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Director Chen Kaige’s Son Drops U.S. for Chinese Citizenship, Signaling Growing Allure of the China Market

·5-min read

Chinese director Chen Kaige’s U.S.-born son Arthur Chen Feiyu has swapped his American citizenship for a Chinese one, a change widely viewed locally as a savvy move to boost his burgeoning career in the mainland.

The move comes as Chinese public opinion about celebrities has hinged upon questions of nationality. For instance, Beijing banned mentions of China-born Chloe Zhao earlier this year — despite her Oscar sweep — after a frenzy of inquiry erupted online over her true nationality, among other issues.

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Arthur Chen, it seems, is preemptively sidestepping all that drama.

“After a wait of several years, the young man’s wishes has finally been fulfilled. Mr. Chen Feiyu has formally become a Chinese citizen,” his studio said in a statement to its official Weibo, stamped with the company’s official seal. “At the same time, Mr. Chen Feiyu has always steadfastly loved the great motherland, and will continue to spread positive energy in the future and use his power to contribute to the motherland!”

Below, commenters congratulated the young actor for his decision to “return to the motherland’s embrace.”

Others questioned why Liu Yifei, the China-born star of Disney’s “Mulan,” had not done the same, as she currently has U.S. citizenship.

“Today’s audiences have been very resistant to the idea of ‘foreigners’ getting in on the mainland’s ‘gold rush’ ” of opportunities and profits as the world’s largest film market continues to grow, one film blogger said. “Isn’t it a deception to have a Chinese face, earn Chinese money, but not have a Chinese heart?”

Makeup, Skin Care and the People’s Liberation Army

In years past, China’s wealthy and powerful have sought to abscond their riches and children overseas, with some paying large sums to secure paths to foreign citizenship. In the entertainment industry, many top names have changed their passports, including Gong Li and Jet Li, now Singaporean, and Chen Kaige himself, who is a U.S. citizen.

Chen is one of China’s most famous directors. As a leading light of the so-called Fifth Generation, he won global acclaim for his 1984 first feature “Yellow Earth,” won the 1993 Cannes Palme d’Or for his “Farewell My Concubine” and in the past two years has turned increasing towards political films celebrating the Communist Party.

He’s brought his son along for the ride through the years, setting him up step by step for Chinese industry success from a young age.

Arthur Chen, 21, was born in the U.S. where he attended the storied private Massachusetts boarding school Tabor Academy before returning to China to study at the Beijing Film Academy as a foreign student.

He made his film debut at the young age of 10 with an appearance in his father’s historical drama “Sacrifice.” As a teen, he joined the production for his father’s lavish costume drama “The Legend of the Demon Cat” as an assistant director. A star turn in coming-of-age romance “Secret Fruit” saw him strike out on his own, playing opposite Taiwan’s Ouyang Nana — another hot actor who has pushed aside her affiliations with the island to boost her appeal in mainland China.

Since then, he played a role in the 2019 propaganda omnibus film “My People, My Country,” for which his father directed a segment. At the time, there was some online blowback over the fact that an actor with American citizenship was playing a role in the year’s biggest political statement film.

With a Weibo following of already more than 10 million, Chen nonetheless has significant influence over young viewers and commercial sway. His official Weibo account is an interesting case study in how to strike the balance between political correctness and commerce.

This month, he uploaded six posts advertising makeup, skin-care and tea, three posts with attractive photos of himself, a post about rising COVID-19 numbers, a post encouraging Chinese athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and six different posts re-tweeting political content from official state media, celebrating everything from the People’s Liberation Army to the “spirit of the Long March.”

Advantages and Disadvantages

Arthur Chen’s forthcoming collaborations with his father seem set to be even higher profile.

There are at least three projects currently listed as scheduled for next year, all directed by the older Chen and starring the younger alongside China’s most bankable acting names.

The first is a romantic drama that will also feature Liu Haoran, star of the “Detective Chinatown” series. Two more are both Korean War-set propaganda movies, one starring Chen, Liu and Wu Jing (“Wolf Warrior 2”), and another that has so far revealed just Chen and Wu from the cast.

Arthur Chen’s change in citizenship, itself a strong signal of Party loyalty, will smooth over potential speed bumps in his father’s career as it veers increasingly political, and pave the way for his own, another blogger said.

“Given the development of the Chinese film and TV industries, the advantages of this move outweigh the disadvantages,” he said, noting that films like “Wolf Warrior 2” and the more recent “Hi, Mom” have outsold even top Hollywood tentpoles in China, demonstrating the impressive returns available even to films that don’t travel beyond the country.

“The era of going abroad to make a name for yourself is already outdated… it’s really much better to work harder on your acting skills for a few years within China,” the post said.

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