Naran Is Ready For Her Close Up

Propelled to national prominence with a star turn in one of China's highest-grossing movies in 2023, Buryat model‑actress Naran is set to take the world by storm
LORO PIANA sweater, skirt

When Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms opened last July in China, it rocketed to the top of the mainland Chinese box office that same weekend. Grossing about $2.6 billion yuan (roughly S$500 million) over its six‑month run in Chinese cinemas, it even won Best Feature Film at the 36th Golden Rooster Awards, China’s answer to the Oscars.

The big‑budget live‑action mythological blockbuster also propelled an unexpected star to national prominence: 26‑year‑old Buryat model‑actress Naran, who gave a deeply captivating performance in her big‑screen debut as the enigmatic fox demon Su Daji.

From the arduous training she endured in preparation for the epic film to staying grounded amid the cultural phenomenon that it has become and her nascent acting ambitions, Naran tells all.

WE11DONE top; CAROLINA HERRERA circle skirt

How would you describe your life before and after Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms was released?

The changes have been quite significant because before [the film] premiered, my life was comparatively ordinary and mundane: I’d take Chinese language, yoga and boxing classes, and when I had free time, I’d meet friends and go hiking. But after Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms began screening, I had to enter the headspace for work very quickly and as a result, had far less downtime for myself. I suppose I’m stepping into a new phase and going from a peaceful, relaxed one into a much busier one.

What does it mean to you to land a big-screen debut acting role of this level of cultural significance, in a production of this scale—chosen from among some 15,000 hopefuls who competed to be part of this cast, no less?

Without a doubt, earning a role in Creation of the Gods I is definitely a once‐in‐a‐lifetime opportunity. To be honest, at the start, I didn’t quite understand this story and character, and it wasn’t until I began my training regimen that I finally appreciated just how much of a household name Su Daji was. I’m immensely honoured to portray this character—it’s like a dream come true.

M ESSENTIAL top, jacket; BOUCHERON Plume de Paon pendant earring in white gold with diamonds; Plume de Paon ring in white gold with diamonds

Have there been moments when you felt overwhelmed by all this?

I did feel a little overwhelmed at times during the six‐month training camp (where the actors mastered classical dance, the Chinese zither, archaic Chinese speech and other skills) mainly because of the language barrier. I had to learn the same content as everyone else and at the same pace, but I was a little slower at understanding everything and at that time, I just kept hoping to get better at it so that I could improve faster.

What was your experience being a new actor and working alongside veterans of Chinese entertainment such as Fei Xiang and Yuan Quan?

Performing opposite such experienced actors was exhilarating: With the slightest look or movement, they could pull you so deeply into the scene, and it made acting much smoother and more comfortable for me. When working on scenes with Fei Xiang and with Yuan Quan (who portray King Zhou of the Shang dynasty and his queen consort respectively), I felt like I was in one‐to‐one masterclasses and that’s something you can’t experience anywhere else. I particularly remember one scene with Yuan: When she was looking at me, I noticed there was so much subtlety and detail in her expression, and unconsciously, I began to follow her lead and I found myself immersed in the moment. This kind of creative back‐and‐forth is how magic is made. I shot many scenes with Fei and besides admiring his acting, I witnessed his respect for artistry, the craft of acting, fellow actors, the production crew and even himself, and also the standards that he held himself to. I’d often stay on set to consult and learn from him.

LORO PIANA sweater, skirt, sandals

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you intentionally avoided watching past performances of Su Daji, who has been portrayed by renowned actresses such as Irene Wan, Fan Bingbing and Ruby Lin. So how did you put your own spin on this role?

I didn’t set out to incorporate my own style intentionally. My view is that the director of Creation of the Gods I, Wuershan, cast each of us because he saw a certain compatibility between us and our respective characters. He could have cast only professional actors to interpret these roles, but perhaps he selected us precisely because we’re blank slates, so we could embody the characters as he envisioned them. When I embarked on training for [the film], I knew very little about [my character], so I had no preconception of what she should be. I simply followed the director’s instructions, but through communicating with him and our acting teachers, I figured out the direction to go in.

