Beninese actress shines in Chinese movie ‘Formed Police Unit’

Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth in a scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth in a scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

It all started with a dream to act when she was studying business in Chongqing, and resulted in a young Beninese woman co-starring in a major Chinese movie release alongside top performers.

Starring Huang Jingyu and Wang Yibo, and directed by Hong Kong director and choreographer Lee Tat-Chiu, “Formed Police Unit” was a Labor Day holiday release in China that features the talent of Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth, also known by her Chinese name, Mulan. 

By Thursday afternoon this week, “Formed Police Unit” was ranking third on China’s box-office chart, according to tracking website Maoyan, with earnings of over 436 million yuan (around US$60 million) over nine days on the circuit.  

Rawdoth plays a character known as Selina’s mother, a woman who loses her husband, brother and a son during an attack at her village. The movie is set in a West African country, where Chinese peacekeeping officers go to and help Rawdoth’s character and surviving family travel to court to testify about what she had seen.

“She’s the most important witness to the killing of the people in the village… My character was there, she saw everything that happened… The Chinese peacekeepers want to take her to court in another village to testify,” said Rawdoth.

The cast of “Formed Police Unit” pose with an audience at the film’s premiere in Beijing on April 29, 2024. /Photo provided to CGTN

The cast of “Formed Police Unit” pose with an audience at the film’s premiere in Beijing on April 29, 2024. /Photo provided to CGTN

Rawdoth’s journey in China began with Chinese language studies at Chongqing Jiaotong University, where she had won a scholarship after attending the Confucius Institute in Benin in 2011. From there, she went on to pursue a self-funded bachelor’s degree in international business at Chongqing Technology and Business University. While there, she began to take a keen interest in acting.

“I had a dream of making my way through the movie industry, so I would interact with people in the movie industry like Jackie Chan and some of his movie crew. I kept telling myself to learn more about this industry. Someone advised me to study film as soon as possible, and not wait to finish my undergraduate degree. So, I while I was busy with my bachelor’s, I got an acting teacher for one-on-one lessons and I also joined a movie institute in Chongqing. From then, I started learning about acting,” said Rawdoth.

After submitting her CV and a self-recording in response to a casting call, an agent called her with news that the production’s director wanted to meet her, but the agent could not say who was in the film.

“When I asked who the director was, she could not tell me. I asked who is acting in the movie, and she could not tell me either. It felt like a risk. When I went to meet the film team, I met the screenwriters first.  

“I went there with an international business background, I am from Benin in Africa, and I know more about Africans. I had also been in China for a long time, and I had already started learning about acting. So for them, maybe I was resourceful,” she said.

An undated photo of Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth with Jackie Chan /Photo provided to CGTN

An undated photo of Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth with Jackie Chan /Photo provided to CGTN

It turned out the production was “Formed Police Unit,” and Lee had opted to work with her after seeing her audition recordings. The film was to be shot over three months in Beihai, Guangxi, a location Rawdoth said resembled the climate of West Africa. Little did she know the magnitude of the stars she would be working with.

“Before I went to the movie set, I didn’t know about them. When I told one of my teachers the name of the film, she looked up the cast and saw Huang Jingyu and Wang Yibo’s names and then said it was a big movie. I asked if the cast members were famous, and she said, ‘quite famous,'” said Rawdoth.

This generated some anxiety for the actress.

“Because of the idea of shooting with these big stars of the Chinese film industry, I started asking myself questions about whether I would act well. For five days before I went to Beihai to shoot, I didn’t, I didn’t sleep.

When I got there, the first scene we shot was my son being killed.  

This was my first role, my first role in a movie, and it was one of the biggest parts of the movie.

I found that everyone helped me, they helped to give me a sense of warmth and security. This helped me give all of myself,” she said.

She felt Lee’s directing was “impressive,” especially the cues for her as to when to cry.

“When we cry, because you feel it, that is when the audience will feel you.  

Something I thought was impressive was when the director would tell me to start crying from certain parts, and when I started saying the lines, I just started crying at those parts. It was ‘wow,'” she said.

Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth in a scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

Alazi Soumaila Rawdoth in a scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

Developing her character involved much mental work, extensive notes and research including conversations with relatives who had undertaken peacekeeping work. In preparations for her scenes, Rawdoth found it best to have mental conversations with the character ahead of time.

“I had a notebook, and I wrote down things about her in there. I built my character a world. Anything you asked me about her, I could tell you. I built her as a person with a war background. I started living as her. This gave me an easy way to act as her.  

When I got to the movie set, before we started any scene, I would sit with her in my mind and have a conversation with her. I would tell her, ‘I give you my body, just take it and express yourself as you want to. But when they say ‘cut,’ just leave.

When we were done with scenes, I would tell her that she did a good performance.

When they told me that I had to cry in certain scenes, there was no problem for me. It’s not Mulan, it’s the character,” she said.

A scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

A scene from “Formed Police Unit” /Photo provided to CGTN

Rawdoth is currently completing a master’s in film creation and performing arts at Beijing Film Academy and is graduating in two months. She isn’t quite sure of what opportunities this role will unlock, but she has her eyes set on making movies as a producer or scriptwriter.

“It is not frequent in China to have a main role like this, as a foreigner, for your name to be on that part of the credits… I don’t know what is coming my way; my friends are telling me I’m famous now, but I don’t know… The way the China-Africa relationship is going, as in stronger, for us working in the movie industry and in art and culture, it is also a part of cultural diplomacy to bring something to the table for China and Africa. I want to work in both Chinese and African movies. For me being from Africa, in China, in the industry I will not have many roles. The historical background between (modern) China and Africa is only about 70 years. So, there isn’t a lot of stories to tell. So instead of waiting for roles, I can also bring something to the table as a producer or a scriptwriter.”

The cast of “Formed Police Unit” at the film’s premiere in Beijing on April 29, 2024 /Photo provided to CGTN

The cast of “Formed Police Unit” at the film’s premiere in Beijing on April 29, 2024 /Photo provided to CGTN

The relationship between China and Africa is something Rawdoth is eager to address and explore in her career. One scene in the movie in which the peacekeeper characters wore black makeup sparked some conversation and debate online.

“What matters is not the black makeup the peacekeepers wear in the movie when they’re on a mission, what matters is that they disguise themselves for the purpose of the mission to rescue the witnesses.

“The friendship between China and Africa was built by the people who came before us and it’s a tie we all need to keep building for the upcoming generations,” she said.