VogueMe – Fearless Youth

Sixth magazine cover of the year for Haoran comes with VogueMe – April 2019 issue, the younger sibling to Vogue China! April 2019 also happens to mark the three year anniversary of VogueMe, and just as they did in previous years (Haoran was on the cover of the second anniversary issue last year), they went with a special theme for the entire magazine (“fearless youth”) and invited Zhou Dongyu and Liu Haoran as the cover stars.

You might’ve noticed that Dongyu and Haoran have collaborated quite a bit, especially in the last year or so in basically every platform available minus an actual acting project, and VogueMe (kind of) explains why.

They’re often seen as parallels of one another among post-90ers (Dongyu of course is five years older and has a much more extensive resume) – both made their debuts in well known films, are more known for their film work, and are seen at having “won at life” due to getting to start their acting/entertainment careers at a much higher starting point than most of their peers (both are also acknowledged to having the talent – and accomplishments thus far – to back that up).

So given that everyone seems to think they’ve led the perfect lives, the challenge VogueMe gave them was to write the script for their own lives if it was made into a movie – how would it be filmed in their minds?

Haoran’s interview is subsequently quite fascinating. He explores alternative ways his life would have played out at different the crossroads into his life. What if he had chosen to not attend the Beijing Dance Academy? What if he missed out on his golden ticket – his first acting opportunity? He also takes us through what his life looks like now, and how his family deals with his celebrity.

There is a certain wistfulness in his tone as he talks about what his life might’ve been like – it’s not so much that he doesn’t like his current life, but he very much recognizes that his life is far from normal, and it was very much unplanned.

(VogueMe – April 2019 issue)

Liu Haoran and Zhou Dongyu appear to be the model examples of those who lead “effortless lives” (T/N: meaning everything comes easy to them). For those who debuted at an early age, this can also be called as “winning the lottery of life”.

Before they “won”, neither of them dreamt about being a celebrity, they didn’t have the acting background (not child actors), nor parents with resources. At a young age, they were suddenly chosen. As actors, they’ve experienced first love, heartbreak, and loss, and have played a country girl, medical student, detective, Shanghai tycoon, an illusionist youth – yet they’ve never acted out their own life story.

So VogueMe gave them a challenging task, “If someone were to invest in producing a film about your life, how would you film it?

Liu Haoran’s New Movie: A Heavy Lottery Ticket of Life

Liu Haoran says, “Overall, my script would be for an absurd dark comedy. The acting style would definitely be very exaggerated. My movie would be pure comedy, I don’t want there to be any crying scenes in it. Even if the audience cries, it would be a scenario where I’m laughing in the film and they’re crying in the theaters. Yes, I did win the lottery of life, and a very important reason why is because of Director Chen Sicheng.”

Life Lottery Ticket and Stories From Childhood

Liu Haoran wants to start his story from when he was born. Because many people seem to misunderstand – they believe that his main lottery ticket in life came when he was in high school and was casted by Chen Sicheng for Beijing Love Story.

But in reality, that wasn’t the biggest lottery ticket that he won. The biggest one is simply just being born. “I was a total surprise, my parents were older when they found out my mom was pregnant with me. It was said to be pretty unlikely.” He guesses that his parents thought about giving up on him.

“You could film a scene like this. When they heard that my mom was pregnant with me, they went crazy, with pots and pans being thrown around.” In order to ensure that he grew up low-profile, he was raised in his aunt and uncle’s house. When he went to his dad’s office to play, his aunt and mom would remind him, “Remember to call your dad ‘uncle’.” Liu Haoran grew up with that specific part of history* as the background, and so the first part of his movie has an incredible realism.

*T/N: Haoran was born when China’s one child policy was still in place (he has an older sister). In order to avoid the fine that would come from having a second child, his parents sent him to his uncle’s house, as they lived in a rural area where rules were more relaxed. This is the first time it’s been openly acknowledged that is why he’s had a rather unique upbringing.

“Because my parents gave me more attention, she still often complains to me, how after I was born, our family no longer looked after her, and that’s why I’m so tall and she’s short.”

