However ornate our lives: Zhang Ziyi

November 01, 2012   |   Written by Rose Forde and Thom Fjord
The death of integrity and jet-setting at the end of history.

Considering the amount of shit 33-year-old actress Zhang Ziyi — known in the States for her role in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — has taken in the press, I’m not really surprised when she concludes our conversation (which in just one short hour has taken us from London’s famous Victoria & Albert Museum, to Claridge’s and then the posh Connaught, where we’re finishing up now) with the fairly depressing statement, “I don’t want to be seen on a package of toilet paper.”

She’s describing the dilemma and realities of “image maintenance” in a China that’s currently experiencing something of an image problem itself. At this October’s 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, president Hu Jintao is supposed to peacefully hand over leadership of the Communist Party, but an absolutely monstrous political scandal has some worrying this “once in a decade” transition will cleave entirely a CCP that has, perhaps, unwittingly revealed itself to be more internally divided than political observers have noted. And it just so happens our beautiful cover star is right in the thick of it. “If I had the choice I would just do my work on set then go home and enjoy my real life,” Zhang says plaintively.

I am asked to join Zhang at the Ballgowns exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum a day after the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games, which she attended as the official guest of Swiss watch firm, Omega. By the time I arrive to the exhibition, Zhang is dreadfully bored and has skipped off to shop with her friends. I am met by her friend, Ling (co-producer of My Lucky Star, a romantic comedy starring and produced by Zhang) who leads me through a busy bustle of tourists.

Zhang is standing in the back of a souvenir shop, arms folded, casually dressed, wanly smiling. Or is it pouting? Her enormous hat is the most conspicuous thing about her. I introduce myself. She is shy, yet impatient. The show is boring, the souvenir shop is boring, the Tracey Emin postcards and the printed tea towels are boring, the generic tourists and fashionably dressed crowd pretending to read highbrow art and design books are terrifically boring.

I ask if she enjoyed the Spice Girls dancing on Hackney Carriages and One Direction at the Closing Ceremonies. “Nice,” she says, but little else. Her apparent disinterest in the London Olympics is not shared among her compatriots, who have utterly scrutinized these games, anxious to claim Beijing’s superiority. But that’s not entirely what this is about.

“While London treated the spectacle of the Olympics like an exercise in cultural absurdity (the Queen jumped from an airplane fergodsakes) Beijing hosted the 2008 games with an unrivaled earnestness. It was the single biggest PR opporunity for the Republic since China joined the WTO. But for Zhang, this PR opportunity couldn’t have come at a worse time.

From under a large brimmed hat, she stares at me and asks, “Can you imagine having a tea right now?”

“Sure,” I respond.

“Maybe we can go somewhere more special?”

“Yes, special sounds nice,” I say, thanking her for the invitation.

I follow Zhang into the main courtyard of the Victoria & Albert Museum. As we’re trying to assess whether the cafe is open or closed, Zhang turns to me and asks with an unsure curiosity, “What do Western journalists think of me?”

I tell her I don’t really know, but I appreciate her giving me the time to maybe, possibly give her an answer.

“I’m interested in what Western journalists think of me,” she says, this time more firmly.

Turning her question into a statement has given her a new resolve, apparently. She seems poised to say more about her image or something along those lines, but we are interrupted by her excitable, all-female entourage who initiate a high-pitched fracas of photos amidst the impressive Italianate architecture of the court.

Zhang is reluctant to join her giggling cohort, and I worry if my presence as a journalist — a Western journalist — has once again become something of a rub. But Zhang eventually yields to the girls’ begging tugs at her sleeves and allows herself to be pulled in front of some fabulous, blue hydrangeas as big as heads of lettuce. One girl readies the camera as Zhang falls into her pose. Her look changes from cute to mesmerizing in an instant, but it’s just an instant, the confidence gives way to an unaffected embarrassment that she attempts to hide by corralling the team of ladies back inside.

Perhaps Zhang is wondering if it will ever end, as we’re climbing into a cab. We head for Claridge’s, because the Victoria & Albert Museum Cafe is closed. During the seven minute or so ride that sees us pass Grosvenor Square Garden, I ask Zhang why she cares what Western journalists think of her.

