The first impression is of a china doll, porcelain pretty, fragile to the touch. It takes a moment to see the resolve in Ziyi Zhang's perfect posture, the ardor in a gaze with laser intensity. The little princess she played in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie that introduced her to world audiences, had a sense of drama: a girlish petulance that ripened into mature strength, a will growing steelier before our eyes.
The Beijing native was 20 then. At 26, she has finessed that early promise into a résumé unmatched by any other actress her age. She was the feisty student in love with her master in the worldwide hit Hero, then the renegade kung-fu femme in House of Flying Daggers, executing devious martial artistry. Both films were directed by her discoverer Zhang Yimou. She played a prostitute in Wong Kar-wai's 2046 (to open in the U.S. in August), in which, aswirl in a flutter of erotic pouts and surrendering smiles, she outdazzled such beguilers as Faye Wong and Gong Li. Having done superb work for the top auteurs of all three Chinas, Zhang had no industry left to conquer but Hollywood which she may have done by snagging the title role in Memoirs of a Geisha, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Oscar winner Rob Marshall (Chicago). It's due out in December.
We're not sure why a Chinese actress was cast as the ultra-Japanese heroine in a movie of Arthur Golden's best seller. The producers must have thought, as we do, that Zhang can inhabit any character with passionate plausibility. She has an ambition that the previous all-China film fatale lacked. Gong Li was happy to stay in the East; she got married, took few roles. Zhang quickly learned English, came West and, after four years of international renown, flipped her name from Zhang Ziyi to Ziyi Zhang.
Can Zhang achieve Western stardom? She would be the first Chinese-born actress to do so. But we wouldn't bet against the slim charmer whose dreams are as big as her awe-inspiring talent.