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November 2004
House of Flying Daggers: An Interview with Ziyi Zhang

House of Flying Daggers: An Interview with Ziyi Zhang

By Wilson Morales

If you have to think about it, Ziyi Zhang has been the centerpiece of broadening the audience of the martial arts era these last few years. The genre, which became a cult following with the films that Shaw Brothers created in early 1970s, was populated to its highest level with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That film became the first martial arts film to gross over $100M and went on to be nominated for Best Film and win several Oscars including Best Foreign Film. A few years later, "Hero" would garner several critical accolades and be nominated for "Best Foreign Film" at the 2002 Academy Awards. The common denominator of both films was Ziyi Zhang. She electrified audiences with her displays of high-flying kung fu techniques and porcelain appearance. Working again for the third time with Director Zhang Yimou (The Road Home, Hero), Ziyi Zhang is back again displaying her dazzling techniques as she appears as a blind woman who may not be so helpless in "House of Flying Daggers". In speaking with blackfilm.com, Ziyi Zhang goes over her role and how much martial arts she has learned from working with Director Zhang Yimou.

What was the hardest thing about this role for you?

Ziyi Zhang: From the beginning, I didn't know how to play a blind. I trained with a real blind girl for two months, and that was the hardest part; and also, I needed to be blind during the action scenes.

In doing these action stunts, how many hours of training did you spend for the scenes that you didn't have to learn for other roles?

ZZ: For this movie, I used the bamboo pole. In "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" I used a different pole.

Was that harder?

ZZ: It was heavy. It was heavy and very long. I hit myself all the time.

In one scene, it looked like you were doing a split between two bamboo trees. Was that actually you or a stunt double?

ZZ: It was me and they wouldn't let me down.

Did you study dance as well as martial arts? If so, which is harder?

ZZ: I used to be a dancer. I did traditional ballet.

How was it working with Zhang Yimou?

ZZ: This is the third time we have worked together and for me, it's very special because with the first film, "The Road Home", I didn't know so much about film. Each film was different. With the first film, he didn't want me to read the script. He wanted me to act naturally and with this film, he wanted me to create the character myself.

What would you say has been the greatest acting challenge for you because you have done several films like this beginning with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and most recently, "Hero"? Or is it another genre?

ZZ: It doesn't really matter as far as the genre whether it's action film or drama. The important thing for me is that each character is different.

As you had worked with Zhang Yimou before, did it become easier or harder? Did he expect more from you?

ZZ: It became harder now because when he saw me starting me out he saw how high I could go as an actor, and by now he's seen how much I have improved so at this point he's given me this character which is much harder to perform. After the first film with Zhang Yimou, I made a lot of films with other directors also and I came back to Zhang Yimou and he said, "Now I want to see if you've really grown up and learn to act to well." I think he will be satisfied.

Martial arts experts can be recognized by their style and I was wondering if you had to change your style from the way you do martial arts from the way this character does martial arts?

ZZ: I don't belong to any school or style myself. I'm actually unusual in this respect because I use to study dance and so when I do these action martial arts scenes, the way I do them has a certain kind of softness to them on the outside but on the inside there's also a lot of strength which I get to.

With doing "Rush Hour 2" in Hollywood, was it hard to go back to China and do low budgeted films?

ZZ: Not at all because in making films in China, it's actually very tough. It's a tough life. When I came back and made some films here in Hollywood and went back, it wasn't such a big problem. It's like when you eat something. When you eat something very bitter, and you are used to that, and then you eat something very sweet, and you go back to eating something bitter, you can accept that. But on the other hand, if you have always eaten a lot of sweet things all along, the first time you eat something very bitter; even if it's really not that bitten, it will seem extremely bitter to you. (She laughs)

What was your favorite scene in the movie?

ZZ: The drum scene in the beginning because within my whole life, there won't be a space like this to perform.

How difficult was it to perform with the very long sleeves?

ZZ: Although you only see about two minutes of it in the film, that scene took a long time to make. Everyday we had to shoot one shot at a time over and over again. Sometimes we had to do ten to twenty takes and it was so difficult and there were a lot of extras in the background, so when I was able to do the take well, they would encourage me by applauding.

It seems that in these martial arts films, the director enjoys having your character's clothes be torn off. Any thoughts on why that happens?

ZZ: It's because of the harness in the characters and everything in the film has to do with requirements with the characters and the director can dispense with shots unless they are necessary.

Besides the physical training you did for the role, is there anything you did to prepare for the role or period?

ZZ: Not really. This film can be set in any country or any period.

Does Zhang Yimou have a say in the costumes?

ZZ: In fact, he's the best in taking care of details and protecting the actor's moods and feelings. For example, in terms of the costumes, he takes a great interest in looking over the details like what kind of hat you have to wear and how high it should be.

Can you talk about working with Andy Lau and were you a fan of his work prior to working with him?

ZZ: I think I was 16 when I was studying dancing and he had a concert in Beijing and we didn't have the money to buy a ticket and some students and I really wanted to go watch him. So we snuck in by performing a dance for the security guard.

Is it exciting to work with someone you were a fan of?

ZZ: I wasn't nervous, but I remembered on the first day, I had finished my part and I stayed to watch him.

What did you think of "Kill Bill"?

ZZ: I saw the first film. I like the scene where Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu are fighting in the snow. They did the scene pretty well.

How different was it working with Ang Lee versus Zhang Yimou?

ZZ: Actually, when I was making "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", Ang Lee was under a lot of pressure himself. Among the cast and crew, there were probably two people who had the most pressure on them. One was him and the other was me. In the case of myself, I was the youngest member of the cast and the most inexperienced so anyone can come over and start critiquing me and giving me a hard time. For Ang Lee, it was his first martial arts film and of course he had these big names, actors and actresses, like Chun Yun Fat and Michele Yeoh. I remember that in making that film, the very first action scene was my first time in my whole life I had to do an action scene. They had me strung up in the air and then I had to fall down to the ground. Already five people came over and started criticizing me, saying "You didn't do this and that." I felt stunned and didn't know what to do.

Is "Memories of a Geisha" your next film and if so, how are you preparing for the role?

ZZ: We already started filming and we have already spent two months in rehearsals.

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