the role you wanted. Actors are relatively passive.
Q: Why did you choose the script of DRUG DEALER?
A: Firstly, I have been rarely involved in this kind of realistic subjects before. The story itself has something to do with the reporting of Southern Daily. We conducted in-depth artistic processing on it. I think that we should pay attention to such topics in the Chinese film industry.
Q: So, what kind of positioning do you expect the audience to give you, an actor, a director, or a supervisor?
A: It doesn’t matter. As I get older and become a middle-aged man, I am also willing to retreat behind the scenes. If I can help young people, I will have a sense of accomplishment and be very happy.
Movie Chaser is a rarely-seen Documentary, with its team learning about stories behind the scenes and devotedly recording the artisan spirit of each and every filmmaker. The backstage production company Nicefilm is also a young film & TV company with hearty sentiments. One year has passed since the first episode of Movie Chaser was broadcast. The motivation for the production team comes from film fans’ support and encouragement. Some netizens comment that Movie Chaser is the stalker of Chinese films. In fact, Movie Chaser is more like a line connecting directors and the audience, enabling creators and the audience feel less alone.
Apart from Wu Ershan, Ding Sheng, Dong Chengpeng, Wu Jing, Ning Hao and Xu Zheng, Movie Chaser will follow the steps of Director Cao Baoping, Mabel Cheung (Hong Kong, China) and Wei Te-Sheng (Taiwan, China) to present more behind-the-scene stories of filmmakers.