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[FILM] China's Zhao Wei (Vicki Zhao)

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  • madchinaman
    Beyond Cute China s Zhao Wei wants to graduate from sheer adorability to serious actress. But first she has to figure out who she is BY RICHARD CORLISS
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 23, 2004
      Beyond Cute
      China's Zhao Wei wants to graduate from sheer adorability to serious
      actress. But first she has to figure out who she is

      An actress is supposed to have a sense of self. Everything she
      presents to the public—her face, body, personality, performance
      skills and limitations—is her product, and she must know its
      workings as a mechanic knows his car. Surely after six years of fame
      she should have figured out her appeal, her power over the audience.

      Yet Zhao Wei—Vicki Zhao is her English screen name—doesn't seem to
      see what she has that's unique. Apparently she never did. As a
      child, she says, she didn't consider acting as a career because "I
      thought actresses had to be beautiful, and I thought I was
      ordinary." She is naggingly self-critical. When one of her movies is
      mentioned, she asks: "Don't you think I looked like I was trying a
      little hard?" She is ranked third on Forbes' China Celebrity List
      (after basketball superstar Yao Ming and actress Zhang Ziyi), yet
      such accolades have done nothing to burnish her image of
      herself. "Sometimes it's very difficult to get a sense of myself. I
      need other people to be my mirror."

      In the 2002 femme action movie So Close, co-starring Shu Qi and Hong
      Kong's Karen Mok, Zhao plays a hacker hottie with her usual winsome
      charm. She (or her stunt and computer-graphic doubles) gets to
      pirouette over stairwell railings, jump from atop one speeding
      elevator to another and duel furiously with legendary villain
      Yasuaki Kurata. But when asked to sum up her defining characteristic—
      contrasted in the film with Shu Qi's beauty and sexiness, and with
      Karen Mok's coolness and big personality—Zhao pauses pensively, and
      says to her interviewer: "At the time, I really didn't know. And
      right now I don't know. So I wanted to ask you. What do you think my
      defining characteristic is?"

      Well, for one thing, she's cute. Mega-endearing. Giga-dorable. From
      her gigantic almond eyes to the full lips that can crease into the
      world's biggest, brightest smile, she expresses direct, unvarnished
      emotion. She has the gift of communicating, subtly and immediately,
      a broad range of feelings: happy, hurt, stubborn, forlorn, any or
      all of these in a flash, with just a flick of her head, a sigh, a
      glance. Movie charisma may not be easy to analyze, but it's a cinch
      to spot. And when Zhao shares a scene with anyone—with Jiang Wen,
      China's De Niro, or Hong Kong heartthrob Ekin Cheng, or bad boy
      Nicholas Tse—she's the one you watch.

      Doting audiences have seen Zhao grow from elfin youth to cagey
      comedian. In the international hit Shaolin Soccer she plays a shy
      baker with an extravagant case of eczema who shaves her head, pulls
      some nifty martial-arts moves and wins the match, the guy and, in
      the film's last scene, the cover of TIME. In My Dream Girl, a ripoff
      of Pygmalion, she's a ragamuffin (but still quite a muffin) who
      elevates silliness into a showcase for urchin charm. She ranged
      further in two films she made with Jiang Wen: He Ping's Warriors of
      Heaven and Earth, a Crouching Tiger wannabe with Zhao as a general's
      rebellious daughter; and Zhang Yuan's Green Tea, in which she plays
      two roles, a mousy student and a sexy pianist. Now she's gone to
      broody melodrama, as a cop conflicted by love and honor in Ann Hui's
      new movie Jade Goddess of Mercy. This body of work has steadily
      raised her profile. In 2002, Zhao was voted the second-sexiest woman
      in the world, after Anna Kournikova and just ahead of Shu Qi, in a
      poll in FHM Singapore magazine.

      We'd say she's come pretty far—far from Wuhu, a city of 2 million
      people in China's Anhui province, where Zhao was born 28 years ago.
      Her father designed appliances; her mother was a teacher. "They were
      educated people. So I was raised to believe that if I didn't get an
      education, I wouldn't be worth anything."

      Zhao calls her becoming an actor "fate's arrangement." She was
      working toward a degree in teaching but still had that get-out-of-
      town itch. "I didn't want to live next to my parents forever," she
      says. She scanned the papers for any opportunity, applying to
      schools and getting rejected, before she spotted a notice for a new
      school of film arts to be run by Xie Jin, a director whose career
      spanned 40 tumultuous years of Chinese history, from the Great Leap
      Forward in the late '50s to the market economy of the late '90s.

      Now all she needed to do was pass the entrance exam. "They gave a
      slip of paper with a situation on it," she recalls. "You'd have to
      act it out. I had to do a scene with another girl, really tough, who
      played a shop clerk. I was supposed to be trying to return
      something. Showing off her acting abilities, she screamed at me that
      I couldn't return it. She was so rude to me that I burst into tears.
      I was so naive. I really believed I was trying to return this thing
      and she wouldn't let me. So I cried and cried until the teacher
      said, 'All right, go take a rest.'" In fact, the teachers were
      impressed, "Because in China, if you can burst into tears at any
      time, that's considered a pretty rare skill."