“The bloggers are out of control,” she says. While not direct, it’s a sufficient answer, and certainly indicative of her mood as she turns her face to the window.

Staring at the skinny Victorian townhouses lining the street, her expression is momentarily downcast as though she’s seeing a once cherished garden all weedy and rotted. She says absently, “I love London.”

It’s a quiet kind of drizzly afternoon typical of London in the summer. From the cabbie’s radio comes the tinny sound of a news broadcast. I worry for a second they might start talking about Bo Xilai, the disgraced politician who, at the time of this article’s publication, is alleged to have paid Zhang large sums of money for “adult sleepovers” — but it’s the European debt crisis. The cab is silent except for the small voice of the newscaster, which grows about a foot when it mentions recession-strained trade talks with China. Zhang’s mood seems downcast.

“The out of control bloggers” Zhang loathes are the products of China’s current commitment to economic liberalization, broader consumer access to technological goods and services, and an increasingly liberalized commercial media. Official statistics are hard to come by but it is estimated that more than 500 million Chinese residents now have internet access. Social media outlets like Weibo, China’s microblog equivalent to Twitter, (Twitter is banned), boast user figures of 350 million.

Consequently, greater access to information and the means to disperse it has advanced a riff between state and professional media sources. Meanwhile, commercialism has weakened the state-funded studio system, allowing a new professional class of entertainer and celebrity to assume cultural dominance in China — a change of which Zhang is a redoubtable beneficiary. Free to infiltrate the nexus of private and state business by merely situating their image nearer China’s power brokers, celebrity loudly emblazons the new liberalized politics, justifying a governing party whose favorite mode of communication is whispering. But it’s where the relations between parties are opaque that the Internet rumor mill in China really drives the news cycle — more so, now that Chinese media strings aren’t all tied to the Propaganda Department (basically the PR department for the government).

We arrive at Claridge’s tearoom. Staff and onlooker notice the entourage and that Zhang is beautiful but the recognition is not in excess of the lines of her figure.

They haven’t the slightest idea who she is, but they know she’s important. We settle into our seats. Zhang looks at her hands. Claridge’s is draining something of her energy. It’s that dulling impassive quiet a gawker casts over the gawkedat. I suggest maybe the Connaught’s atmosphere would be better suited. Zhang nods, the entourage is on their feet, and we leave.

The waitress brings us our menus. There is a stateliness and dignity to the way Zhang looks over her choices and selects the Lapsang Souchong Imperial. Our teas are brought to us. The steam rising from our cups compliments the mists curling around the trunks of the plane trees in Tadao Ando’s “Silence,” a granite infinity pool that the tearoom windows look out on. As the atomizers power off, the mist ceases to ascend and falls into itself, like a cloud collapsing, before dispersing over the surface of the fountain.

The ambience presents an apt metaphor for the ambiguous, ethereal allegations surrounding Zhang and her involvement with the prominent Neo-Maoist politician, Bo Xilai. The day before the party removes him from office Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao alludes to Bo and his political affiliates in a public address. Official announcement the next day is a single sentence informing the world that Bo is no longer in the party.

It’s at this point Zhang’s name starts coming up in connection to Bo Xilai, alleging that Xu Ming — a businessman and financial backer of Bo Xilai’s political career — paid Zhang six million yuan (the equivalent of one million American dollars) for a romp in the sack. Rumor has it that, tired of her, Xu Ming then hands Zhang off to Bo Xilai, who has her at an increased cost, in an arrangement that is alleged to last from 2007 to 2011. Numerous reports using the word “prostitute” in reference to Zhang make their way onto the web. Soon the West is taking notice. There is coverage in almost every major media outlet.

Zhang fires back in the press, categorically denying the rumors, but at this point the machine is rolling. She blows on her tea before taking a sip. Her face settles into a sort-of grimace. It’s obvious that even alluding to the scandal annoys her. Zhang herself is part of this dynamic celebrity enterprise. It doesn’t feel like she is so much upset about the nature of the allegations as she’s frustrated by the interruption. She continues, “Someone can say ‘she has slept with this guy last night’ and even if it’s not true, anyone can upload it. If you want to sue them, go ahead and sue them but the punishment is next to nothing. They may lose a bit of money or put a small apology in the paper. But China is nothing like America, where [if you’re a famous person] there is the law to protect you.”

