Chloe Mayaan wants to meet at a jazz club.
This is odd – primarily because the last jazz club really harking back to Shanghai’s indulgent 1920s and 30s had shut down in 2016 (in favour of shiny hotel lobbies on the one hand and trap rap’s rise on the other). JZ Club’s ghost resides, for branding purposes, in a fluorescently lit concrete hole a masquerading as a complex by the name of Found 158. Wading through the drunk club kids scarfing Homeslice next door, I flick Chloe a WeChat message. Is this the right place?
A publicist had quipped the week beforehand that we ought to meet. The two of us reminded her of each other, she’d declared. We’d both come from academic families in the hard sciences. She’d graduated from Communication University of China, then finished her graduate studies at Tisch in New York the year I’d moved there. So much in common.
Ok. The publicist leaned in. I’m telling you; she is one of the few who can really act. She raised her voice to a loud whisper. Did you know that she put on weight? A sip of tea and pause for effect. For a role? Leaning back again, satisfied with her broadcast: That’s how you know she’s really good.
Is it? Setting aside my ideological outrage that a woman’s appearance, not to mention her weight, could ever be considered a litmus test of talent, the reality remains that talent is certainly no prerequisite for fame, and Chinese actors (both male and female) are increasingly judged on a spectrum of ‘小鲜肉 Little Fresh Meat’ – the hysteria-inducing appeal of baby-faced, delicate, mincing, waifish youth. But even with her dimples and doe eyes, Chloe Maayan at 30 is a woman. A woman with the ‘audacity’ to grab an industry by the balls, to forgo vanity and transform for a role with the rare and mesmerising decisiveness of Gong Li – who has spent her career challenging Chinese film’s projection of women by doing, not simply talking about it.
Chloe’s role in question is a sexually liberated prostitute, ecstatic to be pimped out by her Three Husbands (2018). The final installment of Fruit Chan’s prostitution trilogy affords our leading lady few words with which to weave a twisted commentary on modern Hong Kong – and yet she succeeds in building a layered woman navigating the trappings of ownership and empowerment of her body.
And, in true Chloe Maayan fashion, this first lead role of her career attracted a Golden Horse (the Chinese language equivalent for The Oscars) nomination for Best Actress in a Lead Role: the youngest nominee and a wild card in a category of multi-award-winning veterans helming massively successful films by the region’s most celebrated directors, peddling tried and tested market narratives of mobster love stories, family dramas and feuding ancient kingdoms. With no Golden Horse but three Hong Kong film industry Best Actress wins under her belt, her Chinese name has been bolstered as synonymous with serious acting.
That Chloe with that unusual four-character name, used only by those derived from ancient surnames and those transliterated from minority tribes. The rest of us mere mortals go by two- or three-character names, but not Chloe: 曾美慧孜 Zeng Mei Hui Zi – like “Helen of Troy” or “Joan of Arc” or “Warrior Queen Boudica of the Celts”, but something to the effect of “Chloe The Intelligent and Industrious One Who We Once Only Acknowledged For Her Beauty But Now We Know Better”.
Yes, that Chloe.
And yet, she disappears so entirely into her onscreen personas, that she can walk down a crowded club street on a Friday night and nobody will bat an eye. She can waltz into crowded jazz club, still luminous in iridescent purple makeup from a day on set, and nobody will miss a beat.
“I got your message!”
Chloe is breathless, confused, as she joins me in the back corner of the polyester-red-velvet club. “Did the original one shut down? I don’t remember it being like this.” Yeah. She wrinkles her nose.
I love your work, I start lamely. There’s a thorn in her smile. “Did you watch my movie from when I was a kid?”. She shrugs, then almost to herself, “I’d wanted to act since I was a kid.” Indeed, her first ever film role at age 14, playing Dong Dong, a university student, in 娄烨 Lou Ye’s sobering Summer Palace (2006). A university student. At 14. When the film peaks in the raging chaos of a student demonstration, Dong Dong’s face wrestles to hold in the fear and panic and the desperate need of a young adult to know the answers. Her gasping attempt to find words is so quietly devastating that when the film premiered at Cannes, the global film industry was like, wait – who’s she?
