The Art of War: Zhang Ziyi Takes the Western World

August 01, 2001   |   Written by Jonathan Durbin
Crouching Tiger’s Zhang Ziyi takes the western world.

You have to wonder what exactly Zhang Ziyi’s learning in English class. Despite being born and raised in Beijing, the actress, lauded the world over for her portrayal of the snotty, sword-skilled ingenue in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has mastered the finer points of the free-market economy, clicking through Chelsea in high heels and ordering food that’s not on the menu. “Ice cream, please,” she tells the waiter without glancing at the menu. “Chocolate. Four spoons.” Although accompanied by two translators, Ziyi is fluent enough to understand most questions. While living in New York to improve her English, she’s been taking in the town, and it shows — wearing an orchid-print tank top, Christian Dior belt, and transparent pink sunglasses, she looks less the Qin Dynasty warrior princess and more the hip-hop star who just cut her debut.

It’s not just her look that’s grounded in the here-and-now. She’s about to appear as a cold-blooded villain in shiny black pants in the cop flick Rush Hour 2, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Ziyi admits that the role wasn’t enough of a dramatic challenge for her, but it’s an American film and that’s what counts. And when asked if she likes the movie, she responds with the coy humor of a native speaker: “You watch it first, and then I’ll let you know.”
Action aside, Rush Hour 2 doesn’t entirely go against the grain of Ziyi’s artistic temperament. After playing a warrior princess in Crouching Tiger, she filmed The Warriors (in which she plays a warrior princess) and The Legend of Zu (in which she also plays a warrior princess). She will soon start production on Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (no warrior princesses, at least not yet. Maybe some guns). But in China, where the art film-to-commercial film ratio (9 to 1) is roughly inverse to that in the U.S., actors fantasize about working on big-budget American crossovers.
“When I’m doing an American film, I can eat whatever I want,” she jokes, rubbing her belly. “There’s a lot of food. In Chinese film, you have to pack your own lunch. Budget’s not the only difference, but it’s significant. The budget for Rush Hour 2 was $100 million, where the budget for Crouching Tiger was only about $15 million. Also, China isn’t as free about expression in terms of subject matter. There are certain sensitive issues we can’t talk about. In China, art is only there to support politics.”

Yet Ziyi’s appearance in a summer blockbuster seems odd, given that she will have worked with three of Asia’s most fascinating exports by fall. Directors Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad, Raise the Red Lantern), Wong Kar-wai (Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love), and Ang Lee aren’t known for splashy seasonal productions. It seems stranger still considering that her performance in Crouching Tiger won her acclaim from organizations as diverse as the Toronto Film Critics Association and the MTV Movie Awards (Best Fight, Breakthrough Female Performance). We love her the way she is. But what’s especially curious is that the 22-year-old doesn’t even like action films. When asked, she rattles off a few of her favorites: “To Live, by Zhang Yimou. Erin Brockovich. Beauty and the Beast.”
“I much prefer tragedies,” she says. “I’d love to work with Lars von Trier; I thought Dancer in the Dark was so powerful. Some people love film as entertainment, and some love it as a way to pass time. For some people, it’s a way to find epiphanies. But I realized why I love making movies: You learn about things in a way you can’t when in school, or from books. Film provides access to all human emotions.”

The passion to break into Hollywood for her acting and not, say, for twirling her sword, infuses her performances with emotional grit. But if her Sunset Boulevard ambition appears incompatible with her background, if her ambivalence toward action flicks doesn’t jibe with her success in such films, it’s no stranger than the lukewarm reception Crouching Tiger received in her homeland. “Chinese audiences were bored. I think Crouching Tiger was a little too sophisticated for them,” she says, reflecting on the differences between John Woo’s school of filmmaking and Ang Lee’s. “Actually, the root of the problem is that people in China don’t go to movie theaters all that much.”

Though she’s only been working for four years, Zhang Ziyi is already renowned for her dedication and elegance. People named her one of its 50 Most Beautiful People and quoted Rush Hour 2 director Brett Ratner as saying she was “the Audrey Hepburn of Asia.” Raised in western Beijing by her father, a government economist, and mother, a kindergarten teacher, Ziyi left home at age 11 to study folk dance at Beijing Dancing College. “I didn’t like it,” she says unequivocally. “I wasn’t the best dancer, although I can kick my legs very high.” She tells of running away on multiple occasions. Eventually she enrolled in China Central Drama Academy to study acting and was still in school while filming Crouching Tiger. Since graduating last year, she has worked on five films and learned English. She hasn’t had time for a boyfriend.

“She’s focused on her career now,” admonishes Ling Lucas, one of Ziyi’s managers. “She’s got lots of suitors, but she says no to everyone. She loves to study languages. I have to drag her to bed at midnight. If I don’t drag her to bed, she’d still be studying.” When asked what other languages she speaks, Ziyi quips: “Chinese.” And when asked if she plans to make more American films after mastering the language, she says: “Nah, I think I’ll become a nun.”
Fame arrives from the unlikeliest of sources — Ziyi earned her stripes from shampoo. While holding a casting call for a television commercial, director Zhang Yimou was also covertly interviewing girls for The Road Home, a love story set during China’s Cultural Revolution. He never made the shampoo ad, but Ziyi got her first part. And though she was recognized for her performance — The Road Home won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Sundance’s Audience Award — in China she was compared to Gong Li, not always favorably. Li, star of Ju Dou and Farewell, My Concubine, was romantically involved with Yimou and appeared in several of his films; when The Road Home was released, Chinese audiences began calling Ziyi “Little Gong Li,” and rumors spread of an affair between her and the director.

“I would love to have an affair [with him],” she banters, much to the chagrin of her translators. “But nothing happened. Being compared to Gong Li was a big compliment, nothing to be unhappy about. I admire her. I can’t really be compared to Gong Li — maybe in a few years, but not now. She’s a huge international superstar. Plus,” Ziyi leans forward, as if divulging a secret, “she’s gorgeous.”
It’s an apt comparison, if only because both display remarkable poise, and both are strikingly beautiful. But where Li brings a mature sexuality to the screen, Ziyi’s both sexy and innocent, still more girl than grown-up. The crouching tigress (who was actually born in the year of the goat, according to Chinese astrology) alternates between sophisticate and goof, like when she follows her discussion of Björk (“I like her personality; she expresses exactly what she wants, and that’s what I’d like to be able to do”) with an air-guitar rendition of Weezer’s “Hashpipe.” And although she’s clearly enamored of America’s cultural freedom, she says she doesn’t like going out to bars or clubs. Rather, when the ice cream’s melted to soup and the interview’s wound to a close, Ziyi tells her translators, in no uncertain terms, what she’d like to do next. “Prada!” she exclaims in English. “Barneys!” Spoken like a native.