MIU MIU dress

Besides training in martial arts, dance, music and horse riding, how did you prepare for the role and analyse the character of Su Daji?

Actually, I prefer a holistic approach to performance. This role required dance skills, but when I was training for it, I didn’t study just one style of dance; I leaned on others to help me with my posture, physique and expression. And because Su is a fox spirit inhabiting the body of the favoured royal consort, I had to convey a fox’s agility and behaviour through my performance. I also picked up the traditional dance of the Wa ethnic group (of southwest China and northeast Myanmar) to express a more unrestrained side of my [character]. I even learnt Peking opera, ballet, modern dance and more, and the director would assign me movies to watch to fire up my imagination and spark inspiration.

M ESSENTIAL top, jacket; BOUCHERON Plume de Paon pendant earring in white gold with diamonds

How do you see your character evolve over the trilogy?

If, say, in the first film, Su is new to and ignorant of the ways of the human world, then in the second film, she’ll gradually become more human‐like and have a better understanding of humans.

How will the way you prepare for and perform the role change in response?

Instead of thinking about adjusting my performance, I’d say it’s more about infusing myself with the character, because during training and even during filming, I had to develop this role carefully. I’m new to acting, after all, so I spent a long time training for and sitting with this character, and it has become a part of me.

Has working on Creation of the Gods I changed your perspective of the entertainment industry?

Creation of the Gods I was a whole new world. The experience of being part of this film hasn’t changed my views of the industry though.

COLOMBO coat; SWAYING/KNIT top, miniskirt; DYMONLATRY thigh-high boots; BOUCHERON Plume de Paon necklace in white gold with diamonds

Naran is photographed with Chinese artist Lisha Nie’s ‘Debole/Remake of The Kiss’, 2021

Would you say that acting is very different from modelling for you?

I feel that the period I worked as a model can be considered the start of my career as a performer. To me, being photographed is like giving a momentary performance. Based on the project, I’d often conceptualise a storyline and character for myself, and convey that through my shoot. That’s my usual practice, but actually, I feel that people don’t have huge expectations for how models perform on the job. I feel that actors tend to have higher expectations of themselves and their performance, and because of that, their sense of responsibility grows too. It also helps to develop a strong personal connection with their role. After all, part of an actor’s job is to craft their character thoughtfully, so that becomes a critical part of the performance.

Since I was young, I’ve loved movies. I found every frame beautiful and I wanted to be part of it

How do your varied interests in fashion, fitness and music shape you as a person and an artiste?

Incorporating my interests and pursuits into my performance creates a complementary effect. Staying fit is vital to me because it keeps me physically healthy and enhances my mental well‐being too. It’s [the same] with fashion. I pay close attention to fashion, so when I’m studying a character, sometimes, I’ll rely on details in outfits to convey the character’s state and evolution. In the case of Su, early on in the film, she appears in a purple chiffon gown and that helps express her vulnerability.

GIORGIO ARMANI gown

Were the arts and performance big features in your life when you were growing up? When did you know you wanted to be a performer?

The arts and culture definitely played a prominent role in my family. My grandfather, my uncle and both my parents are artists, so growing up in that environment was quite liberating. I always knew I was going to [have a career in the arts]—I actually wanted to be an architect for some time! And since I was young, I’ve loved movies. I found every frame beautiful and I wanted to be part of it. That was probably another factor that got me into acting.

LORO PIANA denim jacket, jeans, ballet flats

What do fame and global recognition mean to you?

I don’t think I’ve reached that level yet. Even though Creation of the Gods I has been screened and that means I may be recognised in public, for me, not much has actually changed. I prefer to focus on what I’m working on at the moment.

Looking to future acting opportunities, what kinds of characters and stories are you most excited about?

I want to experiment with different genres, such as action and art films, and even try theatre shows. I have so much more to learn!

PHOTOGRAPHY OLIVERJUNE
SITTINGS EDITOR WASABI LI
STYLING SALVA KE
HAIR XIAOTIAN
MAKEUP JOLIN WEI
STYLING ASSISTANT ANXIN, LAVIN
SET DESIGN YONGZI ZOU