What’s ironic is that the website that first broke this story — Boxun — is actually based out of North Carolina, and is run by a would-be dissident, Watson Meng, and that in the US, media coverage went unchecked, whereas internet police in China erased any mention of Zhang in connection to Bo Xilai in official reports (although other Chinese outlets, like the Apple Daily and the Epoch Times, have done their part in furthering unsubstantiated tales of lavish parties and gift giving).

On June 14th, in US District Court, Zhang files claims against 27 defendants, most of them offshoots of non-profit umbrella agency China Free Press, under which Boxun’s Watson Meng does his reportage. Boxun has thus far stood by its claims and plans to bring more evidence against Zhang when the case goes to trial.

Boxun and other media outfits peddling the rumours are affiliated with one cause or another. Perhaps a financier of one of these outlets is someone who would politically benefit from embarrassing China’s biggest star? There’s no way to really know why Zhang Ziyi is involved in all this, but certainly you don’t get to the top without making a few enemies, as the saying goes.

The first major impression anyone has of Zhang comes by way of The Road Honze directed by Zhang Yimou, (The Flowers of War, To Live) and released in 1999, when Zhang was 19 (Yimou also directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and the films Hero and House of Flying Daggers., in which Zhang starred. She broke into the US market with Rush Hour 2, turned in a lauded performance in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 in 2004, and landed a major critical victory in 2005’s Academy Award nominated and Steven Spielberg produced, Memoirs of a Geisha). In The Road Home, Zhang plays Zhao Di, a bucket-carrying provincial teen, who falls in love with the freshly arrived city-boy teacher. What follows is a sort of market of exchanges, longing looks and sideways glances between teacher and pupil. It is a successful film, in part because what is projected on the screen seems to indicate the real lives of the people behind it. Though it can’t be confirmed, speculation during filming had it that Yimou and Zhang were having a relationship reminiscent of the teacher and student. Rumours of this sort have also followed Yimou, as he and the famous actress Gong Li were an alleged item while working on To Live.

After The Road Home and in the 12 years since she appeared as Jen Wu in Crouching tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang’s life has been floating between two poles, what she has taken to calling ‘work’ and her ‘real life.’ It’s been quite the run.

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, she and her then fiancee, Israeli born venture capitalist, Aviv Nevo (who is a majority shareholder of Time Warner, of which New Line Cinemas is a subsidiary. New Line Cinemas also distributed Zhang’s first American film Rush Hour 2), established a relief fund, The Zhang Ziyi Foundation, for victims of the quake. As testament to her good will, Zhang pledged one million Yuan of her own. But in 2010 news broke, alleging that the funds Zhang had raised for the victims were being funnelled from the foundation into a private bank account tied to her name, where they were then held. After media inquiry, Zhang released the funds, stating in an interview she was unsure how the account set-up worked. At the time this story was making its rounds, Global Times writer Doriah Morrison alleged seeing Zhang check into a “lover’s suite” at China World Hotel Spa with then-engaged South Beauty restaurant heir, Wang Xiaofei.

When we pass Grosvenor Square Garden Zhang turns her head to the window and I watch a reflection of London pass across her face like on a screen. I find myself wanting to read all that I know about Zhang in these little moments when she gets embarrassed or demure. I have to keep telling myself to stop, because the truth with Ziyi is much like the truth with China. Regardless of what you think you know there’s always much more you don’t, and the truth, that coy mistresses, eludes even the handsomest aggressor’s advances.

It’s this elusiveness that makes Zhang both compelling and frustrating. Our difficultly in arranging the photoshoot for the cover speaks to this. Prior to today’s romp about London, we’d scheduled shoots for her in the Philippines only to have them moved to Hong Kong. Once we’d arranged a photographer for Hong Kong we learn from

Zhang’s publicist she’s back in the Philippines, and we’re at square one. Fine, fuck it, the Philippines. But Zhang is already in London. Arranging for a photo-shoot in London during the Olympics is next to impossible. We have to wait until she flies to New York. When she lands, her publicist calls our offices, but not from New York. They’re in Toronto. But they agree to fly to New York. Then Zhang refuses to leave Toronto. So we fly to Toronto and by the skin of our teeth set up a shoot.

