Time Out Shanghai

Interview: Zhang Ziyi

January 08, 2013   |   Written by Edmund Lee

As Wong Kar-Wai’s latest film The Grandmaster finally arrives in cinemas, Edmund Lee talks to lead actress Zhang Ziyi about the director’s idiosyncratic ways, working without a script and finding the true spirit of martial arts

At one point during our interview in a photo studio in Sanlitun, Beijing, with the first December snow descending on the capital, Zhang Ziyi describes herself as an ‘old school’ actress who ‘thinks in the traditional way’. “There are many people who take the less proper paths to look for their own sense of being,” she adds. “That’s how the environment [of show business] is – it’s not a very clean environment.”

The truth is, as one of China’s greatest current movie icons, Zhang must also live with the same time-honoured traditions of superstardom that hark back to the time of Ruan Lingyu nearly a century ago: putting up a defiant face on screen, confronting uber-sensational scandals off it, and juggling not gentle admiration and polite indifference but love and hatred by even the most casual observers day in and day out, year after year.

It is, indeed, extraordinary to think that the 33-year-old Beijing-born actress is already commanding an even higher international profile, and facing far more outrageous slanders, than Ruan ever experienced – even with the latter’s famous last words ‘gossip is a fearful thing’. “There are only two sides to one’s personality: it’s either tough or soft,” Zhang says, almost nonchalantly, when asked about her consistently strong-minded screen persona that can, no doubt, find roots inside the actress herself.

The list of such roles is set to grow one longer with the local release of Wong Kar-wai’s 1930s-set martial arts drama The Grandmaster, which has also been chosen to open the Berlin International Film Festival on February 7. In it, Zhang makes her latest star turn as the emotionally unflinching daughter of a respected leader in the martial arts world, who is caught between her admiration for the real-life Wing Chun master Ip Man (Tony Leung) and her duty to her father’s legacy after his passing.

“When I encounter a tough character, it resembles me a little bit; and when I encounter a soft character, there’s also part of me in it,” says Zhang. “There are aspects of me in each of my characters.” Does she perhaps agree that the filmmakers look to be especially keen to cast her in insubordinate roles? “Actually, many of the roles highlight the greatness of women. It’s as simple as that. So…” She hesitates briefly, before flashing a rare glimpse of the cockiness – the only instance in this interview – that has allegedly earned her a myriad of detractors: “Perhaps that’s why I’m always [the directors’] first choice.”

It’s not anyone’s fault that she just happens to be correct. Trained as a dancer since the age of 11, Zhang spent six years honing her skills in traditional Chinese dance and, for a short period, classical ballet. However, as she has said in numerous past interviews, and again here, she knew she didn’t have a future in dance. “It was just a feeling I had then. When I look back at it now, I see that I was right,” she says. “It was right for me to change my profession [from dance to acting]. I feel great happiness when I act and I don’t have this same pleasure when I dance.”

In reality, the transition was made a whole lot smoother when she caught the eye of the pre-eminent Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who was auditioning actors for a commercial he was directing at the time. Her first starring role, at the age of 19, came swiftly afterwards in the director’s Silver Berlin Bear-winning drama The Road Home (1999).

“That period was the best time of my life – and it was captured on film,” Zhang says fondly of her movingly innocent performance in that film. “The ‘me’ at the time, at that age: it’s a state that couldn’t be replicated. It’s impossible to act like that and it’s impossible to repeat that. Let me put it this way: I can no longer act in that movie today. It was a very natural movie with minimal traces of acting there.” I ask Zhang if she could have predicted her transformation from that authentic 19-year-old to the glamorous international movie star she is today. “Things just happened naturally,” she says casually, attempting to convey the spontaneity of her overnight success. “That is, I hadn’t planned my career path. After I made The Road Home, I took part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and after that I made Rush Hour 2 (2001). It happened quickly and one followed another.”

