Mistress of the martial art

By ROGER CLARKE

Who is Zhang Ziyi? Her creamy, almond-shaped face and her lightning martial-arts moves lit up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and made her a star. Now, she's been cast in Memoirs of a Geisha, the Japanese epic that was to have been made by Steven Spielberg.

In fact, Rob Marshall, Oscar-nominated for Chicago, will direct, with Spielberg overseeing as producer. Filming started in Los Angeles, just weeks after Ziyi's latest film, Hero (actually two years old, but that's another Miramax story), astounded the industry by going straight to the top slot in the US. In one weekend it almost made back what Harvey Weinstein paid for it, a cool US$20 million, according to Peter Biskind's recent Miramax expose, Down and Dirty Pictures.

Details about the Beijing-born actress are sketchy. Until recently, she spoke no English. What sort of person is she? What is she like to work with? I flew to Edinburgh to meet the legendary cinematographer Chris Doyle, who photographed her in Hero and Wong Kar-Wai's upcoming 2046.

Taking time out from the Edinburgh Film Festival, Doyle, who has photographed many of the great Chinese actresses, agreed that the camera loves her, but we couldn't grasp the essence of her appeal.

Words kept cropping up about freshness and poise, but little about acting ability.

Was she really, as the Chinese press has been bitching, just a lucky model who stumbled into acting?

Ziyi's feud with the Chinese media - especially the Hong Kong press, who accuse her of all manner of diva-like activities - has escalated since Cannes this year. She now barely talks to them.

I knew some basic facts. A dozen fan websites repeat these few snippets, mostly taken from the very few interviews she's given to promote films as forgettable as Tsui Hark's Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain and Rush Hour II. Just 165cm tall and 25 years old, she's the worldwide face of Maybelline cosmetics and her list of commercial endorsements is growing; it includes Tag Heuer and Coca-Cola.

She trained at the China Central Drama College (the equivalent of Britain's Rada), and was clearly ambitious; at 15, she had won a national dance competition. But her history is littered with sudden reversals - quitting dance in disgust at its limitations and, earlier, being so oppressed by the nature of competitive gymnastics that she ran away from home.

In order to find out more, I tracked down Zhang Yimou. Long before he made Hero he was one of China's best-known directors in the West, with films such as Raise the Red Lantern to his name.

I'd been told that he discovered Ziyi while casting for a shampoo advert in Beijing.

He was only too happy to talk about his beautiful protegee, whom he gave a small role in Hero and the lead in its follow-up, House of Flying Daggers. Some years ago, tongues wagged about the exact nature of the director's relationship with Ziyi - after all, her predecessor, directorial muse Gong Li, also dated the man - but neither party has ever spoken about it. The Asian press ungenerously dubbed her "little Gong Li" - which apparently annoyed her. No diva likes to be compared to another. Besides, Zhang is old enough to be her father.

"I wanted a girl with long hair," Zhang told me via an interpreter at the Dorchester Hotel in London. "And her hair wasn't long enough for the shampoo advert. But one year later I was about to make A Road Home. I remembered her at the auditions, as I needed a completely fresh person for the central role, of a girl falling for a teacher. I cast her. She couldn't act very well at first, but she learns fast."

When a pigtailed, pouty Ziyi first appears in this debut film, set in 1950s rural China, monochrome is transformed into rich, luscious colours. It's quite a trick.

Stephen Holden in the New York Times wrote about his impression of this startling new actress: "Ms Zhang's intensely concentrated performance conveys a current of stubborn, obsessive passion lurking behind Di's girlish wide-eyed innocence." He could be describing Ziyi herself.

"This is a woman who, on recognising her destiny, will let nothing stand in the way of her seizing it." Only a year or so later the actress was telling Time Asia: "I want to prove to everyone that I have talent."

Zhang recommended Ziyi to Ang Lee when the latter was searching for the right actress for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Her role as Jen, a supremely skilled swordswoman secretly resisting an arranged marriage, transformed her fortunes.

She was, she has admitted, jealous of the attention Lee lavished on Michelle Yeoh thanks to the latter's lack of Chinese, and some of that chemistry sparks there with the clashing swords. Her boyish, androgynous qualities were emphasised, especially in her swordfight with Yeoh, a brilliantly stylised catfight in all but name.

"After I watched the film, I realised that Lee had made her change," says Zhang with obvious admiration. "She had changed from simply being a girl, and had matured. I gave her a small role in Hero, but it was an important, passionate one. I realised she had learnt to express or hold back as she likes - which in China is quite rare.

"Rare, too, are actors who can actually fight."

But, in the end, I was really going to have to talk to the woman herself. I had recently seen House of Flying Daggers, a film that finally makes her seem totally feminine and combines her twin abilities to play the tumbling tomboy and the delicate flower.

I'd talked to people who had worked with her and read about her upcoming roles.

An interview was arranged, and then called off as Geisha approached its first day of filming. I ended up taking her call in a car at midnight, on an Italian cellphone in Venice during the recent film festival. You've no idea the effect this information has on men aged 17 upwards. I have to keep denying I have her phone number.

The immediate impression was of a giggly teenager full of self-confidence and charm. Does she ever get sick of being beautiful? "Not often," she laughs. Does she enjoy being beautiful? "No, I don't care."

Are many people frightened by her martial-arts skills? "No, I need bodyguards - I teach my bodyguards! Ha ha hah!"

In fact, Ziyi has adapted her gymnastic and dance skills to give the illusion of martial-arts abilities. She's only been in Hollywood for two weeks, and is learning English. Her Rush Hour II co-star Chris Tucker once said: "What makes her so sexy is that she doesn't speak English."

She manages some conversation with me, but often has to be helped out by a studio translator.

Does she have English words stuck on her fridge and phone, places like that, like regular people learning a language? "On my mirror," she says. Of course - the mirror. When will she be fluent? "It takes for ever," she sighs.

Gong Li and Yeoh star with her in Geisha, in which she plays a young woman sold by her poverty-stricken parents to a geisha house in Kyoto. All the leads have gone to Chinese actresses, to the chagrin of the Japanese. What does she say to the Japanese actresses who missed out? "They should learn martial arts, ha ha hah!"

Which famous actresses does she admire? "I love Bjork, I love her so much. I love Dancer in the Dark. I'd love to be in a film with her."

Despite her froth, it's clear she has a strong work ethic. "I need to work harder," she says. Does she know anyone in LA? "Hardly anyone." Jet Li, who helped her so much in Hero? "He's gone back to Shanghai." Did he teach her how to protect herself in Hollywood? "No, no, ha ha hah!"

After telling me she's dying to come to London because of the clubs, and the London Eye, our conversation ends. I can't say the experience has been very illuminating: as with many actors, she saves herself for the camera.

But Ziyi is about to become the most famous Chinese woman on the planet, and it sounds as though she's enjoying the prospect very much.

- INDEPENDENT

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