Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi’s 5 best performances
from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Memoirs of a Geisha and The Grandmaster about Bruce Lee’s teacher Ip Man
She has acted opposite screen legends such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh
Her body of work ranges from wuxia tales like The House of Flying Daggers to Korean movies and Hollywood epics
Zhang Ziyi is surely the most important Chinese actress of her generation. At times, tabloid gossip has threatened to overshadow her achievements – more than once she has gone to court and won cases regarding false reports about her private life – but she remains one of the country’s best actresses and arguably the first to achieve significant recognition in the West. Other renowned Chinese actresses such as Gong Li and Shu Qi focus more on art house productions, while, despite an enviable resume in Chinese-language cinema, Fan Bingbing has yet to earn more than brief cameos in the likes of Iron Man 3 or X-Men.
Zhang has achieved so much more. She has starred in classics in Hong Kong and China as well as in Hollywood blockbusters. On the occasion of her 42nd birthday, on February 9, we look at five roles that have defined her career.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Zhang’s first movie role was in acclaimed director Zhang Yimou’s 2000 film, The Road Home. She was widely praised for her performance but it was her subsequent film that propelled her to fame. That was the international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although starring established, heavyweight actors like Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, and veteran Cheng Pei-pei, Zhang more than held her own as one of the wuxia tale’s main protagonists. Zhang never looks lost on-screen, and her sword fight with Chow in the bamboo forest remains iconic.
Off the back of the success of Crouching Tiger, Zhang earned a ticket to Hollywood the next year, playing opposite kung fu icon Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 2. Although this brought her more international recognition, it was Hero, in 2002, that earned Zhang applause for her acting talent.
Once again, Zhang shines in a constellation of established stars. This time she had to battle for the spotlight alongside a who’s who of Chinese cinema that included Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. Zhang excels as the wilful and yet vulnerable Moon, a performance that earned her a number of nominations for best supporting actress across Asia.
By 2004, Zhang was an established name in international cinema. As well as the films above she had also branched out into South Korean films with appearances in fare like Musa and My Wife is a Gangster 2. This year would also see her strike big in another wuxia epic, The House of Flying Daggers, but more important for Zhang was her first collaboration with deeply influential Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.
A sort-of sequel to Wong’s international hit and modern masterpiece In the Mood for Love, 2046 demonstrated that Zhang should be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, not just one who impressed wielding a sword in action films. Her nuanced performance as Bai Ling, a cabaret girl, presenting a character at once both fragile and resolute, was rewarded with the best actress award at the Hong Kong Film Awards that year.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Zhang’s most prominent international role came in the Oscar-winning Memoirs of a Geisha. An adaptation of Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel of the same name, Zhang played the lead role of Chiyo, a young Japanese girl sold by her impoverished family to a geisha house where is to train as an entertainer to support her family.
Although there was controversy about casting three non-Japanese women (Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh) as the principle female characters, Zhang still earned praise for her performance and earned a nomination for best actress in a motion picture drama at that year’s Golden Globes as well as best actress at the Baftas.
Nonetheless, Zhang was stung by criticism of the film and her casting, much of which seemed to stem from nationalist rivalries between China and Japan. Speaking to Interview magazine at the time she said: “A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role … regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means – not even the Japanese actors on the film.
“To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a landmine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about ‘geisha’ was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger.”
The Grandmaster (2013)
Perhaps as a result of the fallout from Memoirs of a Geisha, Zhang starred in rather middling films for a number of years afterwards – the likes of The Banquet and Chinese-Korean co-production Sophie’s Revenge. It wasn’t until her second collaboration with Wong Kar-wai that she re-established herself as an actress of note.
Although pushed as a film about Ip Man, the famous teacher of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, the central character of The Grandmaster is just as much – if not more so – Zhang’s Gong Er. Her suppressed feelings for Ip Man and her quest for revenge after the subsequent killing of her father are at the centre of the movie and Zhang’s steely portrayal of Gong won her many plaudits and best actress awards from the likes of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, Golden Horse Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards. In total Zhang won 12 different best actress awards for The Grandmaster making her the most-awarded Chinese actress for a single film.