Earlier this month Zhang Ziyi announced her retirement. Not from acting, but from martial arts films. After featuring in the recently released kung-fu film The Grandmaster – which has passed Rmb250 million ($40.1 million) at the Chinese box office – she explained that no other martial arts role could surpass her part as the fighter, Gong Er. And when asked whether she would change her mind if Hollywood comes calling, Zhang didn’t even flinch: “I don’t care about Hollywood kung-fu films. They can’t capture the essence of Chinese martial arts.”
That’s an abrupt change in tone from an actress that has been trying to crack the US market for years.
After shooting to international stardom with her role in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Zhang was cast as the Japanese heroine in Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005. The actress quickly learned English and even flipped from Zhang Ziyi to Ziyi Zhang, to help naming recognition among Western audiences. TIME Magazine went so far as to call Zhang “China’s gift to Hollywood”.
But Memoirs of a Geisha didn’t achieve the breakout success Zhang needed.
Worse, many Chinese faulted her for accepting the role of a lowly Japanese geisha (for more on China’s sour relations with Tokyo, see this week’s Talking Point). Nor was the film even shown in China, despite the appearanche of other leading names like Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh. The censors said at the time that the movie was blocked because it “could provoke public anger and rekindle anti-Japanese sentiment”.
Zhang later starred in a few lower profile roles in films like Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 2. But the last time she appeared in a Hollywood production was in 2009 in the crime thriller Horsemen with Dennis Quaid. The film impressed neither the critics nor the moviegoers, taking in only $2.4 million internationally (it caused another backlash among the hypersensitive audience back home when Zhang kneeled in front of a foreigner, leading some netizens to accuse her of “disgracing China”, see WiC19).
More recently, Zhang tried to boost her career by appearing in a remake of a foreign classic. Last year she starred as the vulnerable protagonist in Dangerous Liaisons, a Shanghai-based version of the film made famous by Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich. Designed to appeal to international and domestic audiences alike, the film flopped, taking in just Rmb23 million in China. Overseas sales were even more miserable, earning just $53,800 in the United States.
But with China’s box office reaching Rmb17 billion last year – a 31% increase from 2011 – Zhang is now betting that her future is better served staying closer to home. She has three films scheduled to show this year, all of which are Chinese productions. And with the recent success of The Grandmaster, Zhang’s fortunes may finally be turning.
In the film, Zhang plays the daughter of a legendary master, with China Daily praising her performance as reminiscent of the one that impressed audiences for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The newspaper thought Zhang’s “graceful fluidity in her martial arts movements” steals the show.
After a few years of awful PR last June (she had to call a press conference to deny scandalous rumours about her sex life, see WiC153) Zhang’s image seems to be showing signs of a rebound.
Perhaps it helps that her latest boyfriend Sa Beining is a local (one of her former attachments, Israeli Vivi Nevo, proved controversial among her Chinese fan base because of his nationality). Sa’s patriotic credentials get better, he hosts a show on state-run broadcaster CCTV.
“Zhang Ziyi’s last relationship [with Nevo] often gave people the impression of her own personal ambition at play [Nevo is a major shareholder of Time Warner]. This time round, it should be true love,” Southern Entertainment Weekend weighed in.
Zhang’s unrewarding stint in Hollywood hasn’t deterred other Chinese starlets from trying their luck. Zhou Xun and Li Bingbing have both made their foreign debuts: Zhou starring in Cloud Atlas alongside Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, and Li in Resident Evil: Retribution.
Zhang’s lesson to other Chinese actresses trying to conquer the world? Likely she might advise: be careful not to alienate your audience in China as you try to do so.
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