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Of all actresses of late (or ever, mayhaps), Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi
is probably the closest to being the total package: she has
charisma to carry a movie, is beautiful and sensual without her glamour overshadowing her roles, thanks to years of training as a dancer she
can do action scenes Hong Kong-style (meaning beautifully choreographed
kinetic sequences, not CGI-generated explosions as are routine in
Hollywood) - but above all, she is a truly great actress, who can
effortlessly carry emotions and change moods to make each of her
performances nothing short of great. In regard of this it comes at no big
surprise that she has worked with some of the greatest contemporary
directors in films of various genres and has worked both in the East and
the West, even though her filmography shows less than 20 entries to date,
her career spans just over a decade, and she is not yet even 30 years of
Zhang Ziyi was born in 1979 in Beijing, China to an
economist (father) and a kindergarten teacher (mother). At age 11 her parents
peruaded her to join the Beijing Dance Academy, an experience she
allegedly didn't enjoy very much (especially since it was a boarding
school), but where she obviously learned a lot (considering the grace of
movement in her martial arts scenes). At age 15, Zhang Ziyi also
joined the prestigious Central Academy of Drama, maybe the
top Chinese acting college - and her first acting job was just around the
Even though by and large, Chinese arthouse director
Zhang Yimou is credited with discovering Zhang Ziyi for his film Wo
De Fu Qin Mu Qin/The Road Home
(1999), this honour should actually go to director Sun Wenxue, who cast
her in 1996 for his TV-movie Xing xing dian deng. However, the
film, a mix of tearjerker and inspirational movie about a dancer (Zhang
Ziyi) who loses her legs but uses her misfortune to help others, is little
more than a cheaply made and overly clichéd piece of kitsch that's by
today largely forgotten, and according to all reports, it should better
remain that way.
As mentioned above, the acclaimed arthouse
director Zhang Yimou cast Zhang Ziyi to play the lead in his 1999
movie The Road Home, a
deliberately slow-moving love story between a farmer girl and a village
teacher (Zheng Hao) and the problems the teacher's death causes decades
later. The film itself is far from being Zhang Yimou's best, but on the
other hand it's not nearly as cheesy as the plot outline makes it sound -
and the film served as introducing Zhang Ziyi for the first time to
international audiences - if only arthouse audiences at that.
when the film was released, rumours arose about Zhang Yimou having an affair with
his leading lady Zhang Ziyi and having left his former lover and leading
lady Gong Li in favour of the younger actress. Truth is of course the
couple already split up in 1995, and Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li had no problem
appearing with each other in Memoirs of a Geisha
Marshall) while Zhang Yimou would cast Gong Li again in his 2006 film Curse
of the Golden Flower - plus, without wanting to sound ageist, Gong
Li would have been too old (she's 14 years Zhang Ziyi's senior) for all of
the roles Zhang Ziyi played for Zhang Yimou (Zhang Ziyi and Zhang Yimou did a
total of three films together, but more of that later).
So, does any of
this prove that Zhang Yimou did not have an affair with his leading lady
Zhang Ziyi ?
Of course not, but taking each of these facts by its own
worth its more than likely that the whole affair-thing was invented by
some untrustworthy tabloid reporter with too little information and too
much time on his hand. And even if the story is true, that doesn't alter
the fact that Zhang Ziyi gave a powerful performance in The Road Home
that was merely a promise for more and better things to come ...
a mere two films under her belt (and one of these a forgettable TV-movie),
Zhang Zhiyi signed up for a film that would ultimately become her
breakthrough picture: Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Ang Lee). The movie, a mix of martial
arts film, love story and murder mystery, stars Hong Kong stars Chow
Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh with a supporting role for veteran actress
Cheng Pei-Pei of Come
Drink with Me (1966, King Hu) fame, and it features amazing
martial arts sequences dreamed up and executed by veteran
(action-)director Yuen Woo-Ping, but it is still Zhang Ziyi, yet unknown
to the general audience, who steals the show, impressing the audience with
her acting skills as well as her grace when doing martial arts. Of course,
the martial arts purist will find plenty wrong with Zhang Ziyi's style
since she was never trained as a fighter but imported her moves from her
dancing experience, but cinema lovers (cinema as in moving pictures)
can't help but fall in love wtih the ease and grace of her movements.
