Zhang Ziyi: A Chinese Look
Narrator: Late last month, Jasmine Women was finally released after being shelved for three years. In this Hou Yong-directed movie, Zhang Ziyi portrays three women living in different eras and is considered the most attractive feature in it.
Already a much sought-after actor in the international movie industry, how does Zhang Ziyi evaluate her performance three years ago? From a pure and innocent girl to dazzling international movie star, what did she rely on to succeed? And what does she have to say about those controversies that have been following her around?
Zhang Ziyi, who rarely speaks to mainland media, accepted our request for an interview on Face to Face after attending the Jasmine Women press conference.
Wang Zhi: I heard about Jasmine Women a long time ago. What took it so long to come out?
Zhang Ziyi: Probably because there were too many bosses. They had a lot of differences, which led to such a difficult birth of the movie. I once thought of buying its distribution rights and releasing it myself.
Wang: What does it mean to you? This movie.
Ziyi: For me at that time, it should qualify as a highlight of my career. It fully reflects my professional standard three years ago, my experiences up to then crystallizing in the quality of acting, and the challenges from portraying three characters. I gave all I had to the characters.
Wang: How hard was it for you to play three characters?
Ziyi: It was a huge challenge. I thought I must portray each of the three characters with unmistakable personality, including every aspect of her physical presence.
Wang: Did you take up the roles because of the challenge?
Ziyi: I did it because of what Hou Yong said to me. He told me he would not make the movie if I pass it off. Realizing he trusted me so completely, I said OK, knowing there would be difficulties.
Wang: I know Jiang Wen and Joan Chen are also in it. Working with actors like them, did you feel pressure from them or the other way around?
Ziyi: I didn’t want to give anybody pressure, neither did I feel any pressure from them. Initially I was a little nervous because I didn’t know Joan Chen. Later, we got to know each other better. She plays my character’s mother. We filmed many scenes together. After a while, I realized good actors can really compliment one another, like you give her something more and she will give you something more in return. Jiang Wen is also an experienced actor. I felt very comfortable working together with him, because you knew nothing could go wrong.
Wang: Compared to them, you apparently have less experience in acting than they do, but you seem about to surpass them any time now as far as fame is concerned.
Ziyi: This so-called renown or fame means little to me. Be it praise or snub, it’s nothing compared to what kind of actor you really are and you attitude toward your life and your career. I think the fact that I was able to come this far, step by step, and appeared in some quality movies probably has something to do with my mindset. I’m not in a hurry to make so many movies a year or earn so much money. It’s not my life. What I want in my life is to be really creative in a movie and give it soul.
Wang: How did you rise above so many beautiful actresses?
Ziyi: I wanted to be a good actor and make significant movies of high artistic value. That is what has motivated me to advance one step at a time. Maybe a lot of people still can’t let go of the idea that I’ have been had so much luck and landed so many good roles which should have been their’s. I believe everything happens for a reason and I have not come this far just by luck.
Wang: Did luck have anything to do with it?
Ziyi: Of course it did. I think I probably had more luck than capability when I was cast in The Road Home, my first movie and first co-operation with director Zhang Yimou, and then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, too. But I stopped saying that afterwards. I believe opportunities are for those who are capable and prepared.
Wang: Do you remember the first time you met with Zhang Yimou?
Ziyi: I was late that day. I knocked on the door and it was Zhang Yimou who answered it. I was surprised. Then I apologized for being late, because I had got the address and time all wrong. But he said it’s OK. The first impression he left to me is that he seemed unable to straighten his back. I wondered if he was always like that or just for that moment. Anyway, he seemed very courteous and easy-going to me.
Wang: Why did Zhang Yimou chose you for the lead in The Road Home?
Ziyi: I think it was because my age and disposition at that time fit the character in his mind.
Wang: Some people figured it was because Zhang Ziyi reminded him of Gong Li.
Ziyi: I don’t think that was the reason. I’m sure he cast a particular actor because he saw potential in her (him).
Wang: What was your wish at that time?
Ziyi: How not to let him down. That was my top priority in the beginning. Besides, I wanted to prove myself. I was a very strong-willed girl. I hated to see myself fail. I always gave my 100 percent. Maybe I could fail, but I would not regret it, because I did my best.
Wang: How would you evaluate your performance in The Road Home?
Ziyi: I think The Road Home is a movie that means a great deal to me. It shows me at my most wonderful age and in my best condition. I can always recall the scene where I stand at the door like, like a beautiful oil painting, and the way my two braids swing back and forth as I run. All those images have been recorded on film forever. As for my performance, I was totally the person the director wanted to show to the audience. I still remember one of those days, we were filming the scene where I brought a bowl of dumplings to the teacher and later sat on the hill crying, because I dropped the bowl and ruined the dumplings. At that time I did not have the experience and ability to produce the right emotions, including shedding tears, when needed. It was really a big challenge to me.
