The latest sign of a Chinese invasion in Hollywood is a string of performances so short, you'll miss them if you blink.
Chinese actresses, many of whom are superstars in China, are appearing in big-budget Hollywood movies, but in roles that are more decorative than groundbreaking.
Yu Nan may fare the best, at least in terms of the importance of the role. In The Expendables 2, she plays Maggie Chan, a member of the butt-kicking team that works under Sylvester Stallone. As the only female in the ensemble, and the brainy one, she gets her fair share of screen time, which she condenses into one expression - that of contempt.
In the Chinese poster for Looper, which opened on Friday, Chinese actress Xu Qing appears in the above-title names. In American publicity materials, she is ranked eighth. Xu is shown as glamorous, with a striking presence that compensates for her limited screen time.
Movie fans in China are informed that Li Bingbing, a major star in China, will appear in Resident Evil: Retribution, but few are aware that she is only 10th in the starring credits. It is quite possible her name will be bumped up in the local marketing campaign.
Likewise, Zhou Xun is ranked ninth in Cloud Atlas, a film that premiered at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in late October. It is safe to bet that the Chinese actress will not come close, in terms of screen time, to her role in Painted Skin: Resurrection, the biggest Chinese movie of the year so far.
The driving force behind these Chinese beauties' Hollywood debut is Chinese capital, which has found its way into productions of international box-office clout. Chinese investors made their projects into co-productions so that they can reap a higher share of the Chinese box office.
To achieve that, the investors needed to incorporate a significant Chinese element in the storyline and have as much as a third of the main cast be Chinese actors. These actresses represent the Chinese participation in high-profile Hollywood productions.
The roles they are given are usually small. In the words of Zhang Zhao, president of Le Vision Pictures, the Chinese company that invested in The Expendables 2, the world is not ready for an action film with Chinese as a majority cast. He was given one slot, but "I managed to squeeze in one and half Chinese actors", the "half" being Jet Li's cameo.
For the actresses, these roles are more prestige than performance. It is a chance to stand out from the fierce competition at home and to put Hollywood superstars on their list of collaborators, earning the right to be called "an international star".
However, the publicity has boomeranged, as Chinese fans discover to their dismay that their favorite stars are relegated to roles essentially of exotic wallflowers. They complain that what was touted as a leap up careerwise is actually a step down.
To add insult to injury, most of these movies may fail to be classified as co-productions because the Chinese participation is obviously not enough to meet the minimum requirements. As imports, the movies will have to be part of the annual quota and subject to a lower cut of box-office revenue.
But who knows? A memorable supporting part may lead to bigger things. Judging from the English-learning mania quietly sweeping across the glitterati of Chinese moviedom, a star will forfeit her vanity - at least temporarily - when Hollywood beckons.