those not familiar with Hong Kong cinema, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an incredibly kinetic film, was a
revelation, and it eventually wound up to be the most successful foreign
language film that ever played in the USA and ultimately won 4 Oscars,
best foreign language film among them, in 2001 - not that that's saying
anything much since in 2001, the best picture Oscar went to the sub-par sword
and sandal movie Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott).
said, for the fan and connoisseur of Hong Kong action cinema, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon was less of a revelation since there have
been some equally impressive films in the decade before that just didn't
have the luxury of having a renowned arthouse director like Ang Lee
attached to it (even though it was actually veteran [action-]director Yuen
Woo-Ping who was responsible for the amazing fighting scenes) and did not
receive international distribution - but that all said, Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon is still a mighty fine martial arts film, and
seeing Zhang Ziyi acting and fighting there was no doubt that this actress
will go and deserves to go a long way - which she did.
(By the way,
Zhang Ziyi was awarded for numerous awards for her role, and even won a
few like the Toronto Film Critics Association Award for best
supporting actress and the MTV Movie Award for best
fight - for the scene in which she takes apart an entire bar.)
the success of Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi was celebrated as a new action
queen and was swamped with offers - and the first offer she accepted was
actually a Hollywood film ... but unfortunately that film was Rush Hour
2 (2001, Brett Ratner), one of these action movies in which Hong Kong
action superstar Jackie Chan is watered down to be more in tune with
American audiences (or at least that's the producers' theory) and is given
an American partner (in this case ther obnoxious Chris Tucker) -
supposedly for identification purposes (which is another stupid producers'
theory). In this film two cop buddies - fast-kicking Jackie Chan and
fast-talking Chris Tucker - investigate a Triad-run counterfeiting
ring, and Zhang Ziyi plays a beautiful but ruthless gangster engaged in a
Triad power struggle.
However, Rush Hour 2 is not one of
Zhang Ziyi's better or more memorable films and did little to further her
Back in Hong Kong, veteran action director Tsui Hark
hired Zhang Ziyi to play in his film The Legend of Zu/Zu
Warriors (2001), the long overdue (?) sort-of-sequel to his 1983 special effects
Warriors from the Magic Mountain, but unfortunately
that movie - which had Zhang Ziyi play second fiddle to the likes of Ekin
Cheng, Cecilia Chung and Sammo Hung - is just too overburdened with
CGI-effects and has a way too convoluted screenplay to really work.
than other talented Hong Kong actresses who showed promises but then
wasted their talent in one routine action movie after the other,
Zhang Ziyi soon saw the dangers of being typecast and thus chose her next
movie to be the Korean period pic Musa/Musa
the Warrior (2001, Kim Sung-su) - and even though the film is
filled with carefully orchestrated battle scenes, Zhang Ziyi, playing a
Princess freed by a gang of betrayed Koreans from the Mongols only to
ultimately become their hostage, is in none of them, making this her first
non-action appearance since The Road Home.
2002, Zhang Ziyi was reunited with her mentor Zhang Yimou for
another movie, but rather surprisingly, Zhang Yimou has since their last
collaboration turned away from arthouse drama and to martial arts epics
with elaborate fighting scenes. The film in question was Hero,
which was at once a showcase for Jet Li (a rather odd choice for a lead in
a Zhang Yimou film, given his limited acting range) and a series of
beautifully arranged (martial arts-)setpieces and elegantly designed
images that showed if nothing else a true master's eye. Unfortunately, all
this perfection can't make one forget the rather feeble and overly
constructed story the film is based on and its rather one-dimensional
characters, which keep the film from being the masterpiece it could have
And Zhang Ziyi ?
Her role in Hero
was unfortunately too small and insignificant to really shine, great
actress or not.
