Crouching Tiger made her big. Now Hero looks set to make her a superstar.
Sanjiv Bhattacharya meets Zhang Ziyi
Few understand the hazards of flying through the air while waving a sword better than the 25-year-old actress Zhang Ziyi. She first tried it in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when she emerged unscathed, but in Hero, the latest wire-suspended martial arts extravaganza, she wasn’t so fortunate. In an elaborate fight scene between Ziyi and her co-star Maggie Cheung, she discovered how perilous these balletic fight scenes can be.
“Maggie didn’t know martial arts, so I was afraid to hurt her,” she says, sitting in her publicist’s office in Los Angeles. Ziyi is so demure, porcelain pretty and gently spoken that it’s hard to imagine her hurting anyone, much less with a sword. “But it happened. I cut her right hand with my knife. I felt so bad. The blood went everywhere.”
The scene involved Ziyi swooping in with a sword while Cheung repelled her by whipping up a supernatural wind of autumn leaves. The clock was ticking – they had only three days to get the fight right, since the leaves would quickly darken. To make things even harder, the director Zhang Yimou insisted that Ziyi should not blink, despite the bright sun, so after every take, Ziyi’s eyes were streaming. As it turned out, there were tears with or without the sun.
“I started crying because Maggie is my idol,” she says. “She keep saying, ‘It’s nothing.’ But it was a big cut. I keep saying, ‘Sorry.’ But I feel so … ” She chews her lip, and emits a burst of Mandarin into a nearby speakerphone. She has a translator on hand, who promptly pipes up: “Guilty!”
With Hero and Crouching Tiger on her CV, Ziyi has the distinction of having starred in both of the biggest Chinese films to have crossed over to the west in recent history. She joins that list of Chinese actors – Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li – who are stopped in the streets of Beverly Hills and Beijing. Like Crouching Tiger, Hero is a critical and commercial success. Unquestionably one of the most visually breathtaking films ever made, it is also the biggest ever opening of any Asian film in US box-office history, and the second largest opening of any film in a foreign language (topped only by The Passion of the Christ). “If Crouching Tiger opened the door for Chinese cinema,” says Ziyi, “then I think Hero can keep it open for a while.”
The story begins with Jet Li as “Nameless”, an assassin who arrives at the court of the tyrannical king of Qin, in 3BC, the very king who went on to become the first emperor of China. Nameless announces that he has killed the three assassins who most concern the king – Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Sky (Donnie Yen) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). As the story unfolds, through a series of conflicting flashbacks, Rashomon-style, we discover how Nameless found his way to the king’s door, and what part Ziyi plays, as Sword’s loyal assistant, Moon.
Hero is such a gorgeous spectacle, words like “transcendent” and “poetic” have rarely been so apt. Each version of Nameless’s tale is given a vivid colour scheme; each sequence is exquisitely composed. Zhang Yimou has such a particular eye that for Ziyi’s fight scene with Cheung, for example, he says: “I had a guy out there [inner Mongolia] specifically to keep an eye on the leaves. He made videotapes of their progress as they turned from green to yellow.” Ziyi herself describes Yimou as “the kind of director who knows everything in his mind; the whole picture. He tells you exactly what he wants and if you give it to him, it’s done. Even in only two takes.”
She should know. She has made three films with Yimou – her first, A Road Home, then Hero and the forthcoming House of Flying Daggers, which premiered at Cannes to rave reviews. She understands his ways by now; she’s a muse. Yimou’s relationship with the actress Gong Li fell apart when Ziyi came along, though both vigorously deny any rumours of an affair. “I’m too busy to have a boyfriend,” she says, “no time, much too rush.”
Certainly this is a bumper year for the actress. As well as her fertile collaboration with Yimou, she appears in 2046 in October, the latest movie by Wong Kar Wei, the fabled Chinese director best known for not providing his actors with a complete script. “It was so hard working for him, but I like the challenge. We don’t learn the script, every day we had to, erm … ” The speakerphone announces: “improvise!”
“I’m picky about my parts because I don’t want to waste time,” she says, purposefully. “I’m young, so I want to learn.” And she tuts and shakes her head when she remembers how much time she wasted on the set of Rush Hour 2. “I should have at least learnt English,” she says, chiding herself.
