With Wong Kar-wai's latest film earning her rave reviews, life is looking positive for Zhang Ziyi, writes Vivienne Chow
Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster is likely to be film fans' last chance to catch Zhang Ziyi's kung fu moves. It's true, the 33-year-old actress says, in response to rumours that she's planning to stop making martial arts films.
From Jen Yu, daughter of an aristocrat in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), to dancer Mei in Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004), to kung fu exponent Gong Er in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, the Beijing-born Zhang has played a wide range of action heroine roles that have cemented her status as a top actress. But these achievements can no longer keep her in the martial arts genre.
"I don't mind exhausting myself or suffering," she says. "I'm just afraid that I will not be able to improve further."
Zhang says some media reports have claimed she is leaving the martial arts field because she's getting older, but "this is not true. I feel this decision is the highest compliment that I can offer The Grandmaster, because I feel that in future I will not have the chance to play another role that can surpass this one."
If so, she's getting a grand send-off: the film, released on the mainland on Tuesday, took in 30 million yuan (HK$37 million) on its opening day, exceeding the total box office takings of 30 million yuan for Wong's 2004 film, 2046. In its Thursday opening in Hong Kong, it scored more than HK$1.3 million, compared to The Impossible's HK$551,139, second in the daily box office record.
Interviewed in the presidential suite of the Harbour Grand hotel in Hung Hom, Zhang is the antithesis of how she's been portrayed by the Chinese media: she is gentle, cheerful - in fact, she's nice. Having spoken to countless journalists in the three years she spent playing Gong Er, she is still animated when she talks about The Grandmaster, which has taken Wong almost a decade to bring to the big screen. Like a good hostess, she even makes sure that journalists in the suite are served drinks.
Gong Er has been a challenging role for Zhang: the only daughter of the leader of the Gong clan, her talent and determination have made her a master of the elegant yet deadly bagua palm martial art. Following her father to Foshan in Guangdong, she meets Tony Leung Chiu-wai's Ip Man, a wing chun master - Bruce Lee was one of his disciples - and a married man. Their first encounter is a stunning fight sequence choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping.
Gong Er is a strong character who conceals her feelings from others; Zhang, however, has shed plenty of tears behind the camera. In footage showing the film being made, a messy-haired Zhang in scruffy outfits with no make-up is seen stretching her limbs to shrieks of pain during a training session. Wu Bin, actor Jet Li Lianjie's sifu and chief kung fu coach for The Grandmaster, praised her talent and hard work.
Their coaches set a high benchmark for Zhang, Leung (who was 47 years old when their training began three years ago) and Taiwan's Chang Chen, the actress says. Chang, who also plays a kung fu master, became one in real life by winning a competition in Changchun last year.
However, the coaches "had forgotten we are well into our 30s. We are not children", Zhang says with a rueful smile. "I was a dancer, and I had made a lot of martial arts films. I thought I could deliver the same performance I gave in the past […] But I couldn't do it any more."
The training aggravated injuries she sustained during the making of previous films, and for which she had not sought medical help. "I didn't have the time."
It's been a rough few years personally for the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards best actress (for 2046): she broke up with billionaire Aviv Nevo in 2010, and in June last year she sued Apple Daily and its sister weekly, Next Magazine, for alleging that she had prostituted herself to senior central government officials including disgraced former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai.
"Hong Kong media … just some individual ones … would find the most nonsensical things to write about. But I accept that because this is one of the many components that form a society. There are always positive and negative elements around," says Zhang, a Hong Kong resident under the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme.
"I hope that those who have seen my performances can bring home some positive energy. And as for other destructive and hurtful comments … I don't let them stay in my body for too long."
But life is looking up for the actress: The Grandmaster - which garnered rave reviews on the mainland - has been selected to open the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival next month. In her personal life, she's reportedly in a relationship with Sa Beining, a 36-year-old CCTV show host.
Zhang is now preparing for her next project, a John Woo Yu-sum film. "I'm really looking forward to it," she says.
There had been reports that Woo had cancer, which his long-time business partner Terence Chang dismissed, saying the director had a tonsil tumour. "[Woo] has already recovered. Don't worry," the actress says.
However, she declines to offer any details about the project, merely saying it is going to be "a very big production".
Filming will begin in spring.
Although it's a Woo film, Zhang needn't stress over the action scenes. "No, there's no need to fight - fortunately. Otherwise I will have to go back to the hospital."
The Grandmaster is showing now