Wendy Yu: Cinema Can Bridge The Cultural Gap Between East And West
Watch any major film made in English and the chances are at least one member of the cast will be British-born. You can put some of that down to good drama schools in the UK and a dynamic local industry that gets actors working. But much of the acclaim must go to the British film industry, which has always been generous at promoting young talent. And they got even better at it in 2003, when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—better known as Bafta—introduced the Breakthrough Brits initiative.
In the last decade and a half, the Breakthrough programme brought hundreds of young actors to household name status. Spider-Man star Tom Holland and Black Panther's Letitia Wright were both Bafta Breakthrough stars, and their careers skyrocketed after winning the award. Today, more than 40 percent of the Breakthrough Brits become winners or nominees in the Baftas within two years.
But the Brits aren’t keeping all the spoils for themselves, and last month they introduced the Breakthrough China award. This was a way for Bafta to help young Chinese stars get traction in the West and offer cultural exchange opportunities for Chinese-made movies to find bigger audiences in Europe.
"China is an important and valued creative partner for the British film, games and television industries," said Bafta chief executive Amanda Berry. "The potential for further collaboration is huge. Bafta recognises that the film, games and television industries are becoming ever more global, and believes that opportunities for creativity and innovation will increasingly result from collaboration between nations."
This soft power reach has been one of the main factors in Chinese film executives pushing for greater alliances between the two countries. Wendy Yu is the founder and CEO of Yu Holdings, which makes strategic investments in creative projects, with the aim of strengthening the ties between China and the rest of the world through technology, fashion and the arts. The Gen.T honouree's organisation is a partner of Bafta for the scheme, which Yu describes as an accelerator for Chinese talent.
“I lived in the UK for many years and Bafta became an organisation that I always admired and looked to support—it is synonymous with heritage and excellence,” she says, from her home in Shanghai. “I am passionate about the arts and the impact they have on the cultural landscape, which envelops us all. While China’s economic influence has surged in the past decade, its cultural and creative influence lags behind that of the rest of the world. That’s because Chinese talent, from fashion to entertainment, hasn’t yet had the opportunity to develop the skill level and experience of their Western counterparts. Initiatives like these are game changing in raising the bar and providing acceleration and access.”
The Breakthrough China winners this year are made up of four women and one man, including Bai Xue and He Bin, the writer and director, and the producer of The Crossing respectively. This acclaimed film based on the stories of “cross-boundary children”, a demographic of Southern-Chinese adolescents who commute across the border every day between their homes in Shenzhen and schools in Hong Kong.
Actress and supermodel Bonnie Chen wrote and directed her first short film Clover, a production where she explores the tensions between a mother and daughter and looks at feminism, forgiveness and motherhood in the modern era.
Guan Dan spearheaded The Invisible Guardian, a project that has achieved a new milestone in China’s gaming industry. The Invisible Guardian is China’s first 800-minute full-length live-action interactive film product that infuses multiple elements from the games, film and television industries. And then there is producer and writer Ye Ting, who has already been involved in two major film productions, Lost in Hong Kong and How Long Will I Love U.
Creative industries have a unique power to inspire, innovate and create legacy. They shape our culture, our lives and our dreams. When I moved back to Shanghai in 2017, it was then that I became particularly passionate about giving back and contributing to my own country
— Wendy Yu
Both Bafta and Yu are hoping that publicity around these winners and the mentoring programme they will receive from writers, directors and actors high up in the British industry will allow their films to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people who have never previously watched Chinese cinema. In the past, the mentorship aspect of the initiative has been particularly impressive: Tom Holland was supported by Bafta-winning film producer David Heyman and actor Cillian Murphy; while Letitia Wright was led by actors Olivia Colman and Naomie Harris.
While they are yet to announce who exactly the honourees will be working with, they are set to be British household names, with the ability to help these up and coming stars find fame in the UK.
“Creative industries have a unique power to inspire, innovate and create legacy,” says Yu. “They shape our culture, our lives and our dreams. When I moved back to Shanghai in 2017, it was then that I became particularly passionate about giving back and contributing to my own country. We partnered with the Business of Fashion on the first ever “China Prize”, which was established to help identify emerging Chinese fashion designers and accelerate their careers. Similarly, we have partnered with Bafta to provide the same opportunity in entertainment.”
And while the exact ins and outs of China’s soft power is impossible to quantify as it ranges hugely from one country to the next, it is undeniable that the US and Europe could do with finding more cultural ties to Asia. And perhaps this is one way to do it.
“At Yu Holdings, we consider ourselves to bridge East and West,” says Yu. “We are committed to bringing world-class resources and opportunities to Chinese emerging talents.”
See more honourees from the Philanthropy & Charity category of the Gen.T List 2019.