He can understand now why his sister felt that it was unfair back then, so he wants to give her more scenes, because she loves him very much. When he was cut in the neck by a butcher’s life, his sister ran home crying to their mom, “Is didi (little brother) going to die? Is didi going to have his face ruined?”

Another Type of Ending

After telling us his childhood story, Liu Haoran suddenly makes a new suggestion, “I want to also film an alternate path.” He thinks his life has, thus far, been on a flat universe. He doesn’t believe that the version that currently exists on stage can fulfill the complicated definition of “life”*.

So he wants to use absurdity and ludicrousness to portray his life. Because if one was to truly film a movie about the story of Liu Haoran’s life, the “sad” version is extremely important, because that would probably mirror what most people’s lives look like. People who didn’t win the “lottery of life”.

*T/N: He believes his current life is too dull and lacks dimension to be filmed into a movie. Not that his life is dull, but that it would be boring as a movie.

”My movie might not be shown in theaters, but on the computer instead, like an interactive roleplaying game. At the important crossroads in my life, there will be two choices. We can prepare the endings for both paths, and then let the viewer choose. Like Black Mirror, using a movie to create a dreamland. Let the viewer play God.”

If that’s the case, one of the alternate paths could be his mother choosing to have an abortion. “If it’s like that…hahaha, the movie would be done. Liu Haoran would never have existed,” he laughs paradoxically.

Resignation Letter from School and the Temptation of Bread

“Everyone has their own destiny. I’ve been luckier than others, so I can choose this path, but for those who don’t believe that they’re as lucky in life, I have to be responsible and suggest that they choose the more realistic road. They’ve got to fill their stomachs first (make a living).” Liu Haoran now has the freedom to be idealistic, and has both the self-confidence and self-awareness that comes from having a “blessed life”.

But once upon a time, he was someone who was practical and rooted in reality. The old him would choose bread, compromise, figuring out indirect ways to achieve his goals. “If I just daydreamed all day and wasn’t able to feed myself, the opening of the movie would be my funeral.”

His early youth is probably the best testimony to the practical side mentioned above. If it were to be depicted on the big screen, he hopes that he can use a “grayish with a bit of a reflective light” as the color tone. When the school soccer club ended its activities, his mother signed him up for ballroom dancing class in order to ensure that he still remained active.

It just so happened then that the middle school branch of the Beijing Dance Academy arrived at his school to recruit new students. Because the registration fee was only 100 RMB, he was allowed to audition with the mindset that it was good practice for kids in terms of helping them with their mindset. But to everyone’s surprise, he was chosen.

At the time, Liu Haoran didn’t understand why it was him (that was selected). He didn’t think he was good looking. He thought that he wasn’t very likable, and he didn’t really maintain his appearance very well – he didn’t shave until his last year of junior high. But his mother went to a fortune teller, who said that going North would be a good thing for him.

Most importantly, Liu Haoran was taking his middle school entrance exams then. His native province of Henan is one of the most difficult for the gaokao (high school entrance exams), and his teachers would remind the students daily that it would be like “thousands upon thousands of troops trying to cross a single wooden bridge”.

At the time, the Beijing Dance Academy could solve the Beijing hukou issue. It would be an opportunity to “win at the starting point”. So the realistic him went for it without resistance.*

*The gaokao – college entrance exams – is an issue that Chinese kids and parents start fretting about from the minute they start elementary school (possibly earlier). Those who have hukou – residency registration – in poorer, more rural provinces, like Henan, have a disadvantage from the beginning versus peers in bigger cities. Beijing students have the largest advantage, which is why the temptation of a Beijing hukou was enough for Haoran’s family to decide to send the 12 year old him to a boarding school.

“But the first day that I started school in Beijing, I had my mother write a resignation letter.”He had come to the capital with the expectation that he would be able to expand his knowledge, but found that he “drove into a village instead”. The school campus used to be a military training center, and sat at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of the city.

He had thought that he could take knowledge-acquirement courses (your typical academic classes) along with the dancing and singing classes that the Beijing Dance Academy offered, and that he’d be able to return the regular (non-performing arts) path once he got into college.