      Xie Jin must have been particularly moved: he hired Zhao to star in
      a movie, Nu Er Gu (Penitentiary Angel). "My performance was pretty
      terrible." says Zhao, "but if you've been in a film by a famous
      director, no matter how well you did, then other less-famous
      directors will want to use you."

      They did—at least on television. She was cast as Little Swallow in
      the Chinese-Taiwanese serial, Princess Pearl. For the first of many
      times, she played a commoner who gets a makeover and reveals her
      true nobility. The series was a huge hit in China (there are
      peasants who still have the Princess poster in their homes) and with
      Chinese living in Europe and the U.S. Nothing in the series beguiled
      viewers so much as the almond-eyed girl in the title role.

      Filming the series was a sweatshop grind. "We shot 18 to 20 hours a
      day," Zhao recalls. "There were two groups of actors. One shot
      during the day, one at night. Frequently I'd have to do both. A few
      times I worked so hard that I actually threw up from the exertion.
      But I was young then. I didn't get tired easily. And I never
      complained about the working conditions. I thought that's just how
      it was supposed to be. Now I know that's wrong. But at the time I
      had no clue. Whatever they'd give me, I'd do. And as soon as I was
      done working I could just fall asleep. They'd say, 'Go to sleep,'
      and I'd go right to sleep."

      At 22, with the star-is-born recognition she got from Princess
      Pearl, Zhao had a rare lapse into self-approval: "The show had the
      highest ratings in the country. So I said very confidently to
      myself, 'in China I've already gone as far as I can go in
      television. It's time to try something new.'" Hong Kong was waiting
      for her, with featured roles in Andrew Lau's The Duel (as a spoiled
      princess) and Jeff Lau's Chinese Odyssey 2002 (this time her
      makeover was from mannish to femme).

      But it was Stephen Chow, her director and co-star in Shaolin Soccer,
      who showed Zhao she still had much to learn. "I wanted a challenge,"
      she says, "and he really gave it to me. In China people think I'm
      cute; he didn't let me look cute. People say I have big eyes; he
      taped them down. My old characters were all kind of wild; here I was
      very subdued. Everything I did before, he reversed." She also
      learned to pay new attention to the camera. "I'd gotten so used to
      it, doing TV shows, that I'd started to ignore it. But on Shaolin
      Soccer it was like the camera was a new boyfriend. I felt shy around
      it. I really wanted to show it my emotions, but I wasn't sure if I
      was expressing my feelings correctly or not. It was like falling in
      love. And I still feel like I'm in that phase: falling in love with
      the camera. I still can't treat it like a husband who's been around
      for 10 years. If I start to feel that way—then I'll become a

      Her relationship with the camera may still be fresh, but Zhao has
      had her troubles. Her rapport with mainland movie audiences was
      badly strained in 2001 when a fashion magazine published a photo of
      her wearing a dress with a pattern that resembled a Japanese flag
      from World War II. During a concert shortly after the photo
      appeared, Zhao was attacked and smeared with feces by Fu Shenghua, a
      construction worker whose grandparents were killed during Japan's
      wartime occupation of China. "I know what I did wasn't right," Fu
      told China's Da Gong magazine. "But I believe my cause was just ...
      As a famous Chinese person, she should have been aware of such an
      important event in Chinese history." For a time, the peccadillo
      reportedly cut in half her asking price for ad work. She still
      refuses to discuss the flag flap.

      The public forgave, or forgot. Lucky that it did, because now
      audiences will get to see her in Jade Goddess as An Xin, a
      policewoman who faces an unwanted pregnancy, friction at
      headquarters and an affair with a drug trafficker (Tse) whom she is
      assigned to hunt down. Zhao's performance must, and does, show the
      weight of these dilemmas as they threaten to crush her. The mood on
      the set was nearly as serious as that in the film, but Zhao says she
      respects the care Hui took with every element of production. "In the
      morning, when I'd come to the set, Ann would scrutinize my face and
      eyes to see if they were bright or dull. And she'd say, 'I can see
      you slept well last night.' She really understood the actors she was
      working with, as if we were precision instruments."

      If only Zhao understood herself as well as her director does. Here
      she takes a stab: "Perhaps my most outstanding personal trait is my
      lack of outstanding personal traits. The characters I play have much
      more personality than I do. So maybe it's easier for me to slip into
      the various characters. Also, the parts I play are all very
      different. So in that sense my absence of persona is an advantage.
      But maybe one day I'll develop a strong personality and it'll give
      me a whole new kind of career."

      Or maybe this probing actress should stop trying to define herself
      for herself. After all, her admirers can sum her up in one word:

      —Reported by Susan Jakes/Shanghai
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