Zhang Ziyi Redefines Action
Chinese star combines muscle with acting chops in the glorious House Of Flying Daggers.
In the future, we will worship Zhang Ziyi. As Western industries brace for the onslaught of Chinese capital, so Western pop culture must bow to the face of Chinese stardom. Right now that face is the shape of a clean, rounded V, with two dark discs for eyes and a ferocious lower lip.
Zhang Ziyi is global. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its four Oscars and staggering profits, made her an international star, and she loved the sheer muscle of her role.
“I didn’t know I had that kind of power,” she confesses. “Ang Lee found that power in me.”
Then came Hero, from the director who discovered her, Zhang Yimou (no relation). Its opening weekend topped every other non-English-language film ever released in North America – apart from the one that had Mel Gibson and Jesus behind it.
Now it’s House Of Flying Daggers, a bigger, wilder follow-up to Hero.
These three films mark an unprecedented merging of Asian thrills and Hollywood gloss. They have one thing in common: a 5-foot-5 former student at Beijing’s Central Drama Academy.
And that’s the remarkable thing about Zhang. She’s not just an on-screen killing machine. She’s an actor. Though her martial arts movies are mainly physical and her countless magazine covers offer an armour-plating of celebrity, Zhang can still pull off the quicksilver emotion of a teenage girl, both onscreen and in person. Her face plays scorn as easily as delight.
In the centre of a buzzing courtyard during the Toronto International Film Festival, Zhang sits in stylish, millionaire-casual gear trying to explain the bullet that brought her here.
“Except for all the luck, I think I’m quite tough, you know?” She speaks in English, a translator perched at her side. “I just work very hard,” she continues. “I don’t care if I get injured. I just keep doing.”
House Of Flying Daggers called for a lot of doing. Zhang plays Mei, a blind brothel girl and lethal fighter. Though she’s not trained in martial arts, Zhang had a backbreaking puberty training as a dancer. It’s what gets her through the fight scenes, she says.
“You know how hard it is for someone who doesn’t have the training? You cannot strain your legs, bang your back, all the hard movements. If you don’t have the training, you can’t. It’s impossible. For me, I can very easily do those things.”
Not a boast you’d hear from Jennifer Garner.
When Zhang went to Hollywood after Crouching Tiger to act in Rush Hour 2, she was amazed at the cushy life of American stars. For her, weekends off were tantamount to sloth.
“I’m used to doing hard work,” she says. “Since I was 11, every day we had training, very hard.”
The fact is, Zhang Ziyi has no American peer. She’s brilliant at the wire-fu gymnastics of her big international hits but equally at home in lush, arty dramas like Wong Kar Wai’s upcoming 2046. Right now she’s shooting the adaptation of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs Of A Geisha. It’s director Rob Marshall’s follow-up to Chicago, and a project Steven Spielberg nurtured for years. Zhang admits she finds it “very difficult” playing the lead role in English, with a Japanese accent.
Such is the price of ruling the planet. But Zhang appears to put diligence ahead of star perks.
“After Crouching Tiger I got a lot of offers,” she recalls. “Sometimes they offer you a lot of money and just want you to be in the movie and do some quite stupid things.”
Not that she’s above working for money. In China, she spokesmodels for Coca-Cola, TAG Heuer, Maybelline and others. She employs her brother solely to look after her endorsements.
She was discovered by Zhang Yimou when she responded to a cattle call for a shampoo commercial. She got the gig, and then her first movie role – the lead in Zhang’s film The Road Home.
That debut showed off the quality that still marks Zhang Ziyi’s work – a hard-headed, underdog nobility. It won her immediate comparisons to Zhang Yimou’s most famous discovery to that point, Gong Li.
“At the beginning, it was a little bit hard,” Zhang says, “because everybody said I was a young Gong Li.”
Young Gong Li wasn’t just a cute name for Zhang Yimou’s latest discovery. It was a snide little suggestion that Zhang Ziyi was also bonking her director, as Gong Li had before her. For the record, both Zhangs deny it, and it’s unlikely Zhang Yimou would court the same scandal twice.
Now, with perfectly pitched enthusiasm, Zhang Ziyi says the Gong Li comparison made her “feel very happy, because Gong Li is a superstar and she’s my idol, you know. I love her so much.”Of course, it helped that “after a half-year, people knew me and they stopped calling me young Gong Li. They know me, they know my name,” Zhang asserts. “I never worry about that.”
She won’t need to. She sells tickets. From Beijing to Berlin to Brampton, Zhang Ziyi wins ardent devotion from audiences, and she does it by instilling her characters with a surprising mix of Confucian dutifulness and individualist drive. She can slip from coquette to skull cracker in a single scene. Because she works at it.