She Makes Magic
With her mesmerizing performances, Zhang Ziyi is casting a spell on audiences beyond her native China
Zhang Ziyi’s playfulness is evident on the set of her new film Warrior, which is a relief, or possibly an inevitability, considering the conditions. Shooting is being done in Xingcheng, a town in China’s remote Liaoning province, the crew is largely Korean, and the temperature is 16 degrees below. We talk in her trailer for a few minutes, get summoned to the set for a scene in which she must act in a flimsy, wind-attracting princess costume, and then suddenly Zhang stops, giggles, hops up and down and says she needs to take a pee, and dashes off to ablute. On her return, Zhang says we look cold and turns up the collar of our coat, claiming it’s both warmer and cooler that way. We respond: “I’m Humphrey Bogart, here’s looking at you kid.” She immediately takes the smoke from our gun. “No, you’re more like an elephant,” she laughs. That rather stings.
Meanwhile, a cluster of young male villagers who may have walked four hours to reach the set, but it could have equally been four centuries, are gawking at the filmmaking process. “What do you think of Zhang Ziyi, you come all this way, you must be crazy about her,” we ask. “She’s O.K.,” they underwhelm back. “So if she’s not your favorite Chinese actress, who is?” They scratch their heads, think a lifetime or two and realization hits. “Er…there is nobody else.”
We wholeheartedly agree. Zhang, 21, stands in a place few Chinese actresses of her age have occupied before. As China has gradually opened, so have her possibilities. She’s being courted by cosmetics companies, film directors both in Asia and the U.S., and far from being the next Gong Li, she’ll ultimately walk in the shadow of no one. All that after only two films: The Road Home released in China in 1999, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon released earlier this year and only just this week in the U.S. There’s also Tsui Hark’s remake of Zu: Warrriors of the Magic Mountain to be released next year.
Impulsive, naughty, poised yet childlike, Zhang is the daughter of an economist father and a kindergarten teacher mother, and is a native Beijinger. Zhang feels she worked hard from an early age. She left home at 11 and remembers climbing out of bed at 5 a.m. to study gymnastics and never sleeping until 11 p.m. Competition was an early feature of her life. “The girls at my school were competing for status, for leadership, for the affection of teachers. And I hated it. It was a dark time.” So dark that she ran away from school at 13, causing her parents to call the police to track her down. “I wanted to escape so badly, so I hid in a little thicket of grass. I could hear all the teachers calling my name, but it was only when I heard my Mom’s voice that I came out. It was a fleeting kind of escape.”
From there she went to dance school, where she won an award at the National Young Dancer competition, but quit when she was 15. “My decision to leave dancing was motivated by similar feelings. It was a kind of escape. Also because I didn’t truly love dance.” And then along came the man with the Midas touch, Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, with a new medium that fit her like a glove. “I’ve found a domain that gives me a tremendous amount of space, it suits me perfectly,” she exults. “And that is so utterly rare.”
It wasn’t as though Zhang Yimou trampled himself in a rush to cast her for The Road Home, which finally opens in Asian markets outside the mainland this week. He’d first seen her the year before for five minutes while casting a shampoo commercial, which never got made, and remembered her. “I was struck by what a pure, fresh, delicate face she had,” he says. “But we were also looking at other people for the same part. Zhang auditioned four times before we made a final decision.” It’s not uncommon for Zhang Yimou castings to become a production of their own. For his current movie Happy Times, he looked at 40,000 young hopefuls before casting one he’d seen in the first two weeks. “At first,” he smiles, “all Ziyi knew was how to play. She played all the time. But then as soon as we started shooting, she felt tremendous pressure to perform. I didn’t want her under too much pressure lest it cause her to mature or lose that simplicity and purity. I took the script away from her every day and sent her off to play.”
Zhang gives a breathless performance in The Road Home. There are some films that reach only your eyes, others that reach down to your throat, those that reach the heart and a rare few that can reach all the way to the belly. Such is this. Her growth from “the most beautiful girl in the village” into womanhood, and the unflinching love she develops for the village teacher, are exquisitely captured and paced by Yimou the director, and the camera can’t take its eye off the 19-year-old Zhang. Her love expresses itself in motion as she tirelessly runs over the hills to catch sight of the teacher and we run with her, stumble with her, cry with her. Could she give herself to a man in the way her character does in the movie? “Because our society is developing, it’s impossible for human relations to be as pure as those in the 1950s [when the film is set],” she begins, disappointingly. But then she goes on. “When I love someone they’ll have total possession of my mind, my heart, my actions those will all be for him. Women’s love is such that, when I love you, I’ll throw every ounce of myself into that love. Men are different.” She then checks herself. “Right now isn’t the time for me to be falling in love anyway. Right now is the time for me to be working hard.” (To be with Zhang is to ride a roller coaster.)
