Movie Interviews
11:26 am
Thu August 22, 2013

'Grandmaster' Ziyi Zhang: 'I Can Do Better Than Just Kicking Ass'

Originally published on Thu August 22, 2013 1:21 pm

Actress Ziyi Zhang is probably best known for her roles in the Oscar-winning films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha. Now she co-stars in a new film, The Grandmaster, where she plays a fierce martial artist who stops at nothing to protect her family's legacy. But she says she can "do better than just kicking ass." She can seriously act, too.

The Grandmaster, which opens in theaters Friday, is inspired by the life of Ip Man, the legendary kung fu master and teacher of Bruce Lee. The film takes place after the fall of China's last dynasty. It was a time of political chaos and war, but also the golden age of Chinese martial arts.

Zhang explains to Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee that the film is about the struggle to become a kung fu grandmaster and the tension of forbidden love. She also talks about how women are portrayed in kung fu movies, and why she still won't move to Hollywood.


Interview Highlights

On a strong woman's "love at first fight"

"She's a very strong lady. You know in the old days in China, females were not allowed to learn kung fu. But Gong Er's father taught her secretly, and she became a grandmaster. Her father not only taught her physical skills, but more importantly, she learned how to be herself, know herself and do what she feels is right.

"So for the character, when she first met Ip Man, I think, they fall in love immediately because they had a huge fight. But that fight — at the end — somehow it becomes very romantic. I call the scene 'love at first fight.' "

On how her dance background helped with martial arts training for the film

"I learned folk dance when I was 11 years old. I went to Beijing Dance Academy. I think that experience helped me a lot. But for this movie, we had very intense training. It was like eight hours a day. I had three different masters to teach me different kung fu skills."

On being part of director Wong Kar-wai's vision

"Wong Kar-wai, you just cannot say 'no' to him. As soon as he called me, I say 'yes.' It's like Steven Spielberg offer you a role, and you say 'yes' right away. So I knew it would take a long time to shoot, but what I didn't know was it took three years."

On how women are portrayed in kung fu movies

"I think kung fu films now are very different from kung fu films before. The Grandmaster is clearly a multilayered film. Women play an important role. I think society has changed, too, so I experienced this. I think I'm really lucky.

"My character has a line. She says, 'Let's be clear. You didn't return it to me. I took it back myself!' So I think the message is really strong and all the women can relate to her.

"I really identified with my character, Gong Er. I think every single woman has a Gong Er in her. They just have to find it.

On why she still won't move to Hollywood

"I think I'm still waiting for the right project because I'm often offered roles, but they all look similar. I think I can do better than just kicking ass. That's why I really appreciate, you know, a few years ago I got this opportunity to do Memoirs of a Geisha. I think that's the open window for us to show the world that we can really act, not only just, you know, do the action part."

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We're going to spend the next part of our program looking at some new films coming out. In a moment, "The Trials of Muhammad Ali." It's been called the best documentary ever made about the boxer, and we'll find out why in just a few minutes. But first, we turn to a new action feature film inspired by the life of Yip Man, a legendary kung fu master and the teacher of Bruce Lee. The film is called "The Grandmaster" and it takes place after the fall of China's last dynasty and the rise of a new Republican era. It was a time of political chaos and war in China, but also the Golden Age of Chinese martial arts. "The Grandmaster" opens tomorrow. One of its stars is Ziyi Zhang. She plays a fierce martial artist who really stops at nothing to protect her family's legacy. You probably remember her from Oscar-winning films like "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." She joins us now from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to the program.

ZIYI ZHANG: Thank you.

HEADLEE: We would have loved to play clips from the film but it's in Chinese with English subtitles, which might not help out our listeners very much. But I wanted to know, what do you think is the true storyline of this film?

ZHANG: This film is about power struggle, about who will be the grandmaster of kung fu. It's also a story about the tension that lies in forbidden love.

HEADLEE: And you play Gong Er. I don't know if I'm - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

ZHANG: Yeah, you did very well.

HEADLEE: Her father leads the martial arts world in northern China. And your character's the only one that knows his particular fighting technique known as Bagua or 64 Hands. So tell us a little bit about her and her eventual relationship with Yip Man.