This all comes with the territory, of an international star, and damn does Zhang look great. But there’s also so much going on — and so much that’s going on around her — you can’t help but admire her, really, the way you admire a vortex.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Zhang has lost the one thing most “big time stars” have — control of her image. Now, no matter where Zhang’s image appears, an allegedly proceeds it and this media deigned allegedly is just one of many signals perhaps heralding China’s changing social and media climate. The institutional guards that would have protected a politician or celebrity 20 years ago from half-truths and hearsay concocted by the people have eroded under the pressure of proliferating social technology. In headier journals some have suggested the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department is as much a loser in this Bo Xilai fiasco as Zhang is, but the political and economic fallout of the coming transition has yet to be seen. Certainly one of the major questions the Communist Party will have to answer going forward is how much access it’s willing to grant its citizens to the global forum, and how, in turn, this access will affect China’s political processes.

However large the lacunae are in this reading of the state of Chinese authority and media (this could all be carefully modulated of course), Zhang’s problem with the misprision of her image extends beyond scandal into more predictable areas.

Like most foreign movie stars confronting the numbslcullery of Western media, she takes umbrage at the simplistic narratives or roles into which the West tries to fit her. When she tells me this, it’s with the conviction of a statement oft repeated. “People look at me and think I am Chinese or simply a Chinese actor or representative of China, like I’m a victim. I am not going to do a film where I play a stereotypical role that reinforces what the Western world thinks about Chinese people. Chinese people are always depicted as poor gangsters or villains.”

It doesn’t end there, as it seems Zhang feels there’s a lot of unwonted criticism she’d like to put to rest. She brings up her artistic sensibilities, as though she’s been accused of not having any. Citing her work in Memoirs of a Geisha, Zhang believes she, “showed that I am not just a kick-and-punch pretty girl, but that I can do real drama. I am a serious actor.”

But as is the case with most of Zhang’s statements, the moment belies the utterance without completely invalidating it either; we run into more allegedly. Her latest role has her teaming up once again with Wong Kar-Wai for his long-in-the-works and closely guarded passion project, The Grandmaster. Judging from the trailer, she’ll be doing a lot of kicking and punching in this flick.

The Grandmaster, due for release December 18th, is typical of a Wong Kar-Wai production (and indicative of the system which produces it): it’s been in development for at least a decade, is allegedly over-budget, and there’s little to no script to reference. What is known about The Grandmaster is that it’s an imaginative retelling of the life of master martial artist, Ip Man, and that Zhang has a lead role alongside Tony Leung who plays him.

Work on the film has been pretty grueling, Zhang tells me as we’re approaching the stately doors of the Connaught. For the past two years she’s been on and off the Grandmaster set. It’s also been something of a thorn in her side while confronting the recent scandal. Social media goes wild when Zhang doesn’t show at Cannes this year to promote her film Dangerous Liaisons. The microblogs in China assume it’s because she has been restricted to Mainland China while authorities investigate the allegations levied against her.

However, these reports are soon invalidated when sometime Atlantic Monthly correspondent, Damien Ma, snaps a picture of Zhang at the Hong Kong International Airport on his cellphone. Before authorities confiscate Ma’s phone, he uploads the picture to his Twitter feed, where said image is reproduced and reproduced and reproduced.

Within the day, Ma sees his snap of Zhang being run in Chinese newspapers. She is in Hong Kong so she can’t possibly be restricted to the mainland, but at that very moment Zhang’s image — its truth or its fiction — is already on the mainland, is in Cannes and London and Toledo, before she’s even stepped on the plane … she’s everywhere … she’s …

… she’s just jumping into a tall and heading to Claridge’s, she’s passing Grosvenor Park and is telling me she loves London. She’ll get to Claridge’s but the mood, or is it the decoration or wallpaper or whatever, is oppressive, and we’ll go somewhere else, where they serve better tea, and she will agree, and her entourage will follow, and by this time, Zhang will have already asked me what I think of her, and I will have already told her maybe at the end of the interview when I might have an idea … except now the end of the interview circles back to an impossible beginning … because I think I maybe already began with its ending … we … we are just settling in at the Connaught, for tea and cake, and Zhang is telling me … I’m asking her … she’s telling me …