Sporting chance gives actor his big role

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In 2009, a year after the country was swept by sports fever following Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Yu Shi, a teenager from Liaoning province, set out on a journey to pursue his dream. Despite his parents' reservations, Yu, also known as Yosh Yu, chose to veer off the conventional education path, opting instead for a basketball school, a local institution that nurtures future athletic talent for the Chinese Basketball Association.

Little did he anticipate that the years ahead would resemble a life akin to that of an ascetic monk. Every winter morning at 5:30, amid the harsh chill of northeastern China with temperatures frequently dropping below — 20 C, he would commence his training, occasionally concluding the session clad only in a gym vest and shorts, sweat crystallizing into ice on his lashes. He and his comrades often longed for rain the following day to provide a brief reprieve from the arduous laps around the field.

As Yu saw friends depart one by one due to the demanding regimen, he persisted for five years and ultimately secured admission to Liaoning Technical University based on his sporting prowess.

Despite once envisioning his future as a basketball coach or an office worker, the young man's fate took an unexpected turn.

In 2018, amid more than 15,000 hopefuls, he emerged as one of the 30 young talents groomed for director Wuershan's fantastic epic trilogy, Creation of the Gods, one of the most financially endowed projects in the annals of Chinese cinema.

The epic, loosely inspired by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel Fengshen Yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods), recounts the collapse of a tyrant at the end of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) and the rise of an army of justice led by Ji Fa, who founded the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-771 BC), portrayed by Yu.

A subversive adaptation differing from most previous TV dramas and cinematic remakes of the novel, Creation of the Gods focuses on the growth of a group of young warriors, making the young actors' casting and training crucial for the project.

Three months prior to the release of the franchise's inaugural chapter, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, which would later captivate audiences upon its July 2023 release, Yu marked his cinematic debut as a daring test pilot in the action-studded blockbuster, Born to Fly.

However, it is his portrayal of Ji Fa, the valiant and benevolent warrior, his role in Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, that propelled Yu swiftly into the limelight, solidifying his status as one of the country's most sought-after young stars.

The acclaim was further bolstered by his subsequent success in the popular TV series, To the Wonder, a lyrical narrative that features him as a herder of the Kazak ethnic group in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

The discerning gaze of major international studios also fell upon him. Disney's Wish extended an invitation to him to lend his voice to Valentino, a pajama-wearing pet lamb, while the legendary Japanese maestro Hayao Miyazaki's classic Howl's Moving Castle entrusted him to bring to life the character of the enigmatic wizard Howl in the Mandarin version.

Earlier this year, Yu embraced a swift transition from a young actor to a mentor for aspiring actors when he was invited to serve as a jury member for the ReelFocus Fresh Blood Short Film Program, a segment of the 14th Beijing International Film Festival.

"I'm the kind of person who truly believes in fate. It feels like everything is intricately connected, one piece leading to the next," Yu told China Daily during an exclusive interview.

Now, amid a jam-packed schedule that scarcely allows the 27-year-old actor a few days off throughout the year, Yu takes a moment to reflect during the interview, contemplating the pressures, confusion, and perseverance through tough times, and the valuable lessons gleaned from sports and early acting training.

A life changed

Marking the latest endeavor set to catapult Yu's popularity to new heights, To the Wonder, an eight-episode series adapted from writer Li Juan's essay collection, My Altay, concluded its initial run on China Central Television's CCTV-1 on May 13.

The show obtained 8.8 points out of 10 on the major review aggregator Douban, making it the highest-rated drama on the platform this year. It also received praise for its contribution to boosting tourism in Altay, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, from the National Radio and Television Administration during a seminar on May 30.

Li, the writer, spent her childhood and youth in Altay, a picturesque region in northern Xinjiang that she was intimately acquainted with, featuring vast grasslands, desert landscapes and hospitable locals. In a way, My Altay serves as her autobiographical account.

The series, To the Wonder, set against a poetic backdrop, unfolds the story of Li Wenxiu, a woman of the Han ethnic group, who aspires to become a writer. She struggles as an unskilled waitress in Urumqi, Xinjiang, before returning to her mother and grandmother who reside in a Kazak nomadic region in Xinjiang. When she decides to assist the family in managing a small convenience store, an unexpected encounter with Batay, the youngest son of a local Kazak nomad, sparks a blossoming affection between the two young people.