Wang: We would probably think your performance in The Road Home that has calved your image into our memory, and also because you were labeled a “Mou girl”.
Ziyi: I believe, without Zhang Yimou being the director, it wouldn’t have been so easy for people to reckon my presence and accept me as an actor. I was still a simple college student at that time. I had never thought (of landing a leading role). I remember I often said to my classmates how much I wished the four years of college could finish sooner, so that I could find a suitable man and form a family with him. Even after TRH wrapped I was still thinking that way. I didn’t expect myself to become famous one day and be a movie actor, neither had I imagined I could be so successful. I couldn’t help feeling lots of what happened to me were more accidental than otherwise.
(Narration left out here)
Wang: What were you wishing for when you were making your second movie (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) with such a director and those famous actors?
Ziyi: All I hoped for was director Ang Lee would not say ‘No’ to me and would not kick me out because I wasn’t good enough. I knew he was meeting with other actresses and was looking for the one perfect for playing his Jen. In the end he picked me, and that’s why I just had to prove he was right, even if it meant I had to risk my life doing that.
Wang: So you proved it with action?
Ziyi: Yes. Everyday, I practiced the sword when I wasn’t filming. It did permanent damage to my right shoulder, but I had no idea at that time.
I struggled through the six months of filming under director Ang Lee’s command. It was quite a depressing environment. He never praised my acting, not even a word of appreciation. I was only an ordinary young actor, practically unknown after making only one movie (The Road Home). That put a lot of pressure on me, because the action director and the director of cinematography were famous, and there were such big stars as Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. I felt like I was trapped in a cage struggling to survive. I also lacked confidence at that time, because Ang Lee said ‘Let’s go with her’ when he picked me.
Wang: What does that mean?
Ziyi: That means ‘it’s pointless to keep on choosing, since no one else is better.’ That’s why I was under pressure throughout the filming phase because I sensed he was not satisfied with me. So I reminded myself all the time he was not satisfied with me and I must convince him with my work that I was not his problem, because I knew he was under a lot of pressure, too. It was the first time he got to make such a big-budget movie, which was aimed at the world market. It wasn’t so hard to see he was also under pressure. He was not a smoker, but he started smoking while filming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on location. I felt really bad for him. I thought I was a major part of the heavy pressure on him.
(The six-month wait for the hug that never came has been left out. Sorry.)
Wang: Is he a reluctant hugger?
Ziyi: I believed it was his way of pushing me to do better, because on the day filming wrapped…(we already know what happened at the dinner table.)
Wang: Ang Lee seems to be a courteous and mild-tempered man, but you once described the relationship between you two as cat and mouse.
Ziyi: He was this big and fierce cat, while I was the mouse. As a matter of fact, I was not sure about my acting at that time. And I was afraid and nervous. (Filming in Xinjiang, crying alone, midair grunt and so on omitted.) I should say I learned to have confidence in myself and let it out in acting through filming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
(Narration left out)
Ziyi: When I stepped on to the red carpet on Oscar night for the first time, I asked myself: What on earth has happened? Why am I standing here? I couldn’t understand why, all of a sudden, so many US movie scripts were handed to me. Did something happen? I don’t think even Director Ang Lee himself had expected Crouching Tiger to be so successful and have such an impact on the world.
Wang: If you are asked to compare Zhang Yimou with Ang Lee?
Ziyi: They are both very important in my career. They will be my excellent teachers and friends in need forever. And I will be indebted to them as long as I live.
Wang: Which one of them played a bigger role (in your professional experience)?
Ziyi: I can’t place either of them ahead the other. They are equally important in my mind.
Wang: Why did you choose to work with Wong Kar Wai?
Ziyi: I trust him, because he is Wong Kar Wai. He is well-known for “filming rehearsals”. I thought who’s to know it won’t do me any good? I was able to perform so much better than before because of my cooperation with Wong and because there was no script. I was actually very nervous in those days, so nervous I had to drink a little sake before filming. I’m not saying I was scared, but rather worried what would happen if I couldn’t deliver what he wanted, as he had no script and gave us no clear instructions. And he always hid himself behind an enormous pair of sunglasses. It just makes it even harder to understand someone if you can’t see his eyes. So I decided to drink a little to fortify myself. My character drinks a lot in the movie anyway. It helped me know her better.
You learn a lot of things through every movie you make. Some of them teach you more, some less, but they are all building blocks of your professional experience. Though I have just about 30 minutes of appearance in 2046, it is enough to show people the kind of transformation I made professionally. It was one of my better performances so far.
Wang: There are many famous faces in 2046, including Gong Li.
Ziyi: Yes. But we didn’t work together.
Wang: Have you ever compared with each other?
