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It’s tempting to sum up Yu Nan by calling her the next Gong Li or Ziyi Zhang, but that would be glossing over much of what makes this 29-year-old China’s most promising young actress. Known on the film festival circuit as the star of Chinese art films like Tuya’s Marriage, Yu will claim a global audience in May with her role in Speed Racer, the Wachowski brothers’ megabudget blockbuster based on the iconic Japanese manga series.
Yu is stepping into the international spotlight with a fluent command of English, a skill that should impress Hollywood casting agents. “I never studied English,” she confesses, “but I have a lot of American friends, so I just talk to them, you know?” She also wields some major bons mots, thanks to a crash course in French for the 2003 film Fureur.
If Yu seems like one of China’s most valuable exports right now, she evens out the balance of trade by voraciously consuming all manner of Western fare. The unassuming thespian describes her personal style as having two extremes: hip-hop and “European classic.” An ardent fan of Missy Elliot, Jay-Z and Lil Mama, she dresses the part when hitting Vick’s, her favorite hip-hop haunt in Beijing. But Yu is happy to leave the streetwear behind for something more elegant, as she did when she arrived at the opening of Louis Vuitton’s newest Beijing store. She also gobbles up American cinema and remembers being blown away by The Matrix, but never did she imagine that its creators, the Wachowskis, would one day direct her.
“I flew to Berlin for the final Speed Racer casting, did a 20-minute screen test and [the brothers] said, ‘Thanks, bye,’” she recalls. “I was just like, ‘Okay,’ and so I flew back to Beijing.” Two days later, they called to offer Yu the part of Haruko Togokahn. She returned to Berlin for two months of filming, mostly in front of a special effects green screen. “I’m used to dramatic art films,” she says, “so it was very odd having to pretend my surroundings.” Yu shared much of her green screen time with Rain, the single-named South Korean pop star who plays her brother in the film.
What about the directors casting a Chinese woman and a Korean man to play Japanese siblings? “Westerners think all Asians look the same!” she laughs.
The notion doesn’t offend her, however—after all, her résumé includes Mongolian and Cambodian characters as well. “I think it’s cool, because it allows me to explore a different culture with each role.”
Though Speed Racer is sure to place Yu on Hollywood’s star map, she has no intention of leaving Chinese cinema entirely. Her latest film, Wang Xiaoshuai’s In Love We Trust, was screened at the Berlin Film Festival last month, and Yu is currently back in China shooting a new drama. “It’s a woman’s love story,” she explains cheerily.