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Ziyi Zhang: Face of the Future

January 01, 2006   |   Written by Anthony Barzilay Freund
Why Memoirs of a Geisha’s young Chinese star is winning the hearts of audiences around the globe

You probably first noticed Ziyi Zhang in 2000, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Ang Lee-directed movie in which she starred (it was only her second film) became a huge hit in the U.S. Although it was a martial-arts movie, and a Chinese-language one at that, Crouching Tiger’s romantic storyline, lush visuals and amazing airborne fight sequences struck a nerver with American audiences. It was not alone: from film to fashion, food, fiction and fine art, Americans are embracing cultural imports as never before. And right now, China seems to be at the forefront of this burgeoning cultural revolution.

One of the most sublime of these Chinese exports is Zhang herself, a leading lady for the 21st century. She’s petite and almost fragile-looking in person, but on the big screen she can convey the playful innocence of a child, the grace of a dancer and the bone-crushing strength of a superhero. She’s a true exotic, but not because she’s from a faraway country. Zhang, twenty-six, was born and bred in Beijing (the daughter of an economist and a schoolteacher, she’s still based there), but she might as well hail from a faraway planet: her ethereal beauty so sets her apart-as Greta Garbo’s once did-from other A-list actresses of her generation.

Currently making her English-language debut in Memoirs of a Geisha, the screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s hugely popular novel, Zhang is set to become a very big star in America. This says as much about the broadening of American tastes as it does about her extraordinary appeal as an actress. “I have to admit, I feel really lucky that Hollywood is now interested in other cultures,” Zhang told me over afternoon tea in the lobby of the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, where she was staying temporarily during postpreduction of Geisha. (Wearing tinted contact lenses, she plays Sayuri, the persevering Kyoto geisha with the liquid green-blue eyes.) “It’s like a huge door has finally opened, and we Asian actresses are just in time to come through it.”

Still, she’s aware that there are limitations to the roles she’ll be offered in America. “I’m not interested in playing prostitutes or the stereotypical poor Chinese girl,” she explains in her hesitant but fluent English (she’s been studying the language for the past two years). That means she won’t make big Hollywood movies just for their own sake. And she continues to have a thriving career in Asian films, working with that continent’s top directors, among them Wong Kar Wai, the auteur behind last year’s highly stylized 2046; and Zhang Yimou, who cast her in House of Flying Daggers (in which she plays the brave and breathtakingly beautiful center of a doomed love triangle) and 1998’s touching Road Home, her film debut.

Zhang is thoughtful and serious not just about her career but about her craft. “After I became an actress, I started watching lots of movies. The really great performers don’t use only their voices. They act with their faces, their eyes,” she says. “Sometimes, when they’re shot from behind, even the position of their shoulders will tell you something you didn’t know.”

This kind of talk isn’t surprising from someone who spent six years of her childhood studying traditional Chinese folk dance, and that early, intense training is evident in all her film work, from the impossibly graceful martial arts of Crouching Tiger to the deeply moving “Snow Dance” that Geisha’s Sayuri performs-in eight-inch platform shoes, no less. “We rehearsed just that one scene for several weeks,” she admits, her face lit by a lovely, broad smile.

Beyond the physical challenges of Zhang’s roles, complicated costumes have figured prominently in many of her movies (sometimes, she says, it took up to two hours for her to be dressed in Sayuri’s ornate kimonos). So it follows that in real life she prefers to dress casually; when we meet, she’s in white jeans and a crisp T-shirt, a pair of dark sunglasses poised atop her pulled-back hair. “When I go to movie premieres or film festivals, I have to dress up,” she says. “And it can be fun every once in a while, like a fairy tale with the hair and makeup, the gown and diamonds and rubies.” She pauses and laughs heartily. “But then you realize the bodyguards near the red carpet are there to protect the jewelry, not you.”

“Zi’s so joyous-she loves to laugh, loves life. It’s infectious,” says Rob Marshall, Geisha’s Oscar-nominated director (for 2002’s Chicago). Marshall says that although Zhang is Chinese and the film’s Sayuri is Japanese, “I honestly feel that she’s the only actress in the world who could play this role. I needed a great actor, a brillian dancer and, most important of all, someone with star presence. Zi claimed the role. You can’t watch her and not think of Audrey Hepburn. They that’s extremely rare.

When asked if Hepburn, or any other American or European actress, was a role model while she was growing up, Zhang says that Western movies didn’t figure very prominently in her childhood (or in 1980s and ’90s). “When I was a little girl, I thought air attendants were the most glamorous women in the world,” she says, laughing. “They spoke English and wore beautiful uniforms with hats.” Perhaps she could play a flight attendant in a movie, I tell her. “Yes, probably one day,” she says, smiling at the very thought of it.