Zhao Tao is one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese art cinema thanks to her longtime collaboration with acclaimed director Jia Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. From 2000’s “Platform” to last year’s “Ash Is Purest White,” her work has plumbed the moral depths of modern China and brought stories of the country’s drastic change to global audiences.
Though often described as Jia’s “muse,” it’s a term that she herself is uncomfortable with. “I don’t accept it or reject it. It appeared, and I’ve heard it,” she shrugged. “It isn’t a term that I’ve come up with for myself — it’s one that the media has come up with for our relationship.”
Currently, Zhao is at work as a producer on a new literary documentary about the works of Chinese writers Yu Hua and Jia Pingwa that her husband began shooting in May to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Zhao was refreshingly candid with Variety about the challenges facing women in the Chinese film industry in a Kering Women in Motion talk on the sidelines of the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival.
You often portray strong female characters trying to make their way in a man’s world. How do you prepare for these roles?
When I receive a role, it’s really the script that gives me the basis I need to envision the character. I don’t think directly about how to make her a strong one. My method is that I get a script and read it through many times, writing down in great detail the feelings it evokes each time. I then love to write a biography for the character. With Qiaoqiao [from “Ash Is Purest White”], for example, I began with her kindergarten years. I even knew the exact name and address of her kindergarten and middle school, because I’m really familiar with Datong [where it’s set]. I went on to write when she met her first boyfriend, what kinds of fights they had, when she graduated from college, what problems she faced — all the way up until she’s 60. In that process, I found that the character was telling me that, step by step, she had transformed from a very simple girl to a very strong woman.
How do you collaborate with Jia Zhangke? How involved are you in developing your characters?
After so many years of collaboration, we have an unspoken agreement that I won’t interfere with his creative process or put forward any demands. We don’t discuss anything during the script development phase, and only talk once he’s communicated with his creative team and decided that I’ll play the role. If he doesn’t give it to me, I don’t ask about it: I’m not dead-set on playing anything, because it’s not important that I’m in it. For us, what’s most important is the values our films depict.
What kinds of female characters resonate with Chinese audiences? You’ve shot a couple of foreign films — is it different from what resonates in the West?
Chinese audiences need characters who suit their sensibilities and act in ways that line up with how they’d manage emotions. An example that made a particular impression on me was in Italy on the set of “Shun Li and the Poet.” The director needed me to express extreme joy at being reunited with my child, and wanted me to go into the sea for a swim. I said, I can do it, but from a Chinese woman’s point of view, I don’t think she would deal with happiness that way, putting on a swimsuit for a swim. He thought about it for a long time, because he really wanted that swim, but in the end, we decided that when I was at my happiest I could instead write my dad a letter.
No matter whether my character is in China or Italy, Fenyang or Beijing, I think the problems people encounter, especially women, remain the same. We women will certainly face first loves, and the responsibility of caring for family, for children — there’s no nationality to it. Everyone is the same, but women’s burdens and responsibilities in particular are very much the same.
What do you bring to your craft now as a more mature, experienced actress that you couldn’t at a younger age?
When I first starred in “Platform” in my early 20s, I didn’t have a script so I just did my best to follow the story the director explained to me before every scene. Back then, I was acting. Now after so many years, after I get the script, analyze it and write my detailed backstory, when I’m in the midst of the pleasure of creation, I feel I no longer need to act. Instead, I feel I should be living this character.
What challenge does age pose to Chinese actresses?
It’s a particularly big obstacle. Our current standards of beauty here only appreciate pretty girls in their early 20s, and after Chinese actresses reach a certain age, the roles they get naturally fall into the categories of mothers, grandmas and elders. But it’s actually only by the time you’re 40 that you’ve accumulated a wealth of work experience. At that point, you could not just play a mother or a lawyer but all sorts of crossover roles, because what audiences are looking at is the richness of your inner emotions, and that’s something that only accumulates over time.
You’re the only female member of the jury for the main competition. Why is there under-representation of women in such positions?
This is something we really need to talk about. I think that out of respect for women and their independence, we must judge them and their work by the same standards we use for men. So in the Shanghai Festival, we can be happy to see that there are two works by female directors. I believe in Chinese cinema, and I believe that Chinese women can shoot exquisite movies.
In your eyes, is it important in China to discuss the role of women in the film industry?
I think it’s really important in our industry to discuss the issue of gender. The law says that we must respect women, but our society still imposes many limitations on them – for instance, saying that women should have children, take care of the family and manage all the little details of family life, while also being accomplished in their own work. Honestly, I think we ask too much of women. I only realized when I became Jia’s wife and had my own home that too much is expected of women. Especially in the film industry, the proportion of women is particularly small. Other than actresses or costumers, basically every other person is a man. Under such circumstances, using the same standards to measure women’s performance is actually one of the best things we can do to support women.
What inspires you?
I’m actually not someone who really likes to socialize. I’m really quiet. Especially when we’re in the midst of a shoot, I like to just stand or sit in one place, to enter into an environment and observe the people there where I’m shooting — what kinds of lives they lead, how they eat and play and live. I really like to observe other people. I’ve realized over so many years of observation that each role I play is inseparable from the real problems people are facing in life — emotional dilemmas, family or money troubles. For me, what’s important in cinema is not just telling a story. What’s more important is to use the story as a vehicle to see the person it’s about and, through that person, witness the changes of an entire era.