HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS - Q&A with actress Ziyi Zhang
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS Q&A with Ziyi Zhang at the Cannes Film Festival 2004
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 earlier. 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 films. 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 films, 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.
How did this experience compare with working on Zhang Yimou's HERO?
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.
Was it important for you to have that experience?
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.
Was there any discussion as to how you would act blind?
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.
What else makes you cry?
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 are no paparazzi. Beijing is fine. Even Maggie [Cheung] said to me she doesn't like to live in Hong Kong.
Is it nice to use your dance and ballet background for a role?
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.
Did you suffer any injuries?
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 head.
Was this the hardest film you've ever done?
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.
What do you think of your character, in that she has two men pursuing her?
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.
What did you think when you saw the finished film?
I was incredibly moved by how it turned out. The emotions build up and up, and the sense of sadness increases as the movie goes on.
What do you see as the differences between Western and Chinese women?
For Western women, 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.
You are also in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046. Can you discuss the differences between working with Zhang Yimou and with Wong Kar-Wai?
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.
Did your co-star, and frequent Wong Kar-Wai collaborator, Takeshi Kaneshiro, not warn you?
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!'
How long did you work on 2046 for, given that it took five years to make?
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.
What is your role in the film?
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!
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?
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.
A lot of people call you the new Gong Li. How does that make you feel?
Nobody can replace Gong Li, because she is the leading actress in China. I don't feel I could take her place.
How much has your beauty helped you in your career?
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.
Have you had many offers from Hollywood?
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.
Is Jackie Chan a hero of yours?
He is funny. He loves to be a big brother to you! I saw Chris Tucker last night, too.
What kind of movies do you like?
I like DANCER IN THE DARK, with Björk. Recently I saw MONSTER, which I loved. I'd love to do a movie where the director can make me different.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
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.
Question & Answer Text Copyright Pathé Distribution