“Every step I have taken, since I was that child on the bridge, has been to bring myself closer to you.”
That was one memorable quote from Sayuri, the main character in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, played by Zhang Ziyi, undoubtedly one of the most sought-after Chinese actresses in Hollywood today. Like the nine-year-old Chiyo (Sayuri’s name before she became a geisha), Zhang has dreamed of achieving something she thought was beyond her reach.
Born in Beijing, Zhang was destined to become a performer. At the age of 11, she joined the Beijing Dance Academy through her parents’ prodding. Then, at 15, she entered the China Central Academy of Drama after she realized dancing was not good enough an outlet for her artistry. And the rest is history.
Zhang Ziyi’s promising career began in 1999 after world renowned film director Zhang Yimou offered her a role in the movie The Road Home. In her debut, she played the role of a country girl who fell in love with a
young teacher during the 1958 Anti-Rightist Movement in China. She wowed film critics, though she had no previous acting experience. She was chosen as the Best Actress in the 2000 Hundred Flowers Awards.
Because of Zhang’s exceptional performance in The Road Home, award-winning director Ang Lee chose her to portray the role of the willful and adventurous aristocrat Jen Yu in the 2000 megahit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In preparation for the movie, Zhang had to study martial arts, classical movements, calligraphy, and etiquette. She also took voice and even diving lessons. First offered to Hong Kong actress Qi Shu, the role won for Zhang various awards including the Independent Spirit’s and the Toronto Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actress Award. The movie, which was based on Wang Dulu’s Crane-Iron Pentalogy, became an international success and would prove momentous in Zhang’s blossoming career.
Following the success of Crouching Tiger, Zhang was offered her first appearance in an American movie in the action-comedy film Rush Hour 2. She portrayed the role of the drop-dead gorgeous assassin Hu Li, who was hired by a gang leader in China to kill chief inspector Lee (played by fellow Chinese Jackie Chan) and detective James Carter (Chris Tucker). Zhang could hardly understand English so during the filming, an interpreter, with the help of co-actor Jacky Chan, had to translate the instructions of the director to her. She ended up saying only three English words in the movie: “Some apple?” and “Out!”
After Rush Hour 2, she starred in a number of martial arts movies (this genre appeared to be her forte). She was Joy in the mythical The Legend of Zu (2001), a servant of a legendary assassin in Hero (2002), a member of a rebel group who fell in love with an enemy in the action-romance film House of Flying Daggers (2004), and the Empress Wan in the Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006).
Zhang also captured the hearts of foreign moviegoers. She conquered South Korean cinemas with Musa (2001) and My Wife is a Gangster 2 (2003). She also starred in the Japanese film Princess Raccoon in 2005. As of last count, she already has 14 blockbuster movies under her belt.
Zhang has finally reached the height of her career when she was offered the most-coveted role of Sayuri in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Adapted from the novel of the same title written by Arthur Golden, the movie was directed by topnotch American film director Rob Marshall under Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Zhang Ziyi was reunited with Crouching Tiger co-actress Michelle Yeoh.
The plot was focused on the story of a Japanese girl named Chiyo Sakamoto (later named as Sayuri) and her struggles to become a geisha in 1930s Japan. It is also a tale of a young heart who has patiently waited for the man she has secretly loved since she was a kid.
In preparation for the movie, the three lead actresses—Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li—were trained in traditional geisha practices. The Chinese actresses also had to practice their English since their portrayals required them to speak the language with a Japanese accent.
Controversy arose when the filmmakers chose the three Chinese ladies to play the important roles in the movie instead of Japanese actresses. The producers defended their call and said Zhang, Michelle, and Gong were selected because of their acting prowess. Zhang’s performance earned for her nominations in various distinguished award-giving bodies. She was in the list of nominees for Golden Globe’s Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture award, The British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ Best Actress in a Leading Role award, and Satellite Awards’ Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture award.
Media’s Sweet Face
Zhang has captivated not just Hollywood, but the advertising industry as well. She will always be remembered for her shiny black hair, thanks to Pantene shampoo. (She has been endorsing the product since 2001.) She is also the first Asian endorser of Maybelline, an American cosmetic line. And who says only the geeks and techies can appreciate the commercials for Lenovo computers? Her other product endorsements include Beijing Liquor, Soutec, Visa, and Coca-Cola.
Zhang’s conservative and reserved image (well, compared to fellow Chinese actress Bai Ling) landed her on the second spot of FHM Taiwan’s 100 Sexiest Women of 2001. In the UK edition of the same magazine, she was ranked 100th in its 2002 list. She was also included in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People of 2005 and 2006. Time magazine added her name to its line-up of the World’s Most Influential People in 2005, and even called her “China’s Gift to Hollywood.”
Every step Zhang has taken has brought her closer to stardom.
print ed: 03/08