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"Jiang Wen's Little Brother" Comes Into His Own

Xia Yu′s sweatshirt emblazoned with a Burton Snowboards logo contradicts his serious demeanour. "I started snowboarding last year," he says. "I fell in love with it." The 26 year-old actor′s first love, however, is skateboarding. "I′ve been skateboarding since I was sixteen. I used to be pretty good, but I haven′t had much time to practice since I started acting, so I′m not as good anymore." He speaks nostalgically of his days skating in his native Qingdao. "I like to skate in Wangfujing when I have time," he says, "and also at Beijing′s only skatepark, Fangzhuang."

Xia Yu (who′s name translates into ′Summer Rain′) sports shaggy hair and sneakers sharply contrasting with the shaved heads and traditional Chinese attire (zhongshan zhuang) of many of his characters. Xia epitomises modern youth. He loves movies like Pulp Fiction and The Professional. He drives around blasting Eminem on his car stereo. "I love hip hop," he declares. He drives a luxury Volkswagon and lives in a luxury apartment near Soho, both of which he has plastered with skateboarding stickers and Hollywood movie posters. In this context, his apparent seriousness and introverted disposition seem more like teenage rebellion and irreverence, reminiscent of his character, Monkey Ma, in Jiang Wen′s film In The Heat of the Sun (Yangguang Canlan De Rizi), for which he won the award for best actor at the 1994 Venice Film Festival. He shrugs off the oglers and the occasional giggling waitress and seems quietly annoyed.

After making his acting debut in Jiang′s film, Xia came to Beijing in 1995 to attend the Central Academy of Drama. "I got interested in acting as a career after my first movie. I loved working with Jiang Wen. He′s still my favourite director." In fact, Xia is often referred to as ′Jiang Wen′s little brother.′ The actor-cum-director found Xia when Xia′s father brought him to a casting call in response to an ad Jiang had placed in a local newspaper.

The former was immediately struck by Xia′s striking resemblance to himself, making him perfect to play Monkey Ma, a character Jiang based on his own persona. Xia Yu′s filmography includes Shadow Magic (Xiyang jing), Where Have All the Flowers Gone (Nashi hua kai) and Roots and Branches (Wo de Xiongdi Jiemei). "I like acting because it is a good occupation. I can travel to different places and meet different people. I have a flexible schedule." Xia Yu certainly travels a lot. His father, who is an artist, moved to Japan after he divorced Xia′s mother. "I go to Japan all the time to see him," Xia says. "My mother still lives in Qingdao. I bought a house there as well."

Like many of today′s actors in China, Xia Yu also has an extensive TV career, appearing on such shows as Emperor Kangxi′s Life Amongst Commoners (Kangxi weifu sifang), Classical Romance (Jingdian aiqing), and Fate Under the Sky (Tiankong xia de yuanfen). "I′ve never played a bad guy," says Xia. "Oh, except for one time when I played an evil general in ancient times. I can′t remember which show that was. TV shooting is so hectic and formulaic compared to film, so it all kind of blurs together in my mind." Most of Xia′s TV roles have been secondary ones until he was cast to star in The Ugliest In the World (Tianxia diyi chou), a show on which he played Liu Baoshan, a genius of the Qing Dynasty who gave up the opportunity to become an official in order to become a clown.

"TV is okay, but I like movies better," states Xia. "When we shoot TV shows, we go to a studio and it′s not as fun. There′s more pressure and we film much more quickly. For movies we usually shoot on location and it′s much more interesting and I get to travel more." He also professes a preference for ′edgier,′ more ′modern′ movies: "I′m a modern guy, and I want more modern roles. But it′s hard in China. There is no way a movie like Pulp Fiction could be made in China now. I prefer making movies, but I did like working with a lot of the directors I met through TV such as Shen Haofang and Zhang Guoli."

Xia′s roles have ranged from bratty teenager to stern police officer, but he still feels limited. "I′ve just played too many of the same sorts of characters on TV. I want to focus on making movies and I want to try a wider variety of roles." Xia has begun work on Waiting Alone (Wu shixi), the debut feature film by the Chinese-American director of Bus 44 (Che sishisi), Dayyan Eng. "It′s a romantic comedy," Xia says, stopping short of a detailed description in his characteristically vague manner of speaking. But considering the director, Waiting Alone may just be a step in the direction Xia wants to take. "I′m looking forward to doing this movie," says Xia. "The director is really great. He speaks four different languages and when he speaks Chinese, you can′t tell he wasn′t born here."

In future Xia would like to do a movie about skateboarding, but is a bit cynical about the prospects. "There′s just no market for that here. Skateboarding is an American thing." Xia rifles through a stack of skate videos and puts one on, silently watching the video while it blasts out bass-heavy hip hop beats from his surround-sound speakers. After the video ends, Xia begins flipping rapidly through the TV channels. "My favourite thing on TV is actually the commercials," he says. "That′s all I watch. Oh, and Animal Planet too."

(Thatsmagazine 11, 2003)

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