It was probably Zhang Ziyi's next film that
really got her the attention of the arthouse crowd: Zi
Butterfly (2003, Lou Ye), a historical drama set in Shanghai
during World War II, with Zhang Ziyi playing an underground fighter
against the Japanese occupants who has to realize that the head of the
Japanese secret service is her former lover (Toru Nakamura) - which might
sound awfully clichéd in writing, however, the film is anything but:
Acclaimed avant garde director Lou Ye (who often incorporates pulp
elements in his films to play with them and turn them topsy turvey) gives
the film a look and a dynamic all of its own and self consciously and
unpretentiously counterpoints cinematic clichés wherever he finds them.
Zhang Ziyi ?
Amidst a film that is directed against most (if not all)
cinematic conventions, she comes into her own as an actress and gives her
most powerful performance yet, effotlessly showing the world how to act,
how to carry and how to change an emotion and transmitting her character's
feelings to the audience. True, Purple
Butterfly would have been a great movie even with a lesser
actress, but she makes it even better ...
Butterfly, Zhang Ziyi made another trip to Korea to turn in a
cameo in the gangster comedy Jopog Manura 2: Dolaon Meonseol/My
Wife is a Gangster 2 (2003, Jeong Heung-sun), a sequel to 2001's Jopog
Manura/My Wife is a Gangster (Cho Jin-gyu), which might be a
likeable little romp, but it was hardly of any importance to her career.
came yet another collaboration with Zhang Yimou and yet another martial arts
of Flying Daggers (2004). Again, Zhang Yimou has created a series of
beautifully arranged (martial arts-)setpieces and elegantly designed
images, but compared to the almost clinical Hero,
House of Flying
Daggers - a martial arts film about a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro)
posing as a gangster and a gangster (Andy Lau) posing as a cop (shades of Infernal
Affairs [2002, Andrew Lau, Alan Mak] here) who are in love with the same
woman (Zhang Ziyi) - is the much warmer film ... which is good only
to a point because in the end all the carefully choreographed action
scenes give way to an extended kitsch finale that is almost unbearable.
That said, the film gives Zhang Ziyi plenty of opportunity to show her
talent as an action star as well as a bona fide actress and prove she is
among the best there currently are ...
2004 also saw Zhang Ziyi
collaborating with Wong Kar-Wai, one of the darlings of the arthouse
crowd, on the film 2046,
which was supposed to be a clever mix of science fiction, romance and film
noir with a Chinese all-star cast including Tony Leung Chiu Wa, Gong Li,
Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and of course Zhang Ziyi. The outcome though was
a confusing and incoherent piece of film that had little to offer but
immensely beautiful images ... and yet another great performance by Zhang
Ziyi who carries at least her part of the movie and even makes it
worthwhile to a point.
Li Hua Kai/Jasmine Women
(2004, Hou Yong) is a Chinese film based on a novel by Tong Su set in
Shanghai containing three interlinked stories set in the 1930's, 1960's
and 1980's, with Zhang Ziyi playing a different character in each of these
time periods, with Joan Chen playing her mother in each story, who is
often an older version of the character she played in the previous story.
All three stories are high drama with unhappy endings. Once again Zhang
Ziyi shines, but as a whole, the film is a bit hard to swallow.
Ziyi's next film might be her weirdest to date, the totally unconventional
musical Operetta Tanuki
Raccoon (2005) by celebrated veteran director Seijun Suzuki, who
proves that despite getting a bit long in the tooth (he was 82 by the time
this was filmed) he is still able to make a fresh movie that might be unlike anything
you have ever seen. The film itself is all at once a naive fairy
tale and an advanced piece of avant garde, a (consciously) clumsily
directed stageplay and a carefully arranged piece of cinema, and a
collection of the most primitive stage effects and advanced CGI effects.
Zhang Ziyi, who plays the titular character, a raccoon in human form who
has fallen in love with a human (in human form) (Jo Odagiri), once again
is perfect in the film in which she also has to do a few songs and clumsy
dances inasmuch as she proves to be a perfect ensemble player by taking
back her undisputable acting skills and not trying to outsine her co-stars
- which in this case would have ruined the film, which you'll probably
only understand if you've seen Princess
Raccoon ... it's safe to say it's quite unlike anything you have
ever seen - and this is meant as a sincere compliment.
