Does action hero in 'Wolf Warrior 2' signal the end for 'fresh little meat?'
One of the more dominant aspects of contemporary Chinese pop culture would have to be xiaoxianrou, or “fresh little meat” ─ young, handsome and usually somewhat emasculine boys/men famous for their smooth skin, glistening smiles, perfect hair and lack of physical prowess. But is their reign about to end?
The craze for xiaoxianrou has dominated the entertainment industry in China for the last few years. Guys like Wu Yifan, Liu Haoran, Yang Yang, Zhang Yixing and Wu Lei have relentlessly blasted the senses of hundreds of millions of Chinese, and it didn’t look like there was any respite in sight.
Then “Wolf Warrior 2” came out.
Chinese actor, martial artist and all-around tough guy Wu Jing, 43, plays the antithesis of xiaoxianrou in the film: a former PLA soldier who kicks the proverbial behinds of anyone who crosses his path, saving the day while ridding an African nation of baddies plundering it.
The box-office behemoth has forced us all to ponder: Has China’s brand-new, older action hero come to kick the butts of our beloved xiaoxianrou for good? And what will it all mean for the future of entertainment?
To be honest, the backlash began well before “Wolf Warrior 2” exploded onto screens. People have been lamenting the hold these pretty boys have over popular culture in China for a while.
A friend of mine captured the pretty-boy trend perfectly: “They’re aesthetic, I have to agree. But they don’t provide anything deep or uplifting, and they can be quite a put-off if you’re looking for something more than just candy floss.”
“Maybe a xiaoxianrou became unexpectedly famous somehow,” he pondered while wondering how it all began. “Then the entertainment machine started churning them out, further fueling demand. It's a cycle. Maybe that will start to happen again with action heroes — China has never been short of them, especially those from Hong Kong films, so maybe it’s their turn again.”
And that’s exactly what producers of another recent film, “The Founding of an Army,” may have contemplated after their casting decisions riled many.
“The Founding of an Army” tells the true story of several young soldiers who served in the People’s Liberation Army soon after it was founded 90 years ago. The problem, though, is that descendants of those revolutionists, and many ordinary members of the public, thought it was “shameful and disrespectful” to cast xiaoxianrou in such culturally significant roles.
“Who is this effeminate boy who can barely stand up straight playing my grandfather?” one family member lamented on Weibo.
But these pretty boys still have many loyal fans, especially among younger women and gay men.
“If a movie has a xiaoxianrou I like, then I will definitely go and watch it, even if the subject isn’t something I like,” another friend told me. “I’ll like the movie just because it has my guy in it!”
Those words are basically music to the ears of film producers looking to make lots of money in what will soon be the world’s largest box office, proving that many fans of xiaoxianrou don’t care about meaningful content, high production values or believable story arcs. A pretty boy will do it.
For me, coming from a country obsessed with masculinity and physical prowess in men, China’s obsession with xiaoxianrou is a huge relief. I have never fit into the New Zealand idea of the ideal Kiwi bloke: tough, into rugby, beer and cars, and some might say crass.
Maybe a young Andy Boreham would have grown more self-confident if he saw people idolized on the cinema screen who were slim, sensitive and not at all interested in beating up a guy over a girl.
It will be interesting to see what happens, and whether or not “Wolf Warrior 2” marks a change in the dynamic of male representation in Chinese pop culture. I’m hoping there’s a space for all types.