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Jelly Lin: The Mermaid star on her newfound fame
Sands Style / Interviews & Features

Jelly Lin: The Mermaid star on her newfound fame

Jelly Lin is surprised by her sudden rise to stardom, but treasures the opportunities that have come her way

Stephen Chow’s 2016 film The Mermaid tells the tale of Shan, an innocent mermaid who leaves the water and disguises herself as a human in order to save her people from marine pollution. To Jelly Lin Yun, who was chosen from among 120,000 hopefuls to play Shan, this fantasy might now seem strangely analogous to her real life: both have left their element for a strange new world; and mermaid and actress know things will never be the same again.

On its release in China in 2016, The Mermaid took more than 1 billion yuan (HK$1.30 billion) at the box office within just four days – the record for a Chinese movie. The Mermaid’s phenomenal success catapulted Lin to stardom and multiple accolades. 

“At first, I thought how lucky I was to be able to work with a huge director. But then I started to feel the pressure,” recalls the 21-year-old, who spoke to Sands Style before hitting the red carpet at the 11th Asian Film Awards at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The ceremony, sponsored by The Venetian Macao, would later that evening award Lin with its Rising Star of Asia prize. 

While Shan – Lin’s character in The Mermaid – has a theatrical and expressive countenance, the real-life Lin is reserved. When asked how she handles the pressure, she answers calmly: “It’s just the way it is. Pressure is also motivation."

She speaks gently, with none of the boisterousness of some actors who are
swept to fame. Born in Zhejiang, Lin began learning dance while still at kindergarten. Her mother enrolled her in performing arts classes. “My mother liked girls to dance and to grow their hair long. She projected all her childhood dreams onto me,” Lin says.

After completing junior high school, Lin moved to Beijing and studied performing arts at the Beijing campus of Shandong Heze Music Arts Training Institute. She later signed with a modelling agency, and modelled briefly before she attended the open auditions for the part of Shan in The Mermaid in 2014.

“Being an actress is something I’d never thought of before. But when this chance came up, I thought I should treasure it,” she says. 

Before she joined the Heze institute, she had little idea of what acting entailed. “I just tried every class… I was quite ambitious,” Lin says. “Gradually, I realised that being an actress was in itself something very profound; I recognised that I could experience other people’s lives by playing different characters.”

With her breakout role in The Mermaid came a cascade of awards: within the space of a year, Lin picked up Best New Actress at the Huading Awards; the Rising Star Asia Award at the New York Asian Film Festival; Best Newcomer at the China Australia International Film Festival; and Best Newcomer at the Chinese American Film Festival. This year, Lin has been nominated for Best Newcomer at the Asian Film Awards and Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

“Being recognised is so encouraging. It drives me to do better in every role I take,”
she says. This encouragement has proved vital; she has spoken previously of how she couldn’t quite believe she’d been picked for the role of Shan – to the extent that she thought she would be replaced halfway through production. 

In her latest movie, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, a big-screen
retelling of the Chinese classic, Lin portrays the legendary White Bone Spirit alongside heartthrob Kris Wu Yifan, whom Sands Style interviewed in March 2017. But playing a shapeshifting demon has its challenges – none more so than when your director is acclaimed movie master Tsui Hark, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Asian Film Awards. Lin says that the experience of working under the Tsui baton was perhaps her most stressful professional experience yet. “I was very nervous – I didn’t dare to speak a word to him,” she says. “The feeling on set was totally unlike anything I’ve felt before.”

Yet, this most reserved of stars seems to be overcoming her fears. Travelling helps her cope with the pressure that comes with her work. She’s a regular to Macao these days, having first visited the city with her family a couple of years before being flung into the spotlight, and more recently as Jelly Lin the film star, when she attended the Huading Awards. She says the food, the shopping and the lights of the Cotai Strip are what she likes most about the city.

“The neon lights at night are especially beautiful. The Shoppes and the gondolas at The Venetian are really unique,” she says.

She hopes to return soon – when she can next find the time. “If I can have time off, I’ll try everything,” she says. “Right now, even if I have a day off I’ll still be on location.”

Near-instant stardom, it seems, is not without its drawbacks.