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Enter The Dragon

Zhang Ziyi, 'Crouching Tiger's' High-Flying Nobility, Joins the Asian Parade into Hollywood

March 25, 2001|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Munoz last wrote for the magazine on artist Robert Graham

She saunters into the room, entourage in tow, the raspy sound of her tight leather pants preceding her. She greets her visitor with a gentle handshake, unwrapping herself from a beige pashmina shawl and asking that the heat be turned on. It is, after all, only 50 degrees outside, and she's wearing gold sling backs and a short-sleeved, snug red silk top bearing a dragon.

Even as a little girl, actress Zhang Ziyi was not shy about facing an audience and doing as she pleased. She likes to recall her elementary school experience in Beijing: When a teacher would ask for a front-of-the classroom volunteer, her peers would offer Zhang for the task. She was the fearless one. Knowledge of the answer was inconsequential; Zhang would stroll to the chalkboard and write out whatever her heart desired.

In retrospect, she seems a natural to play Jen, one of the leads in Ang Lee's martial arts fantasy film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

The plot of the movie is propelled by Jen's willful pride and arrogance: She steals an enchanted sword, refuses an arranged marriage and then faces down a master martial artist played by Chow Yun-fat. She wrestles and then makes love to a bandit in the sand dunes of the Chinese desert--not exactly proper behavior for the pampered daughter of a nobleman in 19th century China. She pits herself against the master swordsman in a dangerous dance atop the thin bamboo branches of a wild forest. And, thanks to special effects, she flies through the air, sword in hand, like a stealth ninja warrior.

Lee originally envisioned Jen as a tomboy, but the casting of Zhang required changes in the script.

"She is the hidden dragon," he says. "I was looking for mystery, something that would speak to desire and repressed desire in a traditional Chinese society. She is the untamed nature in all of us. Though she is very innocent, in a way there is something devilish about her that can bring us to destruction and find a passion that is so romantic that it can demolish everything."

"Crouching Tiger" has appealed to all age groups and demographics, and Zhang's high-flying performance as the woman warrior who is equal to any man has been a revelation to Western audiences. While she fights, she loves and is defeated, yet she never loses her supreme sense of confidence. Jen and Zhang Ziyi seem like soul mates--both determined to advance their way through life on their own terms.

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"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON" IS THE most successful foreign film ever made (as of March 12, it had earned $94.5 million at the box office), but Zhang says she was caught off guard by the success. "Crouching Tiger" was only her second film and the movie was not a big hit in China. "For a Chinese film--a subtitled film--to be so popular in the U.S. and Europe? That is surprising! Even though it has all this international talent--the best in the Chinese-speaking world--I am still amazed."

Zhang's career arc has benefited from a case of good timing; she's come of acting age at a moment of growth and openness in Asian--especially Chinese--filmmaking. At the same time, U.S. studios and the markets they serve have broadened their focus to embrace a growing number of international co-productions and subtitled films. In the last few months, Asian films have been in the international spotlight, ranging from Taiwan's "Crouching Tiger" and "Yi Yi," to Hong Kong's "In the Mood for Love," to the Korean epic "Chunhyang," to the Chinese film "Breaking the Silence."

For the past few years, the Cannes Film Festival has dedicated a part of its lineup to Asian films. Festival organizers believe there's an increase in demand, says Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. "I can't remember a year when there were four really critically well-received Asian films playing [in general release] at the same time--that seems remarkable," he adds.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and China used to function as independent entities, but now there is an increasing amount of cooperation between the three Chinese-speaking areas. Directors, actors and producers are now able to cross boundaries and have created an unofficial pan-Asian cinema."Now we are getting the fruit of what started many years before," says Zhang, speaking through an interpreter. "I may be a perfect example of this since my first film was with a Chinese director, my second with a Taiwanese, my third with Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong director, my fourth with a Korean and fifth one with an American director."

Later this year she will appear in her first U.S. production, "Rush Hour 2," starring Jackie Chan. Zhang plays a Chinese-speaking beauty, seemingly shy and helpless. But in reality she's a terrorist expert in explosives. The film, which is currently in production, will be released in August.

If anything can hamper her career in the United States, it is her inability to speak a language other than Mandarin. But her new handlers at the William Morris Agency have big plans.

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