These days, Zhao Tao moves in glamorous circles. Now a regular on the international film festival circuit with starring roles in films such as Platform, Unknown Pleasures and Still Life, she has graced gala premieres at Venice, Cannes and Berlin. Before winning the best actress title at last year's David di Donatello Awards - the Italian equivalent of the Oscars - for her sterling turn in Andre Segre's Shun Li and the Poet, she was received by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.
But Zhao says it's not the jet-setting lifestyle or the glitz which have made a lasting impression on her. Sitting in a hotel lounge overlooking Victoria Harbour during a recent Hong Kong visit to attend a screening of Shun Li at the Cine Italiano! film festival, the 35-year-old says her most vivid memories are of journeys across the rural hinterlands on the mainland, as she and her husband, director Jia Zhangke, produced their films.
"I remember making Unknown Pleasures in 2002 near Datong [in Shanxi province], and we stopped at this place squeezed between a mountain and a dry riverbed," says Zhao. "There's this highway of sorts and it's covered with coal ash. Next to the road stand some shacks built with flimsy wooden planks and discarded electricity poles. While we were standing there, people came out of them, crossed the road and tried to get water from the riverbed. I was shocked - it's 2002 and there were people who still couldn't live in proper, basic housing?
"If I wasn't making a film, I wouldn't be able to witness the impoverished circumstances some people are still living in. I'm like mostly everyone else: I haven't been extremely rich or extremely poor, leading a very ordinary life. And I thought everybody would be like me but that's not the case."
It's perhaps fitting that the interview is taking place on the 116th floor of the International Commerce Centre: the way she surveys the bustling city below - "It's so … beautiful!" she exclaims - is reminiscent of her screen roles as the oracle of social changes unfolding on the mainland.
In Platform (2000), she plays a young woman whose life embodies the effects of the economic reforms sweeping across the country from the late 1970s to the 1990s. In Still Life (2006), her character, trying to track down her vanished husband, witnesses the fallout from China's self-proclaimed strides towards modernity as she visits a town soon to be submerged as part of the Three Gorges Dam project.
In the docu-drama 24 City (2008), she tells of how different generations adapt to a commodity-driven, capitalist socialist system. And in I Wish I Knew (2010), she drifts wordlessly through modern-day Shanghai, a spirit taking in tales about the city recounted by residents of the metropolis.
Zhao says she has largely been motivated by an urge to "understand the truth" during her 12-year acting career - and it has certainly been useful for her on Shun Li and the Poet, her first foray beyond the mainland. She plays a Chinese immigrant assigned to work in a bar in Chioggia, a small town in northeastern Italy. As she toils away in the hope of repaying the debt she incurred from her westward voyage - and earning enough to bring her son to Italy as well - she befriends an elderly fisherman, Bepi (played by Rade Serbedzija), who was himself once a foreigner when he fled Yugoslavia to start anew. What follows is a story of two kindred spirits bonding over their similar experiences, as Bepi helps Shun Li get over her homesickness.
"When I got the script, two problems came to mind," says Zhao. "The first was the language. But it was easily resolvable, as I could just recite the lines. What was more problematic was the need to understand the predicament felt by an émigré. So I went around collecting all the information I could get. Luckily I had already done something similar when I was preparing for my role in [Isaac Julien's film installation] Ten Thousand Waves, which touches on a lot of stories about Chinese immigrants from Guangdong, Sichuan and Fujian."
Arriving a month before shooting began, Zhao spent time talking to Chinese workers living in the area. "I could sense their doubts - their worries about their own identity and how to be accepted by the locals, things we rarely get to see in mainstream films," she said.
Zhao says she wouldn't have thought about the Chinese diaspora if she had stuck to her original vocation as a dance teacher in her hometown of Taiyuan in Shanxi province, after graduating from the Beijing Dance Academy. It was there that Jia recruited her for Platform, the film which propelled him to international fame and made him the leader of a group of independent mainland directors collectively known as the "Sixth Generation". It was the beginning of a long working relationship between Jia and Zhao; the couple married last year.
For the first five years of her acting career, however, Zhao was still holding down her teaching post at home. "I was not sure whether I should become a full-time actor or return to become a teacher," she says of what she now describes as "years of confusion".
"During those years I was zipping between those two very different vocations. I would be drilling students in class for some time, and then would have to take leave to make movies. I would have loved to do both things well but at the end I ended up doing both badly," she says. "I was especially guilty when it came to my students - most of them go to university only once in their lives, and they found themselves being taught by a teacher who could vanish for two years to do a film. It just wasn't right."
But soon after opting for a full-fledged career in film, she nearly quit because of the trials and tribulations of filming Still Life. "It was a very tiring shoot. We went to Fengjie [a town in Sichuan where the film was set] five times and you had to spend three days to get there by plane, bus and then a rented car. And that's not counting the seven pre-production trips," she recalls.
"The pressure was immense. As always, Zhangke didn't give me a script - everything was in his head and he didn't really communicate with me. He thought I knew exactly what he had in mind but, no, I didn't. So I was off in nearly every scene we shot. That's why when Still Life was finished, I told him I didn't want to be an actor any more."
The astounding success of the film changed Zhao's mind, however. "We never anticipated the acclaim - we only thought we should chronicle a world which was fast disappearing from the surface of the earth, so that people 10 years down the line could see what it was like there. And when the film won the Golden Lion [at the Venice Film Festival], all the frustration just dissipated. The joy just replaced everything."
Zhao has since worked on Jia's 24 City, Cry Me a River and I Wish I Knew, and in upcoming a period martial arts drama tentatively titled In the Qing Dynasty. But her experience on Shun Li has brought her a new perspective on working with Jia, she says.
"I will strongly demand that he gives me a proper screenplay before we begin shooting - without a script I can't do my own creative part."