updated 7 Nov 2011, 21:53
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Mon, Nov 07, 2011
The Straits Times
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The real Ziyi?
by Foong Woei Wan

Zhang Ziyi prances to this interview, wrapped in a dramatic, silvery cocktail dress – and sucking on a lollipop.

“It gives me energy,” coos the Chinese actress, before a photo call beckons and she hands the sweet to celebrity coiffeur David Gan, a member of her small entourage for the day.

A few clicks of the camera later, she scurries off to change into something more comfortable, but only after she asks you in lilting Mandarin: “I’ll change into a T-shirt, okay?”

So here she is now at an exclusive interview with Life!, dressed down in a grey tee and a pair of grey tights, barefooted and curled up like a kitten on a couch in a room in Shangri-La Hotel Singapore.

She is a picture of girlish ordinariness – if you can ignore the enormous diamond engagement ring on her slender hand, from her fiance Vivi Nevo, the Israel-born, New York-based investor – chit-chatting about how much she likes local food and toying with her anklet.

“When the food is good, you don’t feel homesick. In America, when you are always eating western food, you miss the food at home,” she confesses.

This is Zhang Ziyi, the young tigress who leapt to global stardom in her first three films (The Road Home, 1999; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; and Rush Hour 2, 2001)?

The poster girl for New China and all its hungry ambition? Well, apparently, yes.

Zhang, 30, is here on a two-day trip as the brand ambassador for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, to appear in an in-house video on the group’s heritage.

The programme is being made with, and for, the staff. In her three years with Shangri-La, Zhang has also done a series of films focusing on conservation, which are set around and not just inside the group’s hotels in locations from Boracay and Kota Kinabalu to Inner Mongolia and Oman.

Three of the programmes will premiere on the National Geographic Channel in November in Singapore.

They are far from being your average hotel advertisements, which suits Zhang fine. To hear her say it, the most memorable part of her work with Shangri-la has been in orphanages in China.

“I wasn’t prepared for what it would be, what sort of children we would see,” she says of a trip to Yunnan three years ago.

“My elder brother just had a daughter then. She was a small baby. I held her at home. I went to the orphanage and saw many children of the same age, who had been abandoned by their parents, and I couldn’t help shedding tears.”

For the record, melodramas – her favourite film is Dancer In The Dark (2000), about a factory worker going blind – and talent shows also make her cry.

“I will cry along with them when they are eliminated. My heart hurts. I’m sad for these kids,” she says.

It is one of several admissions made so casually in the interview – as she speaks in Mandarin and sprinkles of English – that it feels like a chat with your gal pal.

The daughter of a telecoms economist and a kindergarten teacher in Beijing has been in show business for 10 years now.

She has sparred with the likes of Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li in films from Crouching Tiger to Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005), her Hollywood English- language debut.

Just this month, she released Sophie’s Revenge in China, a movie of many firsts for her. It is the first romantic comedy she has starred in and the first film she has produced.

It has not been slated for release in Singapore. In a departure for Zhang, her character, Sophie, is not a steely woman but a city girl like herself, facing the usual chick-flick trials and tribulations.

Sophie is “more like the real me”, she says. “She’s direct, lively, kind and a little stubborn. Out of the roles I have played, this is the closest to my life. She’s a city girl experiencing life and love.”

Typically though, and this is one of the themes that run through the interview, she says she did not plan it at all. Rather, she was introduced to an up- and-coming female director, Jin Yimeng, by friends.

“The director was a newbie and I wanted to help her,” she says.

She got involved in the project and lent her name to it to get it made, she explains.

Ask her about her friend Wendi Murdoch, and the talk of them setting up a studio together, and she sounds just as guileless. When she met the China-born wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch years ago,

“I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know whose wife Wendi Murdoch was. I had no concept”, she says.

Zhang had been named one of “The World’s Most Influential People” by Time magazine in 2005 and Mrs Murdoch had gone up to her at the publication’s bash in New York.

“She said, ‘Ziyi, I’m Wendi Deng. I’m proud of you because there’re not many Chinese faces here.’”

She bonded with Mrs Murdoch there and then, she says, because they were the few China natives at the party.

“I wished I had known her earlier,” she adds, like when she first went to New York for English classes and buried herself in English homework so she would not have time to feel lonely and homesick.

As for the reports of her studio with Mrs Murdoch, she says: “She’s always had the idea and I think if there’s a suitable project, we can work together. I don’t think we need to set up a company. There are rumours we are making an Empress Wu movie. I’ve never ever thought about it.”

Similarly, she shrugs off a suggestion that she could try her hand at directing. “It’s not a job for girls. It’s too hard,” she says, wrinkling her nose prettily.

“You have to worry about and take care of too many things.”

This is Zhang Ziyi – not to be confused with her character Yu Jiaolong, the feisty feminist in Crouching Tiger. Not to be confused either with the Zhang described by Shangri-La.

Near the end of the interview, when you read her the group’s effusive adjectives – “graceful, caring, humble, feminine, enchanting, mysterious” – she is biting back a laugh by “caring”.

“I don’t think I am mysterious. My friends don’t think I am mysterious. After this interview, you won’t think I’m mysterious,” she says.

“I’m working hard to be a genuine person, no matter how great the pressure from the world, work and life is. I want to have a clear conscience in everything that I do.”

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‘I have yearned for it since childhood. I have yearned for it countless years. I think a lot of things happen naturally. They happen when they should. It’s all destined by heaven. It can’t be planned’ -  Zhang Ziyi on motherhood

‘Aiya, I have never cared about that. You have to have your own life even if you are a princess. We’re all ordinary people. We’re nothing special. We’re out in the open and we can’t guard against hidden enemies. I won’t change my life because of someone or something. That has no value’ - On the paparazzi’s invasion of her privacy

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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