Source: TIME Asia Magazine
BY RICHARD CORLISS
Monday, Mar. 22, 2004
An actress is supposed to have a sense of self. Everything she presents to the public-her face, body, personality, performance skills and limitations-is her product, and she must know its workings as a mechanic knows his car. Surely after six years of fame she should have figured out her appeal, her power over the audience.
Yet Zhao Wei-Vicki Zhao is her English screen name-doesn’t seem to see what she has that’s unique. Apparently she never did. As a child, she says, she didn’t consider acting as a career because “I thought actresses had to be beautiful, and I thought I was ordinary.” She is naggingly self-critical. When one of her movies is mentioned, she asks: “Don’t you think I looked like I was trying a little hard?” She is ranked third on Forbes’ China Celebrity List (after basketball superstar Yao Ming and actress Zhang Ziyi), yet such accolades have done nothing to burnish her image of herself. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to get a sense of myself. I need other people to be my mirror.”
In the 2002 femme action movie So Close, co-starring Shu Qi and Hong Kong’s Karen Mok, Zhao plays a hacker hottie with her usual winsome charm. She (or her stunt and computer-graphic doubles) gets to pirouette over stairwell railings, jump from atop one speeding elevator to another and duel furiously with legendary villain Yasuaki Kurata. But when asked to sum up her defining characteristic-contrasted in the film with Shu Qi’s beauty and sexiness, and with Karen Mok’s coolness and big personality-Zhao pauses pensively, and says to her interviewer: “At the time, I really didn’t know. And right now I don’t know. So I wanted to ask you. What do you think my defining characteristic is?”
Well, for one thing, she’s cute. Mega-endearing. Giga-dorable. From her gigantic almond eyes to the full lips that can crease into the world’s biggest, brightest smile, she expresses direct, unvarnished emotion. She has the gift of communicating, subtly and immediately, a broad range of feelings: happy, hurt, stubborn, forlorn, any or all of these in a flash, with just a flick of her head, a sigh, a glance. Movie charisma may not be easy to analyze, but it’s a cinch to spot. And when Zhao shares a scene with anyone-with Jiang Wen, China’s De Niro, or Hong Kong heartthrob Ekin Cheng, or bad boy Nicholas Tse-she’s the one you watch.
Doting audiences have seen Zhao grow from elfin youth to cagey comedian. In the international hit Shaolin Soccer she plays a shy baker with an extravagant case of eczema who shaves her head, pulls some nifty martial-arts moves and wins the match, the guy and, in the film’s last scene, the cover of TIME. In My Dream Girl , a ripoff of Pygmalion , she’s a ragamuffin (but still quite a muffin) who elevates silliness into a showcase for urchin charm. She ranged further in two films she made with Jiang Wen: He Ping’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth , a Crouching Tiger wannabe with Zhao as a general’s rebellious daughter; and Zhang Yuan’s Green Tea , in which she plays two roles, a mousy student and a sexy pianist. Now she’s gone to broody melodrama, as a cop conflicted by love and honor in Ann Hui’s new movie Jade Goddess of Mercy . This body of work has steadily raised her profile. In 2002, Zhao was voted the second-sexiest woman in the world, after Anna Kournikova and just ahead of Shu Qi, in a poll in FHM Singapore magazine.
We’d say she’s come pretty far-far from Wuhu, a city of 2 million people in China’s Anhui province, where Zhao was born 28 years ago. Her father designed appliances; her mother was a teacher. “They were educated people. So I was raised to believe that if I didn’t get an education, I wouldn’t be worth anything.”
Zhao calls her becoming an actor “fate’s arrangement.” She was working toward a degree in teaching but still had that get-out-of-town itch. “I didn’t want to live next to my parents forever,” she says. She scanned the papers for any opportunity, applying to schools and getting rejected, before she spotted a notice for a new school of film arts to be run by Xie Jin, a director whose career spanned 40 tumultuous years of Chinese history, from the Great Leap Forward in the late ’50s to the market economy of the late ’90s.
Now all she needed to do was pass the entrance exam. “They gave a slip of paper with a situation on it,” she recalls. “You’d have to act it out. I had to do a scene with another girl, really tough, who played a shop clerk. I was supposed to be trying to return something. Showing off her acting abilities, she screamed at me that I couldn’t return it. She was so rude to me that I burst into tears. I was so naive. I really believed I was trying to return this thing and she wouldn’t let me. So I cried and cried until the teacher said, ‘All right, go take a rest.'” In fact, the teachers were impressed, “Because in China, if you can burst into tears at any time, that’s considered a pretty rare skill.”
