Compiled by: Jack Foley
AT 25, the Beijing-based Ziyi Zhang is already a superstar across
Asia, while her international profile is growing by the film While
it’s true she burst onto the world stage in Ang Lee’s
superlative martial arts drama Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, her notable debut came a year
Playing a rural girl in Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home, she
kicked off her career in fine style, forging a relationship with
China’s premiere director that, to date, has spanned three
After a brief sojourn to Hollywood, to team up with Jackie Chan
and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour
2, she reunited with Zhang for the first of his two martial
arts film, Hero.
This year, she can be seen in his second, the awe-inspiring House
of Flying Daggers. She plays Mei, a dancer suspected of having
ties to the eponymous revolutionary faction who becomes embroiled
with two police deputies.
She can also be found in Wong Kar-Wai’s long-awaited 2046,
starring opposite Tony Leung, Gong Li and Maggie Cheung. She is
currently in LA shooting Rob Marshall’s Memoirs
of a Geisha.
Q: How did this experience compare with working on Zhang
A: It was a big difference. In this movie, my character
is very rich. I had to dance, to sing, to perform martial arts.
I learned all the things, like how to be a blind girl. I spent
two months with a real blind girl. We lived together every day.
She is from the countryside. She looks normal, but she cannot
see. The director put us in touch.
Q: Was it important for you to have that experience?
A: Yeah, very important. Before I started shooting, I
needed to know how to play a blind girl. I needed to think about
a lot of things – how to play my character, how to dance,
how to fight. I needed to be ready before we started shooting.
Q: Was there any discussion as to how you would act blind?
A: We talked about that. The director said that for the
audience it’s better if you look normal. We talked about
whether we should put something in my eyes – but we didn’t.
I just tried to keep my eyes open. At home, when I was practicing
for the role, I shut off all my lights and tried to take a shower
in the dark! It was so slow! It took a long time to take a shower!
My mother shouted ‘How come you’re so slow?’
In the film, I have to have my eyes open, so I also practiced
looking blind while doing things. It’s hard [when filming],
because from the beginning, you just keep crying. For a long time,
you can’t blink and you just cry.
Q: What else makes you cry?
A: When the Hong Kong paparazzi make up stories…
that hurts me a lot. They go everywhere. I hate them! They follow
you and take pictures, then say things like ‘Oh, she didn’t
carry her bag.’ It might just be that for two seconds, I
just tie my shoe and my assistant holds my bag. In China it’s
OK, because there is no paparazzi. Beijing is fine. Even Maggie
[Cheung] said to me she doesn’t like to live in Hong Kong.
Q: Is it nice to use your dance and ballet background
for a role?
A: I was very excited about this, because it was very
rare to use all my skills at once. I learnt dance for six years,
and I never used it like this before.
Q: Did you suffer any injuries?
A: Everybody got hurt. All the accidents always happen
when you’ve just completed a great shot, then the director
says ‘Let’s just try one more.’ On one take,
I was fighting with a wooden cane, and my opponent was very close
to me. I put all my strength into hitting this wooden shield,
and it was – bang! – right back, and I hit my head.
I then collapsed, and when I emerged, I had a huge bump on my
Q: Was this the hardest film you’ve ever done?
A: It was tough at times, but Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon was so difficult, as it was my first film. I wasn’t
so worried about the physicality of it, because I have already
made martial arts films. That was one aspect I felt I could control.
Q: What do you think of your character, in that she has
two men pursuing her?
A: It’s a sensitive situation, and it’s also
the lynchpin of the tragedy of the story. If anything like that
happened in real life, it would be an equally sensitive situation.
I relished the role being more complicated than my previous ones.
I’ve always thought in action films the complexity and the
action should not be mutually exclusive. I really enjoyed getting
my head around the drama and the emotions.
Q: What did you think when
you saw the finished film?
A: I was incredibly moved by how it turned out. The emotions
build up and up, and the sense of sadness increases as the movie
Q: What do you see as the differences between Western
and Chinese women?
A: For Western woman, it’s much easier to be yourself.
If you want to do something, you just go and do it. In an Asian
context, women are still much more modest and conservative. I
want, through my roles, to express that part in the hearts of
Chinese women that they feel unable to let out.
Q: You are also in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. Can you
discuss the differences between working with Zhang Yimou and with
A: This is my third film with Zhang Yimou, and we know
each other very well and have become great friends. The best thing
about him is that he’s always seeking to challenge himself,
and push himself outside of his comfort zone. He’s very
sensitive to the way that I’m growing as an actress. Whereas
with Wong Kar-Wai, it’s the first time we’ve worked
together and, in his mind, I’m already a star. So he sets
up a standard for where he thinks I am, and says ‘You have
to reach that.’ I’ll do a take, which I think is good,
and he says: ‘No, no. You’re a star. I know you can
do better.’ Zhang Yimou gives me a space in which to act,
whereas Wong Kar-Wai wants you to be exact.
Q: Did your co-star, and frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator,
not warn you?
A: Yes he did! He had a funny story to tell me, where
one day this guy on the set of Chungking Express was a waiter,
and in the next minute, Wong Kar-Wai said to him: ‘Right
now you’re the father!’
Q: How long did you work on 2046 for, given that it took
five years to make?
A: Almost a year, but not every day. Many times I had
to go back. I learnt a lot, though. He doesn’t have a script,
and everyday he’d just give you two pieces of paper. For
me, that’s a very new experience. You don’t have to
prepare. You just feel very fresh. There’s one scene where
Tony’s character tries to offer me money, and I am devastated,
because my character thought we had moved beyond this in our relationship.
There was nothing in the director’s instructions about how
to react to this, but I just found myself crying and crying because
that is how I would react.
Q: What is your role in the film?
A: I play a showgirl in 1960. I fall in love with Tony
Leung’s character, but he never thinks it’s real.
He just thinks it’s my job, as I’m a showgirl. But
I fall in love with him… something like that!
Q: Having worked with Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai
at such a young age, are you surprised at how rapid it has been?
A: I am lucky! Every actress in China must be envious.
I know I’ve been given a good opportunity, and I have to
work hard. Each time is a challenge. I am always surprised at
the audience reaction; if there is a good reaction, then it is
so satisfying because all the hard work is being appreciated.
Q: A lot of people call you the new Gong Li. How does
that make you feel?
A: Nobody can replace Gong Li, because she is the leading
actress in China. I don’t feel I could take her place.
Q: How much has your beauty helped you in your career?
A: I don’t know how much it would help, because
these days, people recognise a good actress by how ugly she can
make herself! Looks do help but what is more important is the
character and the way I perform her. My experience really helps
as well, as I tried as a dancer. So, in martial arts films, it
helps if you are comfortable with movement.
Q: Have you had many offers from Hollywood?
A: After Crouching, Tiger… I had many offers from
Hollywood to make movies. I tried it once, with Rush Hour 2, but
after that they kept asking me to play the same type of characters.
I don’t like it because they always give Asian girls roles
such as ‘a poor girl from China who sails to America’.
I can’t learn anything from that. I tried it once, so that’s
enough. Maybe later, if I get a good script, I will try again.
Q: Is Jackie Chan a hero of yours?
A: He is funny. He loves to be a big brother to you!
I saw Chris Tucker last night, too.
Q: What kind of movies do you like?
A: I like Dancer In The Dark, with Bjork. Recently I
saw Monster, which I loved. I’d
love to do a movie where the director can make me different.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I like to listen to music. I like to do lots of sports.
But what I really like to do is get a book, go down to the beach
and read, and enjoy the quiet.