In person, Zhang is amiable and soft-spoken, possessing a somewhat girly voice. She fiddles with my name card throughout much of our interview until she finally puts it down to sip some water through a thin straw. Dressed in an elegant white dress with sparkling sleeves, her long, tidy hair styled to curve dramatically below her shoulders, Zhang has a lithe and slender frame which belies the physical prowess that has seen her excel in arguably all the most globally acclaimed martial arts films since the turn of the century. Does it still surprise the actress that she’s accumulated such an impressive roster of movies on her CV? “I haven’t thought about that. But if you put it this way… I guess it may possibly be the case,” she says with a sheepish smile. “Especially [Ang Lee’s] Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, [Zhang Yimou’s] Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004): each of these three movies has its own special characteristics.”

In the years since House of the Flying Daggers, Zhang has added two more Hollywood titles (2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, 2009’s Horsemen) to her oeuvre (after playing a villain in Rush Hour 2), worked with three more prominent Chinese directors (Feng Xiaogang for 2006’s The Banquet, Chen Kaige for 2008’s Forever Enthralled, and Gu Changwei for 2011’s Love for Life), and co-produced and starred in the romantic comedy Sophie’s Revenge (2009), which already has a prequel – again co-produced by Zhang – on the way. It is, however, her artistically resonant, if not remotely prolific, working relationship with the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, beginning with the heart-wrenching romantic drama 2046 (2004), that has contributed most to her credentials as a future arthouse great. Among the range of feverish compliments she has received for the role, which include the Best Actress recognition at the Hong Kong Film Awards, is New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis’ remark that ‘Zhang’s shockingly intense performance burns a hole in the film’.

2046 also marked Zhang’s introduction to Wong’s notorious insistence in working to his own rhythms – the film took years to make, before hastily making its Cannes Film Festival premiere with an unfinished cut that, as legend has it, was delivered directly from the film laboratory to the theatre. But if that experience gave Zhang pause to reconsider working with the director, she isn’t showing it. After their collaboration on 2046, itself a long and languorous production, the two have developed ‘a close relationship’, especially after they spent more than two weeks together at Cannes 2006, where Wong headed the jury and Zhang served as one of the jurors. “After that, [Wong] was no longer just a director to me, but became a mentor and a friend,” says Zhang, who describes her experience with the director as being ‘like two master fighters trading moves’. “No matter the process and result, [Wong Kar-wai] is a master. He’s the one and only. Therefore, we really don’t mind if he gave us a script or not. If you trust a person, you just let him manage it.”

Zhang is known for the exceptional care she puts into choosing the right movie roles, although Wong’s projects stand head and shoulders above the rest on her wishlist. “The selection mainly depends on whether a character moves me,” she says, before quickly adding, “except [when it’s a film by] Wong Kar-wai, whom I’d say yes to even without a script.” In fact, as Zhang confirms, The Grandmaster has no script: “For me, it’s all about trust. Our method of working together is indeed very unique. It’s during the shoots that we build up our characters and the relationship [between Tony Leung’s role and mine].

“In the earliest stage, my character had a lot of scenes in which she would show her emotions,” Zhang goes on. “For example, when she heard of her father’s death, she was very sad and cried. But through this process, we both realised that the character is a staunch figure that would not often show her emotions. So in the end, a lot of the crying scenes turned out to be a waste of my tears; those scenes had to be handled again in a different way. Through the performance itself, we kept on finding the direction and personality of the character.” So can the audience assume that the bulk of the footage included in Wong’s completed films was from the latter stages of his lengthy shooting schedules? “You really know him well,” replies Zhang playfully, giggling.

For The Grandmaster project, which Wong began to develop over a decade ago and finally entered production in 2009, all three of the lead actors – Zhang, Tony Leung and Chang Chen – were required by the director to train in their character’s respective school of martial arts and find the ‘essence’ – and not just the superficial look – of their craft. “The Grandmaster is different [from other similar films] in that it goes deeper into the realm of martial arts, exploring the meaning behind it all. It’s an altogether different kind of exploration,” says Zhang. “Wong wanted us to exude the essence, the aura and the charisma of the real martial artists. It’d have been impossible to achieve if we had only trained for three or five days; that’s why we spent such a long time training seriously. The strongest impression I got from the experience is how it has changed my life values and way of thinking. The training gave me a sense of tranquillity – it allows me to think before taking action.”