Xie Jin must have been particularly moved: he hired Zhao to star in a movie, Nu Er Gu ( Penitentiary Angel ). “My performance was pretty terrible.” says Zhao, “but if you’ve been in a film by a famous director, no matter how well you did, then other less-famous directors will want to use you.”
They did-at least on television. She was cast as Little Swallow in the Chinese-Taiwanese serial, Princess Pearl . For the first of many times, she played a commoner who gets a makeover and reveals her true nobility. The series was a huge hit in China (there are peasants who still have the Princess poster in their homes) and with Chinese living in Europe and the U.S. Nothing in the series beguiled viewers so much as the almond-eyed girl in the title role.
Filming the series was a sweatshop grind. “We shot 18 to 20 hours a day,” Zhao recalls. “There were two groups of actors. One shot during the day, one at night. Frequently I’d have to do both. A few times I worked so hard that I actually threw up from the exertion. But I was young then. I didn’t get tired easily. And I never complained about the working conditions. I thought that’s just how it was supposed to be. Now I know that’s wrong. But at the time I had no clue. Whatever they’d give me, I’d do. And as soon as I was done working I could just fall asleep. They’d say, ‘Go to sleep,’ and I’d go right to sleep.”
At 22, with the star-is-born recognition she got from Princess Pearl , Zhao had a rare lapse into self-approval: “The show had the highest ratings in the country. So I said very confidently to myself, ‘in China I’ve already gone as far as I can go in television. It’s time to try something new.'” Hong Kong was waiting for her, with featured roles in Andrew Lau’s The Duel (as a spoiled princess) and Jeff Lau’s Chinese Odyssey 2002 (this time her makeover was from mannish to femme).
But it was Stephen Chow, her director and co-star in Shaolin Soccer , who showed Zhao she still had much to learn. “I wanted a challenge,” she says, “and he really gave it to me. In China people think I’m cute; he didn’t let me look cute. People say I have big eyes; he taped them down. My old characters were all kind of wild; here I was very subdued. Everything I did before, he reversed.” She also learned to pay new attention to the camera. “I’d gotten so used to it, doing TV shows, that I’d started to ignore it. But on Shaolin Soccer it was like the camera was a new boyfriend. I felt shy around it. I really wanted to show it my emotions, but I wasn’t sure if I was expressing my feelings correctly or not. It was like falling in love. And I still feel like I’m in that phase: falling in love with the camera. I still can’t treat it like a husband who’s been around for 10 years. If I start to feel that way-then I’ll become a director!”
Her relationship with the camera may still be fresh, but Zhao has had her troubles. Her rapport with mainland movie audiences was badly strained in 2001 when a fashion magazine published a photo of her wearing a dress with a pattern that resembled a Japanese flag from World War II. During a concert shortly after the photo appeared, Zhao was attacked and smeared with feces by Fu Shenghua, a construction worker whose grandparents were killed during Japan’s wartime occupation of China. “I know what I did wasn’t right,” Fu told China’s Da Gong magazine. “But I believe my cause was just … As a famous Chinese person, she should have been aware of such an important event in Chinese history.” For a time, the peccadillo reportedly cut in half her asking price for ad work. She still refuses to discuss the flag flap.
The public forgave, or forgot. Lucky that it did, because now audiences will get to see her in Jade Goddess as An Xin, a policewoman who faces an unwanted pregnancy, friction at headquarters and an affair with a drug trafficker (Tse) whom she is assigned to hunt down. Zhao’s performance must, and does, show the weight of these dilemmas as they threaten to crush her. The mood on the set was nearly as serious as that in the film, but Zhao says she respects the care Hui took with every element of production. “In the morning, when I’d come to the set, Ann would scrutinize my face and eyes to see if they were bright or dull. And she’d say, ‘I can see you slept well last night.’ She really understood the actors she was working with, as if we were precision instruments.”
If only Zhao understood herself as well as her director does. Here she takes a stab: “Perhaps my most outstanding personal trait is my lack of outstanding personal traits. The characters I play have much more personality than I do. So maybe it’s easier for me to slip into the various characters. Also, the parts I play are all very different. So in that sense my absence of persona is an advantage. But maybe one day I’ll develop a strong personality and it’ll give me a whole new kind of career.”
Or maybe this probing actress should stop trying to define herself for herself. After all, her admirers can sum her up in one word: magic.
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