But once he arrived at the school, he found that his courses schedule was full of traditional dance, jazz, musical, piano, etc. classes instead, and only a few academic classes.

What was even worse was that his family and he himself messed up on their calculations when they decided to “take a shortcut”. They learned that once he graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy, he would only be able to apply to performing arts majors for college.

So the plans he had discussed with his family – “engineering”, “computer science”, “finance” – they all dissolved into dust. He had no concept of what a performing arts future would look like, and has never enjoyed singing and dancing, even as a child. Even now, when he’s in that environment, he would rather play on his cell phone, or cheer everyone else on.

In that moment, he stood at the edge of a cliff, all of his hopes and dreams dashed to pieces, and begged his parents to take him home. “The resignation letter was handwritten by my mother. I remember very clearly that there were four words that stated clearly “voluntarily giving up”, and I signed my name.”

But as painful as things were, when the teacher urged, “Do you know how hard it is to get into our school? You would be the first person in the last decade to willingly resign from our school.”, the practical side of this Libra boy kicked in again.

“The feeling then was that the entire world was telling me that this is a winning lottery ticket, but the me who won just couldn’t get excited about it.” In real life, Liu Haoran detests caterpillars. If a caterpillar were to crawl on him, he would pinch off the skin in disgust. The winning lottery ticket was like a giant caterpillar – he was terrified but didn’t know what to do. If he were to cut it off, would it leave a permanent scar? Or would it one day become a butterfly?

Another Ending: Taking Another Year, Early Romance, and an Unhurried Youth

If he didn’t go to the Beijing Dance Academy, he might not have the dazzling, eye-catching life he has now with his winning lottery ticket, but Liu Haoran’s youth would have been more steady and luminous.

He would be like hundreds and thousands of other students who studied hard (for the gaokao). He says himself that he’s on the smart side, and that back home, he was always #1 in academic courses, that he always got 100 in Math. As a child, he never worried over his grades.

(The below is part of Haoran’s imaginary script for what his life would have been like if he didn’t go to Beijing at 12 years old)

“But the first time he takes the gaokao, he fails. He gets 100 points lower than expected, so he decides to study another year and try again.” Liu Haoran’s eyes gaze off into the distance as he creates the script of an alternate life.

He suspects that his parents changed the “10” on his ID registration to a “6” to allow him to start school a year early, and so he could have some “extra time to fail” (if needed). So he decides to give himself three years. Within the three years, he must get into his dream school.

Thankfully, the second time, he got a score of 600+, and is accepted into a good school in Beijing. Not the best, but good. He would choose either engineering, computer science, or finance as his major.

The 2019 him would currently be busy working on his graduation thesis, and also working on his resume or getting ready to take the exams for graduate school. He is the type of person who seeks peace and stability in his life. He would either go to a big company to work, or stay at school and become a teacher.

“Oh, that’s right. If he didn’t go to the Beijing Dance Academy, he would probably have had an early romance.” Liu Haoran laughs. Liu Haoran’s mother (unlike most Chinese parents) does not see early romance as a bad thing, so the (hypothetical) Haoran who remained in his hometown for school would have been okay to date at 15.

He develops a crush on a girl in his class who has very good grades, “because I feel like I’d be able to hold a conversation with those who have good grades (joking). She is beautiful, the type who is both beautiful and has good grades. Her personality is tranquil and quiet.”Because girls weren’t allowed to have long hair at the school in Liu Haoran’s hometown, she would probably have mid-length hair.

“She has loose bangs, big eyes. Her height is 163cm, because when I was in the third year of middle school I was only a little over 170cm. I grew 10cm during that year.”

“She used to be in the class next door, and she was so beautiful that she caught my eye from the beginning. Afterwards, she ended up in my class, and I was overjoyed.” Liu Haoran admits that he’s terrible at keeping his mouth shut. He believes that guys should be more forward, but his method in wooing her would be quite unique.

“I would let my good friends know first, and then rely on them to leak the news to her. Every time the teacher would call on us to answer questions, the entire class would cheer, and the atmosphere would be extremely cute.”

Eventually, the two would very naturally get together. Because his hometown has quite traditional values, Liu Haoran thought of a simple way for them to date. “I would secretly hold her hand as we walked home from school, and the library would be our secret meeting spot.”