‘Thinking before action’, as it turns out, also reflects how Zhang has picked her projects over her eclectic career. The actress confesses that she only began to realise she wanted to make acting her career while shooting Hero – long after her sensational start with the equally revered The Road Home and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her sustained success since, however, has been no accident. “[Before Hero], it was simply a case of opportunities knocking, so I went with them,” she says. “I didn’t especially feel that I was going to make acting my career. But gradually, after making film after film, I discovered that I was indeed passionate about acting. Every new role has unique aspects that only belong to that character. Every new character is like that, which is what makes [acting] interesting to start with.

“You don’t need to bring your past experience to your character. In fact, every time I make a new film, I try to leave behind the experiences from, or techniques I’ve developed in, my past projects,” Zhang continues. “It’s becoming more and more difficult though, because your skills become more mature and you start to rely on them, rather than relying on your feelings. It’s quite hard to control this… you know what I mean? It’s when you don’t know [anything about acting] that you act most naturally, that everything is from your heart.” Zhang then offers an insight into her understanding of a great performance: “I think the most touching roles come from the heart. There isn’t a ‘best performance’, because the best performance is no longer just a performance. The most captivating performance is actually the [actor’s] most authentic state. It takes that to touch [the audience], and it’s not something you can replicate.”

Despite her rapid rise to fame internationally, Zhang’s breakthrough in Hollywood resembles more of a wakeup call than her ultimate calling. “To me, it was just a new and different experience,” she says of her Hollywood roles. “I don’t think they have had that much of an impact [on my career]. If I were to make another [Hollywood film], I hope it’ll bring a new challenge, with a role that is not merely typecasting. Otherwise, it’s not very meaningful to me.” The actress also admits to being ultra-selective when it comes to her Hollywood projects. Says Zhang: “There have been many offers, but I turned them all down because” – a short pause – “I’m an actress after all. I want to play characters that I’m interested in. I don’t want to give up on my [artistic] pursuit for the opportunity of Hollywood. As an actor, it also doesn’t mean much to me to play just a bit part. It’s not going to elevate my [status] or help improve my art.”

The rather trivial dents on her career these frivolous Hollywood offers could have are one thing. But in recent months, Zhang has suffered from a significantly more damaging kind of international exposure. While unfounded allegations and accusations against Zhang have been an unwelcome fixture throughout her career, none came as viciously as the media reports in May last year that she had allegedly been paid about US$110m to sleep with senior government officials, in the period between 2007 and 2011. The allegations originated from a US-based Chinese website, were picked up by Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily and, with Zhang’s legal actions, promptly spread around the world. “It’s constantly the case,” Zhang says of her malicious detractors. Her profound distrust of media is palpable. “I guess I’ve never been very close to the Hong Kong media, so they’re more inclined to quote me out of context or fabricate stories from photos. I guess that’s what they do. But, in my case, I feel that they are just relentless,” she says, letting out a bitter chuckle. “They always like to make up stories about me.”

In addition to the unseemly media treatment, over the years Zhang has also collected a considerable mass of cynics who have been all too willing to vocally criticise her success. So what does she think of them? “I haven’t thought about this especially,” Zhang says slowly. “First of all, I don’t think every person understands movies or movie-making. There are many people who live in a different world with a different worldview. That is just a fact. Maybe they need to see you everyday at home on television to feel close to you and to appreciate you, but I work in a very different world. So you can’t expect everyone to appreciate you.”

With the release of The Grandmaster, which has all the hallmarks of a great Wong Kar-wai effort (the lush and entrancing visuals, the unconsummated feelings, the repeatedly postponed release date), Zhang, at least for the time being, finally has something positive to look forward to. As our interview draws to a close, after questions about her haters and accusers have seemingly sucked out her last traces of energy, Zhang says privately: “I can feel that you do really like film.” It doesn’t come across as a remark aimed at flattery. Rather, it seems that, perhaps these days, the greatest Chinese actress of her generation has simply become so overwhelmed by the hassles of fame that people no longer remember to ask her.