‘At peace with myself’: Chinese actress-director Jia Ling loses half her weight for Yolo, Latest Movies News - The New Paper

‘At peace with myself’: Chinese actress-director Jia Ling loses half her weight for Yolo

On screen, an unconfident, people-pleasing and overweight woman takes up boxing and transforms not just her body, but her life along with it.

In real life, Chinese comedienne-actress Jia Ling did pretty much the same.

For the sports drama Yolo, she put on 20kg to up her weight to around 100kg to play protagonist Du Leying at the beginning of the movie, which opens in Singapore cinemas on March 21.

Over a year of filming, she kept up a strict training regimen and stuck to a diet to lose close to 50kg to play someone forever changed by her passion for boxing.  

In a video interview with The Straits Times, 41-year-old Jia – who also directed Yolo – says she felt bad to ask another actress to take on the physically demanding leading role.

The film is an adaptation of the 2014 Japanese movie 100 Yen Love.

“I can be very brutal with myself, but as a director, I’m quite introverted. I don’t like to demand things of other people or trouble other people,” she adds.

Instead, she took on the challenge herself, but not without a lot of trepidation and going through several “stages of fear”. 

“It was a very agonising process that went very slowly,” she says. “But I never considered giving up.”

Jia recalls: “In the beginning, I was scared that I would have to stick to having less oil and less salt for the rest of my life. I was scared of losing the great joy of food. But I treated it like an experiment because my personal trainer told me it’s something I will get used to.

“I was very resistant and I worried that I’ll never be able to use food to comfort myself and make myself happy anymore. But after a whole year, my perspective has changed. I’m very at peace now with myself.”

The Hubei native, whose home town is known for spicy, flavourful food, now enjoys milder, lighter fare.

While dieting was not easy, Jia says the intense training she had to go through to be an aspiring boxer was the most challenging.

In Yolo, Leying is an unemployed woman in her 30s who feels lost in life. She joins a boxing gym to get close to a coach (Lei Jiayin) she has a crush on. After a series of disappointments, she devotes herself to boxing in the hopes of winning just once.

In a post-credits bonus sequence, Jia is shown lifting weights, doing pull-ups and more.

“It was the most difficult to get myself moving. I hated exercising in the past. I used to live on my couch when I was at home. And every time I exercised, I felt as if life owed me a debt and that I deserve a reward.”

Now, however, Jia feels uncomfortable if she does not get moving every day.

The transformation is something that has also touched her deeply.

In a behind-the-scenes clip, she is seen breaking down in tears after filming a scene of Leying in a sports bra making her way towards the boxing ring with her lean, muscular physique on full display.

“I don’t know why I cried, I just felt so many emotions all at once. In a sense, I’d been waiting for that one scene for a whole year.

“There are other gym and training scenes in the movie where I mostly wore loose-fitting clothes to cover myself up because everything is in anticipation of one scene, which is meant to show the audience a protagonist who has been reborn.”

Jia’s gamble paid off. Yolo earned more than 3.4 billion yuan (S$642 million) at China’s box office, making it one of the country’s best performing films. 

This follows her directorial debut, the time-travelling family comedy Hi, Mom (2021), which earned 5.4 billion yuan in China.

It made Jia the highest-grossing female director of all time then – until she was toppled by Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023), which earned US$1.4 billion (S$1.87 billion) globally.

With two smash hits under her belt, Jia – who originally began her career as a crosstalk artiste – does not feel any pressure to outdo herself.

“I don’t really set goals. I’m the kind of person who’s afraid to start doing something because, once I do, I will pour all of myself into it and feel a lot of responsibility for it. I make myself feel very exhausted. But I’m not so bent on chasing a big box office – as long as the audience can see the message I want to put forth, that’s fine.”

  • Yolo opens in Singapore cinemas on March 21.