ZHANG: She's a very strong lady. You know, in the old days in China, females were not allowed to learn kung fu, but Gong Er's father taught her secretly and she became a grandmaster. Her father not only taught her physical skills, but more importantly, she learned how to be herself, know herself and do what she feels is right. So for the character, when she first time met Yip Man, I think they fall in love immediately because they had a huge fight, but that fight at the end, somehow, it becomes very romantic. I call the scene love at first fight.

HEADLEE: I have to say, it is a beautiful scene. The fight choreography is gorgeous. And I understand you were a ballet dancer?

ZHANG: Yes, I learned folk dance when I was 11 years old. I went to Beijing Dance Academy. I think that experience helped me a lot. But for this movie, we had very intense training. It was like eight hours a day. I had three different masters to teach me different kung fu skills.

HEADLEE: We have a clip here of your costar Tony Leung talking about your performance. And it kind of sounds like he thinks you did a better job in the fight scenes than he did. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TONY LEUNG: It's really tough for guys like me. After a few years training, I still feel very difficult to master all the action scenes, but she can handle that. I think she is great. And after watching the movie, I think she did a really brilliant job.

HEADLEE: So - I mean, obviously, it was incredibly physically demanding. Do you practice kung fu unprofessionally, I mean, as part of your own life?

ZHANG: You mean right now?

HEADLEE: If you weren't doing a movie where you had to do martial arts, would you choose to do it?

ZHANG: Yes. I want to mention something about the first scene of me and Tony. I have to say, it was made easier because Tony and I have a great working relationship. Between us, we don't have to say much. In this scene, my character challenges Tony to a fight. I stay fought. The dynamics of their relationship went through subtle changes. This scene's not only about martial arts. It's also about romance.

HEADLEE: This was a project that the director Wong Kar-wai had worked on for a long time. This was a really a labor of love for him. What was it like actually being part of the fulfillment, to a certain extent, of a dream of his to make this movie?

ZHANG: You know, Wong Kar-wai, you just cannot say no to him. As soon as he called me I said yes. It's like Steven Spielberg offer you a role and you say yes right away. So I knew it would take a long time to shoot. But what I didn't know was it took three years.

HEADLEE: Three years, and he spent six years planning the film. But it's a beautiful film. I wanted to talk a little bit about something that you referred to earlier, which was the relationship between women and kung fu. And I wanted to ask you about the portrayal of women in kung fu movies. How has it changed since you were young, growing up and, I assume, watching at least a few kung fu movies, and now when you're starring in them?

ZHANG: I think I've been really lucky. I always have those very independent, very determined role. Especially in the movie world, there's not so many opportunities. I really identified with my character, Gong Er. I think every single woman has a Gong Er in her. They just have to find it. Also, I think - I think kung fu films now are very different from kung fu films before. "The Grandmaster" is clearly a multilayered film. Women played an important role. I think society has changed, too. So I experienced this. I think I'm really lucky.

HEADLEE: And to a certain extent, the movie isn't necessarily just about kung fu.

ZHANG: Yes.

HEADLEE: So how do you describe it to people when you're trying to tell them what the movie's really about?

ZHANG: I think this movie is about martial arts, of course, and also, it's about forbidden love. I think that's the really important part for me for the role, and also, I like the message. My character has a line. She says, let's be clear, you didn't return it to me, I took it back myself. So I think the message is really strong, and all the women can relate to her.

HEADLEE: Why not move to the United States? I mean, you're beautiful. You're obviously a very accomplished actress. You're recognized all around the world for your work. Why not move to Hollywood and break into American filmmaking?

ZHANG: I think I'm still waiting for the right project because I'm often offered roles, but they all look similar. I think I can do better than just kicking ass. That's why I really appreciate, you know - a few years ago I got this opportunity to do "Memoirs of a Geisha." I think that's the open window for us to show the world that we can really act, not only just, you know, do action part.

HEADLEE: I have to say, I really enjoyed the movie, and I hope a lot of people go to see it all over the world, not just in China.

ZHANG: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: Ziyi Zhang plays Gong Er in the new film "The Grandmaster." It opens tomorrow in theaters. Thanks again.

ZHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.