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Venice: China’s Ryan Zheng Shows New Depth and Ambition

Aside from the experience that comes from nearly 30 years at the top, Chinese director Zhang Yimou is renown as an excellent spotter of new on screen talent. With a history of launching Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Dongyu, Zhang’s track record is built on finding women whose acting skills are as refined as their looks are strong and striking.

So launching a male star, as Zhang does with Zheng Kai aka Ryan Zheng in Venice Film Festival- and Toronto-bound “Shadow,” is being watched carefully.

Set hundreds of years ago, when China was possibly the most sophisticated civilization on the planet, “Shadow” is a dark drama about a body double, in which comedian-actor Deng Chao pays both master and servant. Zheng’s role as the king is a foil for the struggles of the Deng’s characters and the women of the court.

“It is both an adversarial and a symbiotic relationship,” Zheng told Variety. “The king initially appears somewhat simplistic, but the character expands and by the end is shown to be acting intelligently, strategically, and effectively.”

“Zheng Kai is a young actor with great potential. His role in ‘Shadow’ is a very challenging one, and is vastly different from what the audience has come to expect of him. I’m sure many viewers will be pleasantly surprised by his performance,” Zhang told Variety by email.

That is a reference to Chinese audiences with Zheng, who at 32, has built a repertoire of light TV roles, including reality show “Keep Running”. And it is a step change from his role as Shen in Zhang’s previous film, the big-budget Matt Damon-starring “The Great Wall.”

Though neither man is yet ready to confirm the information, Chinese industry sources say that Zheng may soon get a third role in Zhang’s next picture.

Whether Zheng, who speaks good English, then pursues a Hollywood career, or expands his position in the Chinese industry is currently unclear. He is exploring both possibilities.

“I’m interested in producing and directing. And I’m learning a lot from Zhang Yimou, especially how he handles script, cast, crew, and technicians,” Zheng said. “I’d like to see China produce more films that are capable of being shown worldwide. Maybe I’ll be someone to help make that happen.”

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