Not a Lottery Ticket, but a Golden, Life Saving Straw

(Back to how his real life played out)

The Beijing Dance Academy was only accepting students into two majors back then – one was singing/dancing performance, and the other was ballroom dancing. Each major had 30 students, and overall there would be less than 100 students for the entire grade level (across all majors).

“It felt like I would never be able to experience a full-to-the-brim school life,” He sighs. He recalls his high school years. He was struggling with his major-specific courses, and many of his classmates had been learning dance for many years. Bending backwards, doing the splits, and flipping in the air were incredibly easy for them.

Even after a few years at the Bejing Dance Academy, he still could not get used to being a performing arts student. Every day was incredibly painful for him. He remembers that there was a hallway between two of the dance practice rooms, and if you walked through it, you could hear the sounds of people yelling in pain all the way through. He was one of them. His daily life consisted ofstretches, trying to do the splits, and cursing and yelling while attempting to do these things.

But that pain wasn’t really anything compared to the suffering of spirit. I felt so lost.” His family pretty much used up all their savings in order to send him to school in Beijing, and in high school his mother started keeping him company for periods of time in Bejing. She rented a tiny room that had two levels, loft style – the lower level had a couch, a table and a closet. When you wanted to sleep, you’d lower the ladder to the second level.

“That bed…if you were to sit up, you’d hit you head against the ceiling. However, the monthly rent was still about two thousand RMB.” So the Liu Haoran who was under a huge amount of pressure began to despair. “Basically, I felt incredibly overwhelmed.”

“But that’s what youth is – once the scar forms, you’ll forget about the pain you experienced before,” He starts talking about the “reflective light” among the gray, “During class, I wasquestioning life, but after class I’d have a lot of fun playing. Basketball, going to the internet cafe, hiking, fighting…I didn’t miss out on anything.”

During the weekend, the teachers took them to scenic areas to sightsee. The line delivery teacher even took them to the mountain near the school to practice projecting their voices.

Though he wasn’t good at the classes for his major – singing, doing the the splits, music theory, etc. – he was the only person in the class who was good at the academic courses. So combining thegrades from both sets of classes, he was still at the top among his grade level. It was the little joysthat helped him to stay in Beijing.

Amidst the gray, he also finally welcomed his own turning point. At the time, director Chen Sicheng was getting ready to film Beijing Love Story, and sent his assistant directors to performing arts schools to select students, who would then submit videos in for the first round. Liu Haoran passed the initial selection, but after that he became annoyed with the endless “come here for a moment” calls for audition after audition.

“Later, you’d realize it’s because they were deciding on you, but at the time, you only felt very confused and lost.” It just happened to be a long weekend. Liu Haoran was going to visit his cousin, and had already bought the train ticket when he got another call from the assistant director, asking him to come in for one more audition.

He very unwillingly called his mom. “I said I didn’t want to go.” But once he got to the train station he changed his mind and decided to still attend. Now that he looks back, Liu Haoran can only say“that was close” to describe that scene. He believes that that he’s replaceable, but suited the part so was chosen.

When he was chosen by director Chen Sicheng, he decided that he was going to bet on himself andburn his boats. “Because at the time, I had nothing.” So rather than saying Liu Haoran won a lottery ticket, it’d probably be more appropriate to say he was given a golden life saving straw. “Can you imagine if you didn’t know a word of English and was standing in the streets of New York trying to talk to foreigners? That’s how I felt the first time I filmed.”

Another Ending: A Video Game Streamer Who Loves to Eat

(Hypothetical path if he hadn’t gotten the Beijing Love Story opportunity)

That was a happy long weekend. Liu Haoran spent all night at the internet cafe with classmates playing games when he got the call from the assistant director asking him to come in again. He thought, “Why is this process being so stretched out?” and ended up saying he couldn’t due to a schedule conflict. The director saw that he wasn’t willing and didn’t force things.

Liu Haoran and his friends got on the train, and had a fun long weekend. He didn’t realize just how much that three day trip would cost him though, or that he would using the rest of his life trying to make up for that. He couldn’t go back and choose a regular academic college major – he could only choose a performing arts major, so he went with “performance”.