Batay, portrayed by Yu, is depicted as a modern Kazak youth, who is open-minded and harbors a deep love for horses. In the series, the character undergoes training in Qingdao, Shandong province, and works at a horse ranch before returning home to aid his father in tending a sizable herd of 300 sheep, seven camels and 20 horses.

During an earlier interview, director Teng Congcong reflected on her decision to cast Yu. "Initially, I came across a photo of Yu riding a horse and I was captivated. It had been a while since I had seen such masculine power and upright handsomeness," she recalls.

In June 2022, Teng met Yu for the first time. At that point, due to the delayed release of Born to Fly and the uncertain scheduling of the first movie of Creation of the Gods, Yu was navigating one of the most challenging periods in his acting career.

Yu recommended his account on Douyin, a popular short video-sharing platform, to the director, sparking Teng's curiosity to browse his over 300 posts, with many showcasing his horseback riding and archery skills.

"When I first learned horse riding, the greatest challenge was overcoming my fear when releasing the reins, like a driver letting go of the steering wheel," Yu recalls.

His equestrian skills were a pivotal part of the 6-month-long training required by director Wuershan for the Creation of the Gods trilogy, which was filmed consecutively over 18 months, mostly in Qingdao.

"I systematically learned equestrian and archery for three years in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, after wrapping up the shoot," Yu recalls.

The curriculum spans a range of subjects, from the history of horse domestication to the distinctive characteristics of war horses in different dynasties, as well as the evolutionary chronicles of cavalry armor and weaponry.

With a wealth of knowledge and practical experience, Yu also serves as the equestrian and archery instructor for To the Wonder, executing his own intricate stunts while ensuring the safety of the other horse riders and assisting in guiding the cinematography aesthetics of such action scenes.

"It's not just about riding fast and aiming to shoot the target accurately. The actors need to know when they should pause for a close-up shot or when they should make some movements," he explains.

Meanwhile, he dedicated six months to learning the Kazak language to vividly portray his role. "In those days, my script often consisted of three lines: Chinese, Kazak and pinyin. The pinyin was a mnemonic aid for mastering pronunciation. I can't read Kazak, so I had to use this 'simple' method. If they revised the lines, I had to memorize them all again," he adds, laughing.

But his memories in Altay, the filming location, are full of vitality and breathtaking beauty. Joining other cast members, he arrived in Altay in late April last year, during the transition from winter to spring.

"Back then, the snow up on the mountains hadn't melted all the way and the grass was just poking through the dirt. Taking it all in, there was this sort of lonely, yet peaceful beauty," he recalls, adding that during the shoot, he visited the families of herdsmen to delve deeper into his role. "The locals were so welcoming, kind and genuine. Those days really stuck with me. Even back in Beijing, I still love that grassland vibe, keeping it simple and focusing on what truly matters to me, avoiding all the unnecessary noise."

Now, being busily engaged in shooting a new project, Yu is also nurturing his dream of becoming a director.

"I want to helm a film that discusses societal norms surrounding success. This movie revolves around a group of exceptional individuals mistaken for mentally disturbed patients, living within the confines of a psychiatric facility. I aim to explore the blurred lines between madness and genius," he says.

Revealing that his directorial debut will be a dark comedy, Yu says he hopes the audience will laugh their way into questioning life itself. "Through this film, I hope viewers grasp a profound concept: Everyone should be true to themselves, undeterred by external pressures."

From an unknown university freshman to finding himself at the center of the luxuriously budgeted epic trilogy, Creation of the Gods, the journey to the release of the first movie was fraught with challenges. He has endured a roller-coaster life and weathered three years of solitude.

During that period, he faced doubts, turned down offers for two online series with themes he disliked and even contemplated a career as a professional equestrian. His directorial debut, which is still in the planning stage, in a sense, reflects his contemplation on life.

"There's a Chinese saying, 'When the cart reaches the mountain, there will be a way forward,' meaning there's always a path out of adversity. But the key is: You must prepare extensively for that journey ahead," he concludes with a bright smile.

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