Face to face with Zhang Ziyi

- Mario E. Bautista -
Hers is the kind of beauty that glows brighter as you look at her more closely. She stands 5 feet 5 inches tall and has a model’s reed-thin figure.

As Jen, the kickboxing adversary of Chow Yun Fat for the sword called Green Destiny in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a blockbuster hit in the US that has earned $130 million and won four Oscar Awards, Zhang Ziyi is on the threshold of Hollywood. She now appears with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2.

We were invited to interview her in Hong Kong where Tag Heuer presents her as one of the three new image models for Alter Ego ladies watches, created by famous Italian designer Roberto Ventrella. The other two are US Olympic sprinter Marion Jones and Spanish model-actress Ines Sastre.

Ziyi (that’s her first name and it’s pronounced Jiyi) spoke no English, so there were Chinese interpreters who translated our questions to her in Mandarin and vice-versa. The first time we saw her was when she was formally presented on the night of July 10, Tuesday, to the international press at Island Shangri-La Hotel, where we were billeted.

She was obviously still very much a tyro in facing a big crowd, looking quite conscious as she took center stage to pose for the photographers who had to coax her to smile and wave her hand before the camera.

The next day, the Filipino journalists get to her up close. She willingly posed for photos with the entire group. That very same night, we saw her again at the Harbour City, a huge mall in Ocean Terminal where she signed posters for the fans as part of the promo for Tag Heuer.

We were surprised when the Chinese press people suddenly turned their cameras on us and started interviewing us. They wanted to know our opinion about Ziyi and her chances of making it big abroad. They were apparently very proud of their homegrown actress making waves internationally.

Ziyi undoubtedly made a very good impression in the US. She won the Independent Spirit Best Supporting Actress award for her performance in Crouching Tiger. She was named by People Magazine as one of "The 50 Most Beautiful in the World." Brett Ratner, her American director in Rush Hour 2, called her "the Audrey Hepburn of Asia."

Some quarters thought that success was handed to the 22-year-old Ziyi (born on Feb. 9, 1979) on a silver platter. But she said everything was the product of hard work. Her father is an economist while her mother is a kindergarten teacher. In 1990, at the age of 11, she left their home to be a scholar in an exclusive boarding school, the Beijing Dancing College, where she was taught gymnastics and professional folk dancing for six years.

"We lived under very strict discipline," she said. "There was fierce competition for status and the affection of the teachers among the students. We’d wake up at 5 in the morning to practise dancing and gymnastics and we’d go to bed at 11 p.m."

But all her hard work paid off. In 1994, she won the Best Performance award in Chinese Folk Dance in the National Young Dancers Competition.

From 1996 to 2000, she took her bachelor’s degree, major in performing arts, at the China Central Drama Academy. Up to now, she is still based in Beijing, studying at China Central Practice Teacher.

She never expected to be a successful actress. There was even a point when she rebelled against the rigorous training she was going through. At 15, she ran away from school. But eventually, she returned, realizing that she truly loved what she was doing.

In 1997, she auditioned for a shampoo commercial. Her audition tape was seen by director Zhang Yimou. The noted director of Raise the Red Lantern was impressed and got her to play the lead role in his new movie, The Road Home. For her first film role, Ziyi played a lovely young woman in a small Chinese village who falls in love with the new teacher (Zheng Hao) assigned to their school.

The film was released in the States in May while we were there, and Zhang Yimou obviously fell very much in love with Ziyi’s fragile beauty. The camera was always pointing at her, looking radiant in her pink jacket and red scarf in the film. Her hair braided in two pigtails, it was obvious even in this first screen appearance that Ziyi has a charismatic presence destined for stardom.

The film gave Ziyi the 1999 Rising Star Award from the Asia Movie Forum in China and the Best Actress awards in the 23rd Bai Hua Film Awards and in the Iran Film Festival. In February, 2000, the film won the Grand Jury Silver Bear Award in the 50th Berlin International Filmfest. Ang Lee, acclaimed director of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, saw Ziyi in the film and sought her to play the role of the aristocratic swordfighter who seems to be doing ballet on the top of towering bamboo trees in Crouching Tiger.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Aside from the Independent Spirit Award, Ziyi also won the Best Supporting Actress award in the 6th Golden Cercis Award in Hong Kong for Crouching Tiger. She was also named Most Promising Female Newcomer by the Chicago Film Critics and nominated as Best Actress in the Chinese Golden Horse Award and in the 20th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

This opened more doors for her. Noted Hong Kong action director, Tsui Hark, got her to be the lead actress in his film, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, where she shared top billing with noted Hong Kong stars Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung.

Korean director Kim Seung Soo also got her to play the title role in The Warrior, where she co-starred with famous Korean stars An Sheng Ji and Zheng Yu Sheng. Most important of all, Hollywood got interested in her and she now stars in Rush Hour 2, which will be released worldwide in August.

She also started a career as an endorser. Together with singer Coco Lee, she was appointed as an ambassadress for Cartier’s line of jewelry. China got her to represent their environmental campaign: "Save the Panda and other wild animals from extinction." L’Oreal-Maybelline also got her to plug their cosmetic products. And now, she is with Tag Heuer’s Alter Ego. Says Regional Marketing Director Dominique Taieb: "Her graceful and striking presence on and off screen makes her our natural choice to represent Alter Ego. It is a combination of confidence and elegance."

"I feel privileged to work with them because I really have three Tag Heuer watches in my collection," she reveals. "It is very classy and fits the woman of today who has strength of character and determination."

She played an empowered woman in Crouching Tiger. Is she really one in real life?

"I don’t think I’m really a very strong woman. But I am also not the traditional Chinese woman who’d just rather stay in the background. Today, you should have the courage to express yourself. Even a housewife can be a strong woman in the way she nurtures her family."

What can she say about the observation of some quarters that she has replaced Gong Li, the first Chinese actress in recent years to capture international audiences?

"I don’t think we should be compared with each other. I don’t want to compete with anybody. I’d rather stick to my own style and identity. I still have a long way to go."

Now that she is being compared to the beautiful and legendary Audrey Hepburn, how would she define beauty and what is her beauty secret?

"There’s no particular definition of being beautiful. In China, you don’t regard someone as beautiful right away. You have to know her for a long time, because what’s even more important is one’s inner self. She should be natural, not forcing herself to make an impression. As for my beauty secret, I see to it that I get eight hours of sleep every night." How was it working in Hollywood for Rush Hour 2?

"At first, I was very scared because I didn’t really know anyone there when we started shooting last December. But with Jackie Chan and his family being very helpful, I felt more comfortable. Working in Hollywood is so different from working in China. They can do movies on all sorts of subjects, even sex and lesbianism, which we cannot do in China. And they have great resources in shooting a film. That made me realized how good and talented Chinese directors really are, because we have many limitations in China compared to Hollywood and yet we can still come up with good films which are praised abroad."

Does she see herself pursuing a Hollywood career?

"I think I can play more different characters in China. Also, I don’t know how to speak English so I really should study very hard to speak it well. But if there are other offers, I’m willing to try them."

Does she think she represent the Chinese woman of today?

"Chinese culture has 5,000 years of history behind it and I don’t think I can represent that. But I’m very proud of Chinese people now because they are all very hardworking. They want to continuously improve and that is the spirit they want to show the world now. They are very aggressive for progress and progress is what is happening in China now. I’d say that like the rest of the Chinese, I also want to go on improving."

When asked about more political questions, Ziyi chose to just keep quiet. As an artist, she wants to concentrate more on her craft, she said.

"I have yet a lot to learn and let’s just say that I will strive to do even better," she declared.

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