Ziyi: I don’t think so, but some people and the press certainly did, such as who is better known internationally and what not. To me, Gong Li is always No. 1.
Wang: You are being modest, I guess.
Ziyi: No. When I just started in showbiz, people called me “Little Gong Li”, while I said she was the kind of actor I wanted to become. She was my idol, a fantastic actor.
Wang: Which of her strong points is beyond you?
Ziyi: We are separated by so many years of experience, after all. What she has experienced so far, since she was 20, is nearly 20 years ahead of me. There is no way I can ever catch up with her on that count. My professional accomplishment so far is the best my age allows me to achieve.
(The narrator shifts the topic to Hero.)
Ziyi: Director Zhang Yimou told me this story needed me. He hoped I could do him a small favor by playing this insignificant role, because he needed as many big names as possible to break into the American movie market and the world market. I didn’t need any persuasion to say yes. I knew I would just serve as minor trimming, but I thought they would be so happy if I stepped forth when they needed my help.
Wang: Did you take the role in Hero out of gratitude (to Zhang Yimou)?
Ziyi: Mostly, yes. But it was really hard, though. When we were filming the fight between Maggie Cheung and me in Xinjiang, we had to wash our faces, nostrils and mouths after every shot because the sand was everywhere, even in our eyes. But I believed we Chinese could endure any hardship. Later on, when I was in the US for movie shoots, I told my American colleagues you guys are totally pampered, with all the material comforts you can afford. If you ever get to work in China, you would know how devoted we are to our job over there.
Wang: You could have asked the director for better working conditions, because you were not the young girl a few years back.
Ziyi: I am just an actor when I’m on the set. I care much more about the director’s commitment to the project and if the crew take it as seriously as they should. I would definitely speak up if I find something amiss in that department.
Wang: To the average audience, an actor’s job is all glamour, no sweat. How do you see it?
Ziyi: They should definitely go to a movie set to see and feel it for themselves if they have a chance. It’s really not that easy as they think. I had thought action movies were fun and easy to make before I was cast in Crouching Tiger. Now I know otherwise, so will anyone who has experienced what I did. And you would be a little more considerate and less selfish every time you put yourself in someone else’s shoe.
(Turning to Memoirs of a Geisha)
Wang: Why did you accept this role?
Ziyi: I I really feel I have been wronged. I discussed this with Gong Li, too. They spent so many years on picking the cast they wanted and ended up choosing two mainland Chinese actors for the two most important roles. I think it’s a kind of honor. So many people trusted us, the director, the producer, and such a big investment. When all this was put before the two of us, what else should we do but make it a success.
Wang: How do you think the audience should view this national feeling thing?
Ziyi: Personally, I am very proud of my country. Being on the cover of an influential US magazine such as Time, I feel it was a show of respect for the Chinese people, or to china. As a Chinese actor, I believe it is my responsibility to let more countries of the world get to see more of China.
(Turning to her private life)
Wang: What is Zhang Ziyi like in everyday life?
Ziyi: In private I am still quite child-like. I mean I ‘m still rather carefree about things. I know there would be paparazzi out there ready to follow everywhere, but I’d put on whatever I feel comfortable in, be it sneakers, gym tights or really loose sweatshirts. I won’t change my own lifestyle just because they are picking on me.
Wang: Would you be more careful with what you say and do because of the media attention?
Ziyi: I think I’ve lost as much privacy as I could let go, with so many of them on your back all the time. But, on second thought, this is what you have to deal with, or part of the price you have to pay. The only thing I think I can still protect is my inner self and private life. I respect those I love as well as myself, which is why the person who loves me is probably the only one I’ll let know of my inner feelings. As for others, I don’t believe I must let the whole world know what belongs to me only.
Wang: But Zhang Ziyi is the subject of sexual innuendos anyway.
Ziyi: Just some frivolous gossips when you are bored, like that no-big-deal thing with Jackie Chan (during filming of Rush Hour 2), which I have almost forgotten. When I was in the States filming that movie, Jackie Chan, his wife and son all treated me like a member of the family. I never thought anything between Jackie Chan and me could become tabloid fodder. What is more ridiculous is they even spread rumors of an affair between Jackie Chan’s son and me. So, I didn’t bother to explain, because I had no time for such trivial things.
Wang: Some actors probably enjoy such controversy, because it gives them more exposure.
Ziyi: Not me. I can never be so pathetic as to rely on innuendos for publicity.
(Turning to the upcoming Cannes Film Festival)
Wang Do you think the invitation was for you or the Chinese film industry?
Ziyi: I think they offered a place to the Chinese as a whole rather than me alone. I think anyone who gets to stand on that stage, being the only Chinese surrounded by foreigners, would feel quite proud of himself, as I would.
Translated by Jiminthemiddle for HelloZiyi.us