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Zhang Ziyi - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

July 2007

Films starring Zhang Ziyi on (re)Search my Trash

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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 age ...


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 corner ...


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.

Interestingly, 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 (2005, Rob 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 ...

Having 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.


For 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).

All that 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.)


After 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 career.


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 spectacle Zu: 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.


Other 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.


In 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 been.

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 Hudie/Purple 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.

And 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 ...

After Purple 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.


Next came yet another collaboration with Zhang Yimou and yet another martial arts film: Shimian Maifu/House 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.


Mo 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.


Zhang Ziyi's next film might be her weirdest to date, the totally unconventional musical Operetta Tanuki Goten/Princess 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.

And 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.


In 2005, 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 obvious reasons:

  • 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 in question.
  • 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 !


© by Mike Haberfelner

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