Hollywood came knocking on her door again and she was cast for the lead
role of the melodrama Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall), based on
the bestselling novel by Arthur Golden. In the film, Zhang Ziyi plays a
poor girl from a fishing village who is sold by her parents to a geisha
house and eventually becomes the most celebrated geisha of all Japan -
until World War II changes everything ...
The film, a bittersweet
melodrama full of Far-East-kitsch at best, was an attempt to break into
the Chinese movie-market with Hollywood-produced movies - which is why
besides Zhang Ziyi two more Chinese superstars, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh,
were cast in key-roles. The plan however didn't work out for various
- To cast Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese geishas might not
be the most sensible decision if you know a little bit about the
history of the Chinese-Japanese relationship. Subsequently the casting
caused a controversy, even if Zhang Ziyi's acting abilities were never
- To let a Western director make a film based on the novel by a
Western writer about the East aimed at an Eastern audience spells
trouble all by itself, since Western and Eastern sensibilities and aesthetics are just bound to crash.
- This again has to do with the history of the Chinese-Japanese
relationship: Why would the Chinese moviegoer be interested in the
goings-on of a Japanese geisha-house ?
This all makes the film sound like a total failure, but in the West and
even in Japan it did ok enough (in 2005, Zhang Ziyi was actually quite big
in Japan even prior to the film's release), but it was banned by the
censors in China only weeks before its intended release - which on one
hand shows that the Chinese-Japanese relationships are still not as good
as they ought to be, on the other hand that Hollywood producers are just not
very sensible when it comes to Orientals ...
In Memoirs of a Geisha,
Zhang Ziyi admittedly fails to really shine, but that can be at least
partly attributed to her incredibly pale role. In fact in the whole film,
only Gong Li, playing the only colourful character in the whole story,
manages to turn in a memorable performance.
For her next film, Zhang Ziyi returned to China once more, and it would
be another triumph: Ye Yan/The
Banquet/Legend of the Black Scorpion (2006, Feng Xiaogang), a film set in 10th century
China very loosely based on William Shakespere's Hamlet, with
numerous battles and martial arts scenes as an added bonus which
never detract from the actual storyline. In it, Zhang Ziyi plays an
Empress, whose husband is murdered by his own brother who then usurps the
throne and makes her his wife - which is very much to her liking since her
husband meant little to her but she's totally powerhungry - and all
through the film she plots and schemes and occasionally poisons people
just to remain in power, and ultimately she even kills the Emperor, her
(new) husband just to stay on top, and only in the very end is she herself
killed as well - and she's just great in her role which might just be her
most multi-faceted to date.
Her next role on the other hand is far less impressive and actually
quite forgettable: She lent her voice to a character in the
computer-animated Hollywood-production TMNT (2007, Kevin Munroe) -
the English language version that is (!) - the so far last installment of
the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a series about martial
arts fighting turtles based on a comicbook by Kevin Eastman and Peter
Laird. The less said about the film the better ...
So far, TMNT is the last Zhang Ziyi-film that has come out and
it is an unfitting piece of cinema to end an article on an actress of her
talents, but more films with Zhang Ziyi are already announced:
The film The Horsemen (2007, Jonas Akerlund), a horror thriller
about a serialkiller who has modelled himself after the Four Horsemen of
the Apyocalypse, is already in post-production and will have Zhang Ziyi
top-billed over Dennis Quaid. And then there's a film about famed Chinese
opera star Mei Lanfang in the works which will be directed by famed
Chinese director Chen Kaige and will star Leon Lai as Mei Lanfang.
What else the future will hold nobody knows, but an actress of her
talents shouldn't worry too much and if she keeps carefully choosing her
roles and gets the chance to work with yet more interesting directors only
the sky is the limit and she just might emerge the ultimate Chinese superstar !