He would be like most of his classmates. Even though he might’ve been accepted by the Central Academy of Drama or the Beijing Film Academy, his future would still be bleak. He knows very well that in a class of actors, only two or three would end up making it, so he would spend all of his time filming, being an extra on set – not knowing when he might finally get a break and be seen.

“Would I still stay in Beijing? Should I continue trying to be an actor?” He would need to start thinking about these questions, and would realize that he wasn’t getting any joy from his chosen path.

He became obsessed with games, and thinks that he might be able to making it as a live streamer for video games. During his live streams, he would attract many fans due to his jokes, so he opens another account where he recommends games, snacks, and hidden gems among stores and restaurants.

The Movie of My Life Is Still In Progress

(Back to his real life)

To Liu Haoran, he doesn’t want to just show what his life’s been like because he “won the lottery”. He wants to show his uneasiness after winning. “To be very honest, fear is greater than feeling pleasantly surprised. Because I know that my winning this ‘lottery ticket’ isn’t because of my abilities. I have a far greater income than most people my age. So I feel very unsettled.”

So even now, Liu Haoran is very conservative with his money, and never flaunts his wealth. He rarely buys luxury items, and his method of transportation is a bicycle that didn’t cost very much. Though he loves photography, he didn’t want to buy many different lens for it and bought a camera where you can’t change the lens. Most of the time, he’s just like a normal salaryman, and saves up his money, with a couple of investments here and there.

His parents are even more unsettled by this “winning lottery ticket”. Before the Chinese New Year, Liu Haoran took his parents shopping, and when they saw the price tags, they were shocked and lectured him on spending too much. But he is comforted by the fact that he’s finally successfully talked his dad into retiring.

Now that they no longer have to worry about the pressure of life (financially), he doesn’t want his mother to be alone at home. He hopes his parents can take his money and happily enjoy their retirement.

But after retiring, his dad has not gotten used to spending his son’s money. The change in the familyhierarchy has left him a bit saddened, and he’s having a hard time finding his new identity. To make himself seen, he’s fighting to pay bills, cleans rooms, and will come to the door of Liu Haoran’s room at ten o’clock sharp every morning to use his fatherly tone to wake him up.

It’s not just feeling uneasy financially. After becoming a celebrity, Liu Haoran is living in constant paranoia. Recently, he was playing a game online with friends, and when they were speaking to the rest of the team, someone suddenly asked, “Why does your voice sound so much like Liu Haoran?”He was so terrified he immediately closed his laptop, and was scared that his gaming account would be discovered.*

*T/N: The video of his gaming session – where you can hear his voice – unfortunately did still leak.  

Every day when he returns home, he always keeps a close watch to see if there’s a car following. When he comes out, he also checks for cars. Even when he does car interviews, he’s extremely cautious, and asks the driver to drop him at a crosswalk to protect his privacy.

“I’m not someone who likes showing my private life. I don’t want people to understand me too well.” By nature, he is very low profile, and doesn’t like it when he appears in the trending searches too often either.

After a day of photoshoots, I sat in his private car, and saw the transformation as he suddenly became quiet and solemn after being the “professionally gentle and bright” Haoran all day.“I’m weird like that. After being very lively for a while, I’ll suddenly feel a bit down. So in the movie (of my life), I will probably be someone who is both cute and also pitiful.”

After becoming famous at a young age, he has to live within the eyes of the public. So he has to constantly watch what he does, what he says, and avoid being labeled. As a result, he forces himself to constantly change his mentality, so that people won’t put a “character type” on him.

Fans say that he has the face of a “first love”, but he is afraid of being typecasted, so took opportunities to prove that he also has a more mature side. But when the media comments that he has “both the feel of a youth and the charisma of a mature man”, he feels that this is also like a “poisoned chalice”. “As someone who is being given 100 points when I’m used to 60, I’m really terrified it’s overkill*.”

*T/N: The Chinese term used doesn’t quite mean overkill – what it means here is that you are so highly complimented that you have no choice but to fail because there is no way you can reach expectations.

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