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Zhang Ziyi is China's Best Export

July 01, 2001

She went from Beijing acting student to superstar in a matter of months. But the Hongkong press has never been easy on this wonder-girl. Why?

In a halter-neck top and a flowy skirt, Zhang Ziyi appears relaxed, even charming. Although only 22 years old, the star of the gravity-defying Lee Ang martial arts extravaganza, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is possibly the biggest non-English speaking star in the world today.

She is also one of the most controversial celebrities in the Mandarin-speaking world, thanks to the Hong Kong press which has described her as ‘arrogant’, ‘obnoxious’ and ‘too big-headed’ for her own good. One paper even described her English-speaking, award-presenting performance at the recent MTV Awards as ‘a national disgrace to China’.
Fluttering her long delicate fingers, she explains in a casual, friendly tone: ‘I don’t hate the press. I have been open with reporters in the past.’But when the articles were published they always made me out to be this monster with a big ego, or a prima donna. And that is so far from the truth.’

The mainland China actress, born and raised in Beijing, was in Singapore last Wednesday as the new ambassador for the Alter Ego line of watches for Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer.

She moves with grace and oozes star quality. With almond-shaped eyes, movie-star cheek bones, straight-flowing black tresses and a smooth-as-china complexion, her greatest appeal is her blossoming womanhood. Even watching the svelte, former ballerina speak in lyrical, sing-song Mandarin is entrancing in itself.

It is hard to imagine anyone not taking a fancy to China’s hottest export. Except the Hongkong media. It has been ruthless in piling criticisms on the box-office star, determined to put her on the wrong side of the media spotlight. In retaliation, she has reportedly called Hong Kong ‘a damned place’ in the Hong Kong papers, following speculation and rumours that she was involved in a love triangle with gongfu star Jackie Chan and his 18-year-old son, Cheng Zuming.

Surprisingly though, Zhang, the child of an economist and kindergarten teacher, displays none of the precious or antsy moods she is so often accused of during this exclusive interview. Speaking in Mandarin, laced with an alluring Beijing lilt, she says: ‘The Hong Kong papers have always criticised me for no rhyme or reason. I mean, if there is nothing good to write about me or any personality, then don’t write. Don’t fabricate news that hurts just to sell papers.’

Born on Feb 9, 1979, Zhang graduated from China’s prestigious Central Drama Academy. She was plucked from obscurity to be in her first film, The Road Home, by its acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. He was the same director who discovered and made an international star of the China actress Zhang is so often compared to, Gong Li.

Zhang admits to being new to the media circus and the public relations game. She concedes that she speaks what she thinks. But over the years, she has discovered – the hard way – how big rumours can grow from her innocent, frank comments. So now, the actress, who has made only four films so far, is alert to the dangers. ‘It’s a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ mentality. If you have been made use of once, would you be duped again? Nowadays, I just deliver the facts straight up and no more. And even then, there’s no guarantee that the press won’t twist the facts or mis-report!’ she insists with a girlish mirth.

As an example of mis-reporting, she cited the news that she recently joined the Chinese Communist Party. She clarified that she has indeed applied, but that her application has yet to be approved.

Last Wednesday in Hong kong, Zhang did something that was widely interpreted as an apology for her bad behaviour. She invited the Hong Kong press to a private tea session to try to iron out the misunderstandings. But the polite actress, sitting with her back dancer-posture straight, is quick to point out that she was hardly saying sorry to the journalists. ‘I just want to make it clear, once and for all, to the Hong Kong press that I’m not what they make me out to be. I just want a more accurate representation of myself in the media. I really hate it when press reports twist facts,’ she says. ‘I remember that while I was in Hong Kong filming Rush Hour 2, I said a tearful goodbye to a make-up artiste. I was hugging her and then I thought: ‘If the Hong Kong media caught sight of this, the news would be that I’m a lesbian!’ she recalls, collapsing into giggles.

Still, she is well aware why she is considered fair game for media snipers. ‘There is no denying that I have been extremely lucky in my career so far. I have only been cast in four roles and two of my films have been really successful worldwide, while the other two have not been screened yet. ‘If someone else had been in my shoes, I would most definitely feel a similar envy, maybe even jealousy. ‘Human beings are like that. We always have to find a scapegoat to make ourselves feel much better.’

She understands that as a public artiste, the media has the licence to probe into her life. But the actress maintains that a certain part of her impossibly-glamorous life is not for public entertainment. IN FACT, ask her questions about her rumoured romantic links with Zhang Yimou, or Jackie Chan and son, and she shoots back a look so fierce, one wishes gongfu actress Michelle Yeoh was standing by to help fight her off – even though Zhang is only 1.64m tall. Nevertheless, she replies gracefully that such stale nuggets should not be dredged up as conversation topics. She further adds that only time – and not her words – can prove to everyone that these are nothing but rumours.

When pushed to answer whether she’s secretly dating a Korean actor, Zhang lets an expletive slip. ‘I don’t wish to talk about it,’ is her curt reply. But switch the subject matter back to a topic such as China’s recent successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic games and she perks right up. ‘I was in Taiwan when I first heard the news. I was ecstatic and felt so proud to be Chinese. I have since contacted my agent back in Beijing to let them know that I’d like to contribute to the Olympics in some way,’ she says.

‘I hope the organising committee will let me hold score cards or lead the marching contingent during the opening ceremony. I seriously doubt it, though,’ she says like a teenager who has just won the first prize in a raffle. With her overwhelming achievements, it’s easy to forget just how young she is.

Indeed, following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she looks set to leave China and make leaps and bounds into Hollywood with the black-belt blockbuster, Rush Hour 2. Opening next month in America and Singapore, the much anticipated Jackie Chan-and-Chris Tucker action flick promises to be the vehicle for the actress to karate-chop her way into Hollywood. If she is successful, then all it will take to storm Hollywood in Zhang’s case is beauty, brains and a pair of stiletto boots – not Berlitz.

However, she prefers to downplay her rapid ascent. ‘I have never given serious thought to going global or going to Hollywood. For me, what has happened to my life so far has been a blessing,’ she says. ‘Hollywood for me is more a dream place where there are many glamorous stars. ‘And for me, the best part of my job is that I get to attend red carpet events at the Oscars or at Cannes where I can indulge in a spot of star-gazing.’

Zhang is capable of being wise way beyond her years but daft below them in the same sentence. Maybe she isn’t the witch that the Hongkong press makes her out to be. Maybe she really is just a simple, talented China girl who got lucky.