Who is Zhang Ziyi? Her almond-shaped face and lightning martial arts moves lit up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and made her an international star. Now she’s been cast as the lead in Memoirs of a Geisha, the long talked-off Japanese epic that was to have been made by Steven Spielberg. Rob Marshall, Oscar-nominated for Chicago, will direct with Spielberg overseeing in the wings as producer. Filming has already started in LA – mere weeks after her latest film Hero (actually two years old, but that’s another Miramax story) astounded industry box-office watchers by going straight to the top slot in the US. In one weekend it virtually made back what Harvey Weinstein paid for it, a cool $20 million according to Peter Biskind’s recent Miramax exposé Down and Dirty Pictures.
Details are very sketchy about this Beijiing-born actress, who until very recently didn’t speak any English. What is she like to work with and what sort of person is she? I flew up to Edinburgh to meet legendary cinematographer Chris Doyle, who photographed her so well in Hero and Wong Kar Wai’s forthcoming 2046, taking time out from giving a masterclass during the Edinburgh Film Festival. Doyle, who has photographed many of the great Chinese actresses, agreed that the camera loves her but try as we might we couldn’t quite get to the essence of her appeal. Words that kept cropping up were to do with freshness and poise – but little to do with acting ability. Was she really, as the Chinese press has been bitching, just a lucky model who stumbled into acting? Zhang Ziyi’s feud with the Chinese media – especially the Hong Kong press who accuse her of all manner of diva-like activities, including huge entourages – has escalated since Cannes this year, which she visited with Wong Kar Wai.
I barely knew anything about Zhang. A dozen drooling fansites on the internet all repeat these few basic facts, endlessly, in that fugue that beauty and celebrity seems to create in some people. They’re mostly taken from the very few interviews she has given to promote films as various and forgettable as Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain to Rush Hour II. An elfin 5ft 5in tall and 25 years old, she’s the worldwide face of Maybelline cosmetics and her list of commercial endorsements is vast and growing – including Korean mineral water, Tag Hauer watches and Coca-Cola in Asia. She trained at the China Central Drama College, the Chinese equivalent of RADA, and was clearly an ambitious student. Before she even got there, aged 15, she won a National Dance Competition. But her history is also littered with sudden reversals – quitting dance in disgust at its limitations, and earlier, being so oppressed by the nature of competitive gymnastics at her school that she actually ran away from home.
In order to find out more I tracked down Zhang Yimou – long before he made Hero one of China’s best-known directors in the West with films like Raise the Red Lantern. I had been told he had discovered Zhang Ziyi while casting for a shampoo advert in Beijing and was only too happy to talk about his beautiful protégé, whom he gave a small role in Hero and the lead role in its follow-up House of Flying Daggers (watch out for it at the London Film Festival and a Boxing Day general release). Some years ago tongues were wagging about the exact nature of Yimou’s relationship with Ziyi – after all her predecessor, directorial muse Gong Li, also dated the man – but neither party has ever spoken publicly on the matter. The Asian press ungenerously dubbed her ‘little Gong Li’ – which apparently annoyed the young actress. No diva likes to be compared to another diva. Besides, he’s old enough to be her father.
‘I wanted a girl with long hair,’ Zhang Yimou explained to me through an interpreter at the Dorchester Hotel. ‘And her hair wasn’t long enough for the shampoo advert. But one year later I was about to make A Road Home. I suddenly remembered her at the auditions, since I needed a completely fresh person for the central role, of girl falling for a teacher. I cast her. She couldn’t act very well at first, but she learns fast’.
When a pigtailed and pouty Zhang Ziyi first appears in this debut film, set in 1950’s rural China, the previous monochrome of the film is transformed into rich and luscious colours. It’s quite a trick. Stephen Holden in the New York Times subsequently wrote about his impression of this startling new actress. ‘Ms. Zhang's intensely concentrated performance conveys a current of stubborn, obsessive passion lurking behind girlish wide-eyed innocence’, he gushes. ‘This is a woman who, on recognizing her destiny, will let nothing stand in the way of her seizing it.’ Only a year or so later the actress was telling Time Asia ‘I want to prove to everyone that I have talent’
Zhang Yimou recommended Zhang Ziyi to Ang Lee when the latter was searching for the right actress for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her appearance as Jen – a supremely skilled swordswoman secretly resisting an arranged marriage – transformed her fortunes. She was – she has admitted – jealous of the attention Ang Lee lavished on Michelle Yeoh thanks to her lack of Chinese and some of that chemistry sparks there with the clashing swords.