She begins her next venture in a matter of weeks – the long-awaited adaptation of Arthur Golden’s bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha, here in LA. Well aware of the controversy surrounding the book – Nitta Sayuri, on whom it is based, resents the focus on prostitution – the film, she promises, will be “a very different story”. It’s a prospect that fills her with excitement and trepidation. “It’s my first time in a lead and I have to speak English!” She steels herself. “In a Japanese accent!”
Ziyi had never entertained thoughts of a Hollywood career until she had one. She grew up in Beijing, the daughter of an economist father and a kindergarten teacher mother, and trained as a dancer throughout school. She has spoken about having a “dark time” at the Beijing Dance Academy, even running away at the age of 13, prompting her mother to call the police. “I wanted to escape so badly, so I hid in a little thicket of grass,” she once said. “I could hear all the teachers calling my name, but it was only when I heard my mum’s voice that I came out. It was a fleeting kind of escape.”
Her fortunes turned when, at 18, Zhang Yimou plucked her from a line-up of models for a shampoo commercial he was shooting. Out of 40,000 applicants, he cast her in the lead of A Road Home, a breathless and charming love story, that won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear award at the 2000 Berlin film festival. Then Ang Lee hired her for Crouching Tiger, a tumultuous experience by any stretch. Yet again, the shoot was so tough that it made her cry.
“Ang Lee likes to do many takes,” she says. “He wants something from one shot and something else from another. So I had so much pressure, I couldn’t sleep; I just cried every night. I called my friend saying ‘I don’t know what shall I do tomorrow’.”
Crouching Tiger made Ziyi a superstar. In China, she has notched up a string of endorsements – Coca-Cola, Tag Heuer, Pantene, Maybelline … (Today, her brother works full time on that side of the business). Meanwhile, she fields a flurry of offers from Hollywood. She accepted her first in 2001 – the kung fu cop caper Rush Hour 2, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker – and she still recalls with a gasp what a culture shock it was. Never before had she been confronted with such an abundance of time and money.
“You have weekends. Two days off every week!” she says, as though she has just discovered the concept. “So easy! In China, we work the whole time, no breaks. Hero was five months. House of Flying Daggers was six months. And I couldn’t believe the size of the wardrobe car. It was shocking!” she giggles. “And the food! You can have so many different kinds of food. It was so comfortable. It seemed like people would get lazy! In China, we don’t have trailers. For Hero we did, because it is a big project so they spent some money for us, but usually you just sit in your own car.”
Though Ziyi describes Hero as a big project – and it certainly seems vast on the screen – the budget was still only $2 million, not enough to coax most Hollywood A-listers out of bed. Ziyi boggles at what Hero would have cost as a DreamWorks production. She’s still giddy at the splendour of the Rush Hour 2 set – the well-marshalled staff, the experts in makeup, hair, set design and so on. “It’s so professional here. There are 10 people, where in China we have only one – the director is in charge of everything,” says Ziyi. “Even the make-up. He will say, ‘Why your eyebrow is crooked, not same as last scenes?’ Especially Zhang Yimou.”
There’s much she loves about Los Angeles. She finds the fans “more civilised” and she gets a big kick out of star-spotting about town. “Last night, I saw Sharon Stone having dinner!” she laughs. “But I was too embarrassed to say anything.” She has friends here from her Rush Hour 2 days, and she would buy a place here, she says, “when my English improves, maybe”. She seems somehow half-hearted. Her heart remains in China. Rather than cash in on the lucrative offers that Hollywood piles at her door, for instance, she has chosen to work with acclaimed Chinese directors for smaller fees. And though she says she is unfazed by the nomadic life out of apartments and hotel rooms – “I’m used to it by now” – her face softens at the mention of her family. “I try to make my room like home, I bring all my toys,” she says, bashfully. “You know, teddy bears, a little sheep. Some cute stuff.”
It’s time for her to leave. Two hours of English classes lie ahead of her. Yet for a moment, all the sword-wielding martial-arts superstar can think of is her little sheep.