Cover Story: From China With Love

Actress Zhang Ziyi's fame keeps growing with House of Flying Daggers

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When it comes to sheer beauty, nothing compares to Zhang Ziyi's entrance in the Chinese martial arts extravaganza, House of Flying Daggers. She arrives wrapped in pink, ivory and floral print silk robes and wears a gold crown. She plays Mei, a blind bar girl in a Tang Dynasty brothel. Mei is the ultimate china doll until an elaborate dance sequence evolves into a violent duel with Leo (Andy Lau), a government police officer out to capture the rebel group, House of Flying Daggers.

In director Zhang Yimou's action romance, Leo (Lau) and her police colleague, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), are double agents fighting for Mei's love. She has secrets of her own.

Zhang — just 25 years old — trained for six years to become a dancer, studying a combination of opera and ballet. Her training pays off in the film's gravity-defying fight sequences, especially one set atop a forest of green bamboo trees.

After roles in House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang is arguably the most beautiful action heroine in movies. But don't call House of Flying Daggers an action movie.

"I don't think of it as action," Zhang says, speaking mostly through an interpreter. "I think of it as more of a dramatic role. For example, I worked two months with a blind woman so I could believably play someone who is blind."

Zhang sits in a Toronto hotel room for a late afternoon interview, just one floor above the courtyard mayhem of TV crews, photographers and journalists that's part of the Toronto International Film Festival, where House of Flying Daggers screened the day before.

Zhang is casually dressed in a black spaghetti strap top and beige pants, but her everyday wardrobe and girlish personality do not conceal her exquisite beauty and charisma.

"I've worked with Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Wong Kar-wai (2046), but I made my first film, The Road Home, with Zhang Yimou," she says.

After years of battling government censors, Zhang is the official poster boy of Chinese cinema, thanks to the box office success of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, and the martial arts extravaganzas have also made her a familiar face worldwide.

She is also the star of Purple Butterfly, about a resistance group during the Japanese occupation of China in the '30s, and the upcoming adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, her first English language film. Clearly, Zhang's fame is still growing.

Asked if she has a career master plan, Zhang smiles before answering. "I never think about it. I don't have time to have a plan or even catch some sleep." ©

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