All Aboard for the Zhang High Express

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The young actors at China Central Drama College gather at a lunch table to chat about their vacation activities. And what did you do, a third-year student is asked. That's when slim, demure Zhang Ziyi gets to say: I played the main character in an Ang Lee epic. Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh fought over me and with me. I made movie love in the Gobi Desert with Chang Chen. And then we all went to the Cannes Film Festival. Asia's most beguiling new movie presence can be found cracking the books in a Beijing acting school. Studying, that is, when she's not playing hooky to star in films by the top directors of the three Chinas. Zhang Ziyi, the daughter of a Beijing economist and his kindergarten-teacher wife, is just 20. She says she felt a lot of pressure on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a pressure not to disappoint the director. I felt I was a mouse, and Ang Lee a lion. Yet Zhang has a maturity, a sense of purpose, beyond her years—and a will of steel. She had been trained in dance and won an award at the National Young Dancer competition. But at 15 she gave it up. I got frustrated with dancing, she says insouciantly. I didn't like it. The girl knew what she didn't want. Now she knows what she wants: to be an internationally renowned actress. We're betting she can be. She has already impressed her off-campus teachers. Tsui Hark, who has just directed Zhang in his remake of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, calls her a refreshing surprise. I thought she had a whole new definition of sensuousness. Ang Lee was surprised as well. Though he originally wanted the Taiwanese siren Shu Qi to play Jen, he now raves about Zhang: She allows the audience to pour themselves into her imagination. It's not really her in the movie, it's you. That's beyond acting; it's cinematic charisma. Her impact in Crouching Tiger comes as no surprise to those who have seen her debut film, Zhang Yimou's The Road Home. The movie is set in 1958, and she is the most beautiful girl in the village, smitten by a young schoolteacher who has just come to town. Before she arrives the film is in black and white, but with her entrance it bursts into color. And once the camera spots her, it can't take its eye off her. It fills the screen with her image—nearly licks her face in adoration. It caresses her with backlighting and displays the swirl of her pigtails in slow motion, as if wanting to extend every instant she is onscreen. It is a film of a girl in love, and a film in love with a girl.Young beauty like this can exercise a tyranny over the audience; our eyes are magnetized by meeting hers in the dark. But Zhang has more: the talent not to dramatize emotion but to inhabit it. In The Road Home she must convey hope, anxiety, longing, exultation with few words of dialogue and the smallest shifts of expression. Early in the film, she waits for the teacher each afternoon on a hill. Now she spots him. Their paths cross. He notices her and smiles. Her face beams and flushes. Then she waddles away in her red parka, almost drunk with the joy of a dream that has bloomed into possibility. Later, the teacher has been ordered to leave for the city, but he promises to return and has given her a hair clip as a token of his affection. She stands serenely before a mirror, fixing his clip in her hair. Then her smile hardens and matures. The girl knows that now she is a woman—his woman. The audience knows this too, not by a spoken word or a trick of film technique, but because of a subtle flash across the face of a young actress with an alchemical gift. Because Zhang Yimou made his first seven features (including such art-house classics as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern) with Gong Li, and because the actress was Zhang's mistress as well as his muse until their breakup in 1994, many speculated that the old Zhang and the new one were keeping serious company off the set. The young novice, who met Zhang Yimou when she auditioned in 1997 for a shampoo commercial he was shooting, soon became known as the Little Gong Li. It was not meant as a compliment.In repose, Zhang could be Gong Li's younger, softer sister (just as, in Crouching Tiger, she could be Yeoh's infant sibling—her features have that pliability). But China's most promising newcomer has little in common with its most famous actress. Gong Li was always all woman: insolent, stern and sturdy, a threat to the men who wanted her. Zhang Ziyi is a promise of girlhood ripening, inside, to womanhood. If Gong Li was an image of China's power and defiance, Zhang is a China ready to conquer the world with charm.Are Zhang Yimou and Zhang Ziyi lovers? The involved parties won't say. The director merely observes that girls of her age will have a fatherly feeling toward me, because we're from two generations. (He is 48.) He finds Ziyi young, pretty, alive and, as an actress very smart, quick in her responses. She immediately understands what you want and how to express it. Of course, she's still young. She needs training and practice to become a very good actress.Zhang Ziyi speaks of Gong Li's eminence not as a destination but as a point of departure. I don't mind being called the Little Gong Li. I feel no pressure. If I have the ability, then I can manage that. The times are different now from Gong Li's day. China's cinema has been rising for some time; it has more exposure, so my chances of becoming internationally known are better. But the first thing I have to do is learn English. If I can grasp the language, then perhaps I can think about the U.S. Here is a young woman with aspirations as wide and as hot as the Gobi Desert. Today, Beijing; tomorrow—Hollywood!At the Cannes Film Festival dinner for Crouching Tiger, Zhang was surrounded by glamorous colleagues who had lived in the spotlight for decades. Yet in her delicate gown she stood out like a princess, chatting with animated poise, at ease in her radiance. She knew the night was hers, and that there would be many more like it. The movie world was gazing at her, in enraptured closeup, and she was ready for it. —Reported by Stephen Short/Hong Kong