Interview: Ni Ni, the rising Chinese legend from the East

One of the two cover stars for our September '18 issue, here's a peek inside Ni Ni's exclusive interview with L'Officiel.
Reading time 7 minutes

A quartet of rising stars — Rowan Blanchard, Ni Ni, Jeanne Damas and Gia Coppola — is the embodiment of Tiffany & Co.’s new expression of contemporary luxury. These global citizens and cool guardians of style rock a youthful spirit, exuding fresh, effortless elegance; their creative energy and spontaneity are the perfect foil for the timeless creations of the American jeweller. 

Chinese actress Ni Ni (@captiainmiao) belongs to the new generation of stars hailing from the elite Chinese film world, a force that has grown from strength to strength and now usurps Hong Kong’s dominance of show business in the Far East and beyond.

Far from being the archetypal democracy, China now wields supreme financial clout and consumer power. Armed with its billion-strong audience and 45,000 cinemas across the country driving a 13% increase in revenue in 2017, it has risen to become a cinematic powerhouse.

Case in point: Transformers 4 and Iron Man 3 featured Chinese stars in the cast and released special versions for a Chinese audience. Not only that, but a reversal in casting has also seen Hollywood actors such as Kevin Spacey, Matt Damon and Christian Bale being enlisted for roles in Chinese film vehicles.

The Newcomer Ni Ni

In 2011, film-maker Zhang Yimou — revered on his native Chinese soil and at international film festivals for cult classics such as Raise The Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers — engaged Christian Bale of Batman fame to play the only non-Asian role in The Flowers of War, a Chinese production based on the Nanjing massacre.

The actor plays a Western mortician, who while carrying out burial duties for a deceased priest, becomes embroiled in a scheme to protect a handful of Chinese schoolgirls and refuge seeking prostitutes from the cruel ravages of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Among the actresses playing these females is the newcomer and aspiring actress Ni Ni, who was 23 when the film was released.

Voluptuous, sensual and brooding — she radiates in the role of Yu Mo, a prostitute on the run with her “flowers” comrades from the brothel underworld.

 “I was a little “distressed” when I learned that Christian was in the movie. He is such a big Hollywood star. At first impression, he looked so serious,” the young actress confessed during a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival. “But he proved to be affable, sincere and very pleasant. And everything went perfectly on the set.”

Though notoriously private and reticent, Christian has not held back on his praises for the Chinese actress as well, “Ni Ni has done an amazing job. I was very impressed by her ability to master English so quickly. It’s an honour to be working opposite her on my first Chinese film.”

Despite its lukewarm reception outside the Chinese market, The Flowers of War achieved sensational domestic success. Thereafter, Ni Ni’s career took off and in the year 2012, she swept many awards including Best Newcomer at the Asian Film Awards, Most Popular Actress at the Chinese Film Media Awards and Best Actress at the Shanghai Film Critics Award.

Ni Ni, China's Secret Weapon

Now considered a “secret weapon” for directors and producers in Beijing, Ni Ni makes up the hot list of Chinese cinema. 

Together with the likes of model Angelababy and Yang Mi, they comprise up the new “Four Dan” generation representing the most bankable actresses from China. With the emergence of these actresses and their predecessors such as Zhang Ziyi, Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun, a seismic shift has occurred in China’s cultural landscape that veers far from the dictates of Maoism.

Monopolising current Chinese box office hits are mainstream local comedies and other pro-Beijing action films, before any US production can be found. This is what is fuelling the career paths of talented actresses such as Ni Ni, who are not compelled to set their sights on Hollywood to advance, instead have famous studios now come looking for them.

At the Dior show in Paris three years ago, when Ni Ni appeared on the red carpet, a photographer yelled, “And her name is?” A household name from Shanghai to Beijing, Canton and Shenzhen, she is almost unknown in the West.

However, it wasn’t long before film director and producer Luc Besson spotted and cast her in The Warriors Gate, a movie targeted for the Chinese teenage audience. The trajectory charted by the young graduate from Communication University of China is indeed impressive, scaling the pinnacle of success and fame in her home country, just shy of the big 3-0.

Ni Ni’s popularity soon spilled off-screen, where she was handpicked as the face of Gucci, whose artistic director Alessandro Michele praised her “passion for beauty of the past”.

She was also appointed as the ambassador of Tiffany & Co. for the lucrative Asian market. In Cannes last May, she was divinely dressed in a rhinestone dress and sported sublime yet discreet creations by the distinguished New York jeweller.

Ni Ni and Her Journey

“I find her journey of growth from a girl to a matured woman rather incredible. So much so that her metamorphosis remains engraved in my memory,” said Zhang Mo, daughter of Zhang Yimou, who was blown away by Ni Ni’s performance after viewing The Flowers of War directed by her father.

Five years later, she offered Ni Ni the lead role in her first feature film, Suddenly Seventeen, which revolves around a bride who is dissatisfied about her love life and is offered a chance to relive her life as a teenager. This soon became another box office hit. 

“Before I started doing films,” Ni Ni recalled, “I worked hard for two years taking classes in theatre and English lessons. I was like a blank page that had to be filled. Today, I get to read very interesting scripts and I hope to stay in this business for a long time to come.”

The Legend of Ni Ni

Recently in 2017, Yuen Woo-Ping, The Matrix’s fight choreographer got her on board for his epic fantasy wuxia film The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, followed by another golden opportunity to star in the series The Rise of Phoenixes as the female lead.

The final words from Christian Bale: “Ni Ni is as talented as all the best people I have worked with. She has the all the charm of a newcomer – constantly forging and refining her technique. It is wonderful to see her progress and transformation as an artist.”

So keep your gaze fixed on this thespian – the legend of Ni Ni is just warming up.

Photography: Chen Man
Styling: Shen Zhang
Photography Assistants: Caoji Ye & Ling Yim
Producer: Hu Chen Yang
Producer(France): Eléonore Jalou
Cameraman: Chak Kwan Jack Lam
Video Producer: Hongfei Tang
Hair & Makeup: Jian Gao
Lighting & Equipment:Renta Pro HK: Tim & Curtiss
Text in Mandarin: Ni Ni
Text in French: Jean-Pascal Grosso 
Edited by: Tan Siok Hoon & Joyce Fan

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