Rumors have circulated since the filming that she and Zhang Yimou were conjugating together, but they both refer to each other as “good friends.” It’s the Zhang Yimou factor that remains both her agony and ecstasy: hard as she tries to exuviate his influence, her contemporaries insist she’s defined by it. Ask rebellious 30-year-old Chinese director Jin Chen what he makes of Zhang and he holds up a slim flower vase on a hotel table. “That’s what I think of her,” he dismisses. “I’m not sure how much substance she has, I think it’s more superficial and I think she’s been lucky to know Zhang Yimou.” Actress Zhang is vigorous in response. “I don’t want people to be able to say these things about me. But what can I use to silence them? Only my own actions, my achievements. The first and second time I was chosen for a film, that was luck. And I was successful in the context of my luck. But the third, fourth and fifth time, I don’t think that’s about luck. It’s because people see you achieve, they know your work and then they’ll seek you out. I have the courage now to stand up and say that my own abilities have given me luck.” Her mobile phone rings and she answers “Moshi, moshi” and indulges in Japanese chat for a minute or two. “Just a friend in Japan,” she says, insouciantly noting that Japanese is another language she’s adding to her armory along with English.
Luck came by the truckload when Taiwanese starlet Shu Qi inadvertently helped Zhang on her way to a wider, more international audience. Ang Lee was casting for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shu Qi was his original choice for the part of Jen, but she took one look at the long shooting schedule and the militaristic discipline of getting into shape for the stunts and politely declined. “I’m lazy,” Shu Qi admits. “I thought the training would be too difficult and I didn’t want to commit to a film for that long.” Does she regret the decision in the wake of the film’s colossal success? “No. When I look at how brilliantly Zhang Ziyi performs, I know what went into that and I couldn’t have done it.” She makes one other astute observation. “It’s put Zhang Ziyi under a lot of pressure and that’s something I’m not sure I could handle.”
Zhang freely admits she craves affirmation under flat-out pressure. “When we were filming Crouching Tiger, Ang Lee gave a lot of encouragement and support to Michelle Yeoh because she couldn’t speak Chinese. Ang constantly praised and reassured her. Every time she did a scene really well he would jump up and give her a hug. I found myself hoping that someday I’d do something that would cause Ang Lee to hug me too. That there would come a time when he didn’t even need to speak, but when I would just know he was truly satisfied with my work.” That day finally arrived when her character has to watch Li Mubai (Chow Yun-fat) kill her nursemaid, in a clash between the two people she loves most. “Ang didn’t say a word when we finished that scene, but he walked over and hugged me. And I got so emotional. I was already feeling pretty worked up, but when he hugged me, all of those feelings came pouring out and I cried.”
Another hug she craves is from the mainland Chinese audience, which has failed to flock to either of her films. “The Chinese don’t endorse their own movies and actors, they don’t cherish them and they don’t even support them,” she complains. “This really baffles me. Crouching Tiger was so warmly welcomed the world over, and yet in China, no one liked it. I feel this is awfully unfair.” She explains the logic with a passion that rises from somewhere very deep. “Chinese people have an inferiority complex. They seem unwilling, or unable to understand or acknowledge the work I’ve put into my career. They’re not willing to admit that apart from luck I’ve also shed a lot of blood and tears and often paid dearly for my success. They just don’t want to understand, they just won’t accept that, and they won’t try to understand me. That is the thing that makes me saddest.”
She delivers all this passion from a van on a clifftop in Xingcheng where she’s subjecting herself to another grueling shooting experience in the quest for perfection. Doesn’t she tire of all this, isn’t it lonely? “When we were working on the first part, it felt like falling in love. When two people begin to understand one another, when you begin to get close to someone, you discover you’re suddenly eager to know him better. That’s how I feel about my relationship with this film.” Doesn’t the cold wear her out? “Yes. In this terrible weather we’re going to do a scene where the crew drenches us with rain. Can you tell me how to avoid getting sick?”
In the meantime, Zhang’s career is moving at scorching speed. She talks of possible projects with Wong Kar-wai, one too with Joan Chen and, in what would be a remarkably commercial move for her, New Line Cinema is murmuring about casting Zhang in Rush Hour 2 with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Actually, it’s beyond the murmuring stage. “She blew me away when we met her in Beijing,” says New Line producer Andy Davis, who is already trying to wrench Zhang away from the Warrior crew. “They want me for preliminary shooting before Dec. 20,” Zhang says, “but I don’t finish shooting here until Dec. 22. Should I do it?” Now we’re being asked for affirmation in the face of flat-out pressure and, the earlier elephant remark aside, we consider reaching out and hugging her for a small lifetime. Ang Lee told us that Zhang has “true cinematic charisma.” And he’s right. Yes, please Ziyi! Do it!