Her boyish, androgynous qualities were emphasized – especially in her swordfight with Michelle Yeoh, a brilliantly stylized catfight in all but name. ‘After I watched the film I realized that Ang Lee had made her change,’ remarks Zhang Yimou with obvious admiration. ‘She had changed from simply being a girl, and had matured. She was another person from the one I knew. I gave her a small role in Hero but it was an important, passionate one. I realized she had learnt to express or hold back as she likes – which in China is quite rare. Rare too are actors who can actually fight’.
Zhang Yimou directed Gong Li is seven memorable films. How does Ziyi compare? ‘They are entirely different, representing two generations - Gong Li depicts a classical, traditional Chinese woman and Ziyi is a modern woman, more individual’. But both usually play strong, willful women who won’t take no for an answer? ‘That is true’.
I was really going to have to talk to the woman herself. I had recently just seen House of Flying Daggers – a film that finally makes her seem entirely feminine and combines her twin abilities to play the tumbling tomboy and the delicate flower. I’d talked to people who had worked with her and read about her upcoming roles. An interview was arranged and then called off as Geisha approached its first day of filming. I ended up taking her call sitting in a car in a car-park at midnight, on an Italian cellphone in Venice during the recent Venice Film Festival. You’ve no idea the effect this information has on an awful lot of men aged 17 upwards – even now I have to keep denying I have her phone number.
The immediate impression was of a giggly teenager full of self-confidence and charm. Do you ever get sick of being beautiful? ‘Not often,’ she laughs. Do you enjoy being beautiful? ‘No, I don’t care’. Are many people frightened by your presumed martial arts abilities? ‘No, I need bodyguards – I teach my bodyguards! Hahahah!’
In fact Zhang has adapted her prodigious gymnastic abilities and dance training to give the illusion of martial arts abilities. She’s only been in Hollywood for two weeks now – everything happens fast when it happens in Hollywood – busy learning English as fast as she can. Her Rush Hour II co-star Chris Tucker once said of her ‘I think what makes her so sexy is that she doesn’t speak English’. She manages some conversation with me but regularly has to be helped out with a studio translator. Do you have English words on your fridge and phone and places like that, like regular people learning a language? ‘On my mirror,’ she volunteers. Of course – the mirror. When will you become fluent? ‘It takes forever,’ she sighs.
Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh will act with her in Geisha, where she plays a young woman sold by her poverty-stricken parents to a Geisha house in Kyoto. In fact all the leads have gone to Chinese actresses, to the chagrin of the Japanese. What do you say to the Japanese actresses who feel they should have been cast? ‘They should learn martial arts, hahahah!’
You must have a famous actress you admire. ‘I love Bjork, I love her so much. I love Dancer in the Dark! I’d love to be in a film with her’. Despite her laughter and froth its clear she has a strong work ethic. ‘I need to work harder,’ she says. Do you know anyone in LA? ‘Hardly anyone’. Jet Li who helped you out so much in Hero? ‘He’s gone back to Shanghai’. You mentioned Jet Li taught you how to protect yourself – did he teach you how to protect yourself in Hollywood? ‘No, no, hahahahah!’ If I bump into Steven Spielberg on the Lido tomorrow, what shall I tell him from you? ‘Relax! Hahahah!’
After telling me she’s dying to come to London because she’s heard so much about the clubs, and the London Eye, our conversation ends. I can’t say the experience has been very illuminating but as with many actors what you see onscreen is what you get – she saves herself for the screen. Zhang Ziyi is about to become the most famous Chinese woman on the planet, and it sounds like she’s enjoying the prospect very much.
You can find a fansite with up-to-date information here I talked to Ziyi on the phone, parked in a car in a car-park in Mestre, Venice, 2005, a distinctly surreal experience.