Much is made of Ziyi Zhang’s beauty. In a recent New York Times feature, she was likened to the incandescent screen sirens of Hollywood yore. And in his review of “The House of Flying Daggers,” the Times’ A.O. Scott wrote: “Occasionally, Ms. Zhang bares one of her lovely shoulders. If she showed more, the projector would catch fire.”
But the 25-year-old Beijing native is nothing if not a highly talented actress. So much so that her shy, almost girlish manner in person belies the fierce yet vulnerable heroines she plays onscreen. She has worked with the most renowned filmmakers in Chinese-language cinema, from Zhang Yimou (with whom she has made three pics) to Ang Lee to Wong Kar-wai.
As in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang’s “Hero,” her appearance in “Daggers” is deceiving. Zhang (who has Westernized her name by reversing the order from “Zhang Ziyi”) plays a member of a revolutionary band who poses as a blind brothel worker named Mei during the Tang dynasty. As film critic Jamie Bernard put it, Mei is “so meltingly beautiful, so quick on her feet, so downright ambidextrous” that the deputies assigned to hunt her down find their judgment clouded. That same clouded judgment befalls Chow Yun-Fat in “Crouching Tiger,” when the wise warrior doesn’t know whether to vanquish his young opponent or ravish her.
Zhang, who studied at the Beijing Dance Academy before seriously taking the plunge into acting with the Chinese equivalent of the Stanislavski method, trained for two months for the terp and martial-arts sequences from “Daggers.” She also lived with a blind girl during this same period.
“I would learn all movements and responses in daily life,” recalls the actress. “The A.D.’s helped me by videotaping us together. I’d then watch the tapes and see how the both of us react to the same things.” But the training went beyond mimicry, as Zhang looked to the blind girl as a role model of a woman of enormous inner strength.
Zhang owes much of her success to Zhang Yimou, who gave the actress her first big break in 1999’s “The Road Home.”
“He’s probably the director that I trust the most,” she confides. “He’s been my mentor for so long now. He knows what I can do and what I should be pushed to do. I admire him for his vision and his brilliance.”