Zhang Jingchu’s film roles take her all over the world
Zhang Jingchu's natural curiosity and love of travel has led to an international film career
Just before this interview starts, mainland actress Zhang Jingchu asks for a straw for her drink. But the waitress doesn't quite grasp the Fujian native's Putonghua, so Zhang's make-up artist quickly steps in to interpret. Instead of moving on quickly, Zhang quietly repeats her request in Cantonese twice, trying to perfect her pronounciation.
"My Cantonese is so-so," says the 33-year old actress, who has starred in a number of Hong Kong movies including Dante Lam Chiu-yin's Beast Stalker (2008) and Ann Hui On-wah's Night and Fog (2009).
Language is important to Zhang, who is eager to learn about different cultures. A graduate of the Beijing Central Academy of Drama, she also learned English at the New Oriental Foreign Language School in the capital city.
Her intellectual curiosity about world history, her love of travel, along with her dramatic versatility, has led the actress down a more international career path than many of her peers.
In 2005, Zhang made an impact in international film circles with her notable performances in two very different films - Gu Changwei's Berlin Silver Bear winner, Peacock, and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords, which opened that year's Venice Film Festival.
The following year she was named best actress at the Cairo International Film Festival for her portrayal of a woman from the ages of 10 to 50 in Zhang Jiarui's The Road.
In recent years, she has gained further overseas recognition with appearances in films such as the China-Germany joint production John Rabe (2009), a China version of Schindler's List during the Nanjing massacre, and Feng Xiaogang's big budget disaster film, Aftershock (2010).
Zhang's latest screen outing is Something Good, which is directed by, and stars, veteran Italian filmmaker Luca Barbareschi.
The Italian production was the opening film of last month's "Cine Italiano! - Cinema Italian Style" programme co-presented by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and Zetema Progetto Cultura of Rome and Istituto Luce Cinecittà. Mainly shot in Rome and Hong Kong, the crime thriller offers a little bit more than the usual exotic "European gangster falls in love with a Chinese woman over a red junk boat on Victoria Harbour" story.
Set to play in European film festivals over the next few months, it tells the timely tale of an international food smuggling racket. Zhang plays the part of a chef whose son dies of poisoning from adulterated foods, and (somewhat inevitably) falls for Barbareschi's character, who is a key player in the business that caused the loss of her boy.
The actress, named by Time magazine as one of the 25 "Asia Heroes of 2005", is no stranger to films that look at social issues. She appeared in Derek Yee Tung-sing's Protégé (2007), which deals with drug trafficking, and Night and Fog, a true story about domestic violence in Tin Shui Wai, and was nominated for best actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards for both films.
Zhang says the issue of food safety dealt with in Something Good is a major reason why she wanted to join the production. "When I choose what food to buy, I look at the ingredients, and whether it is processed or not, just to be more aware. When I look at the news, it is just so absurd and saddening. You wonder how people can be so heartless," she says of recent reports of contaminated food on the mainland.
Although the Barbareschi film probably won't open on the mainland, Zhang is pleased to have appeared in it. "I think the problem of adulterated food is important and serious. It relates to everyone. If a film can reflect the situation and provoke people to think, then I am eager to get involved," she says.
Going on location in Rome - a city she loves - was a bonus. Zhang was impressed by the Italian capital, as well as the film crew. "We may not see a lot of Italian films these days but they had such a golden era in the 1970s. They have such a good filmmaking system."
Zhang plays a Chinese chef who runs a hip restaurant on a junk boat, and the Italian crew tried hard to source the necessary ingredients for her to improvise in various scenes. They also hired a professional chef to improve her culinary skills - she confesses she is too busy to have time to cook in her spare time. She is now accomplished at slicing and cutting and acting at the same time, she quips.
"Some of the ingredients were so typically Chinese they made me feel like I was at home. So it was all a bit surreal during filming. I felt like I was at home [in China] inside the studio, but once I stepped out of the set, I realised I was actually in Rome," Zhang says with a grin.
While she was not slicing and cutting vegetables on set, the actress explored the ancient sections of Rome. One of her favourite places was the Cimitero acattolico di Roma (the non-Catholic cemetery of Rome), the final resting place of 19th century British poet John Keats.
"To me, a city like Rome is like where dream and reality meet," Zhang says. She is grateful for the chance to travel for her work, and the interesting people she encounters on her trips abroad.
Earlier in the year she was in Jerusalem for a mainland romantic-comedy - and the trip has given her new perspective in life and arts, she says. While in Israel, the crew met a Russian musician who had been travelling and busking on the road for the past 13 years.
"I was shocked when I heard his music. His guitar playing was so fine and his fingering was so skilful," she says. The musician would light an incense stick before he began, and stop playing when the incense finished. "But what really moved me was that his music directly appealed to one's heart. Later on, I realised he was actually playing music 'in the moment' - straight from his heart," she says.
Although she has spent a lot of time travelling in recent years, Hong Kong and the mainland will remain her primary workplace.
"European filmmakers work from a different aesthetic to local directors and shoot Hong Kong in a different way. Luca made Hong Kong looks so surreal and dreamy," Zhang says.
"But in [local] films like Protégé and Night and Fog, the directors took a realistic approach and depicted the city as it is, even showing a bit of grey sometimes."
Her next dream place to work? She's hoping to go to an island. "I love the sea, and I love snorkelling," she says.