updated 15 Oct 2012, 01:02
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Fri, Oct 12, 2012
The Straits Times
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Zhang Ziyi: From flinty persona to ashen widow
by Foong Woei Wan

BEIJING - Zhang Ziyi needs more light.

One of the best-known Chinese actresses on the planet, she is posing for photographers in a spot of sunshine in a suite in China World Tower in Beijing, wearing a red dress and a bright smile.

Still, she seems not to trust the pictures will turn out well and asks, raising her voice ever so slightly: "Where's the lamp?"

A male assistant scuttles in soon, carrying a light fixture - not soon enough for her, however.

"All this time and it wasn't set up," she says, but in a voice as sugary and airy as candy floss. She sounds more like she is singing his praises than scolding him.

And it occurs to you: This is an award-winning actress, who has probably mastered the art of speaking whatever line she wants in whatever tone she wants. Either that or she just happens to be a sweet bunch of contradictions.

For her new Chinese film Dangerous Liaisons, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, the 33-year-old has discarded her flinty screen persona to play an ashen widow with a watery smile, in a dance of avoidance with a seducer in glitzy pre-war Shanghai.

South Korea's Jang Dong Gun stars as the womaniser and Hong Kong's Cecilia Cheung, a schemer in a sick game with him.

The drama is a reworking of the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in a long line of adaptations such as the 1988 period romance Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich, and the 2003 Korean costume drama Untold Scandal starring Bae Yong Joon.

Chinese producer Chen Weiming bought the remake rights 10 years ago, meaning to cast Hong Kong superstars Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung in the project. But after the actor took his life in 2003, the remake was revived only last year with Jang, Zhang and Cecilia Cheung. (In Mandarin, incidentally, Jang, Zhang and Cheung are homonyms. The trio have been dubbed the three Zhangs.)

The widow has been played with differing degrees of quivering intensity by actresses from Michelle Pfeiffer to Jeon Do Yeon, and Zhang - who has played strong women starting with her screen debut as a village beauty who throws herself at a handsome teacher in The Road Home (1999) - is aware that she is not the most obvious person for the part.

At an interview in the suite one afternoon last month, Zhang says she assumed that she would play the schemer and businesswoman, Mo Jieyu, when she first got the screenplay. As she went through Mo's character outline and lines with a highlighter, however, it was the reserved, gentle widow Du Fenyu who caught her interest.

"I was highlighting it when Du Fenyu entered and, wow, this woman was so captivating. I liked her," she says. She started marking Du's lines in a different colour and when she finished, she knew she wanted to play the widow. "I couldn't imagine how it would work out if I played her," she says of the quiet, placid character's appeal.

"The more someone seems as plain as water, the greater the challenge. Because you have to give her screen presence so that everyone sees her or she will drown. It's a fun thing for me."

Korean director Hur Jin Ho, who worked with Bae on April Snow (2005), agreed with her when they met the next day.

"I said, 'I want to play Du Fenyu', and the director said, 'I knew you would pick her'. He thought this would be a bigger challenge," she recalls.

She had caught the 1988 Anglo-American and the 2003 Korean adaptations long ago but was careful not to return to them after she was cast in the Chinese version scripted by Chinese novelist Yan Geling.

"I didn't want any obstacles," Zhang explains. "When you act, you should follow your heart. Whatever state your character is in, you follow her, you needn't worry too much."

Ask her to assess her performance and she answers with a big laugh: "I'm quite satisfied, quite happy."

But striking a more modest note, she adds: "I'm happy to have another work I can show people."

Later, Zhang, the daughter of an economist and his teacher wife, discusses a dumpling-making scene for the film gleefully. "I'm good at making dumplings," she declares, as she regales several reporters with a story of how she first picked up the rolling pin at age 11, at a boarding school.

But she retreats into bashfulness when someone asks if she has made dumplings for her new man.

Reports months ago linked her to Chinese television host Sa Beining, 36, about two years after her break-up with Israeli investor Vivi Nevo, 48. "Haven't had the chance," she says. "Can't show them yet."

Her laugh is awkward, as she explains that though she is devoted to her family, she has too little time for them, much less her boyfriend.

For much of the past three years, she worked on Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's long-awaited film, The Grandmasters.

In the last two months, she has been jetting around Asia, including Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong, to film a comedy she is acting in and producing, My Lucky Star (right, with Chinese-American singer and co-star Wang Lee Hom).

"So every time I see my big brother's children, they have grown taller," she says.

Quietly, she adds: "Actually, in this industry, there's a lot to gain and a lot to lose. In a relationship, I have to cherish the person I have at present."

The next thing you know, her tone turns light-hearted. "It's hot in here. You're turning up the heat with your questions," she says, and it sounds like a complaint, wrapped up in a joke. "Turn up the air-conditioning, please?"

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