I also watched Three Husbands, I offer.
Chloe perks up. The film was one of her favourite productions. Director Fruit Chan had run a set of military accuracy and few takes. “He knows his story and characters so precisely and completely,” she gushes. “I aspire to that laser focus, when it’s my time be on the other side of the camera.” She considers this. “Honestly, actors often have fairly limited room to move on the range of a character. We meet the character through the writer or director, so to speak, and then our job is to complete it.” But this is where she sees immense opportunity in Chinese film landscape’s massive shift in the past year.
Until now, ‘independent film’ was a catch-all phrase for the darkest, grittiest most bootleg ‘文艺片art films’ that were difficult to watch in contrast to the 4D blockbusters and romantic comedies. But now, with the West finding more mainstream acceptance of foreign language film, a new frontier of China’s next generation of meaningful stories is slowly but surely emerging. “We as actors can take on more of that writing role because it’s a more collaborative process. The change demands me to be better, have more integrity with every script I read”.
Honouring the female condition is paramount in that endeavour for Chloe. As more purpose-lead, less dollar-lead storytelling calls into question the messages that movies are disseminating to millennial China, so too are the roles of women in those narratives. Chloe has no delusions on the popularity of male-centric storylines with female characters is always the muse of a film. “But when you think about it, women are inherently the best vehicle for a full range of complicated, multi-dimensional, emotional depth from love through to hatred and everything in between, which is really what is demanded from a leading role in our movie industry.” This is the same sentiment that also drives her intrigue with biographical films – taking on the weight of what an individual has lived in all its physical and psychological manifestations, which sounds hell stressful to me, but to her has the same transformative seduction of embodying that prostitute and so, taking control of female identity on behalf of China’s 650-million-odd women.
And she’s riding it solo. In a market where even the greenest web-drama star comes with a fully-fledged entourage and strings attached, Chloe is a lone ranger without an agent, steadily working her way through every script thrown at her, cherry-picking only 11 over her 16-year career, the large majority of which have been supporting roles (for who they are, she says, not as a means to the ends of screen-time and accolades). She’s indifferent to the abnormality of her solitary operation. “I’m the one who needs to improve myself. I’m the one who needs to learn new skills.” She can’t expect other people to do that work for her. How could anybody else possibly connect her to what is happening in everyday people’s lives? A team, a middleman, would do the exact opposite: detach her from reality and the people she needs to portray. But most importantly, “I love to experience things alone,” which is not without its doubts. Her mindset has often proven a little too ahead of her time. “I do sometimes feel lost about being on my own and have to take a step back to assess whether I should be adopting these industry norms” for their short-term efficacy, if not for its convenience. But the answer is always no. Stick to your guns.
In the jazz club, Chloe is impassioned, just about shouting over Duke Ellington. People around us in the club look over. A girl at the bar whispers to her boyfriend, Isn’t that…? He sneaks a glance. That Chloe? He nudges his mate. That’s “Chloe The Intelligent and Industrious One Who We Once Only Acknowledged For Her Beauty But Now We Know Better” right?
The gig is up.
Outside, Chloe muses on “gaining recognition” as more of a conceptually “fascinating life experience” than fame. She references Zhang Ziyi’s character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and her outward pursuit of ‘江湖 Jiang Hu’: literally speaking rivers and lakes, but abstractly, a freedom of thought that operates beyond the limitations of mainstream societal structures. “But once she really experiences the world, those boundaries disappear, and she discovers that the real ‘Jiang Hu’ lies in her self-awareness.” Shooting her latest film Wild Goose Lake (2019), which competed for this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, presented Chloe with her own such philosophical revelation. “I’ll never forget it. We were shooting this scene on a tiny boat on a huge lake at the crack of dawn in May. Every tiny movement we made would just rock the boat so disproportionately.” Her character was to dive into the icy depths, and it wasn’t till later, reviewing daily footage, that she saw how close she’d been to a number of water vortexes forming in the lake. “Every time I think of that scene, I think how close magic presented by nature is to being dangerous to humans. Film is really that missing link, don’t you think?”
Between humans and nature?
“No – between magic and danger.”