A delicately beautiful Chinese actress, Ziyi Zhang first caught the attention of filmgoers at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival with her debut performance as a young girl who falls in love with a schoolteacher in director Zhang Yimou's acclaimed drama, "The Road Home" (1999). Her strong performance and the rumors of a romance with Yimou led many Asian journalists to dub the newcomer "little Gong Li," after the director's former leading lady, whom he helped raise to prominence in the United States. Within months, she enjoyed a further career boost when the martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) premiered at Cannes. Her performance as the headstrong Jen Wu, a sheltered aristocrat with a taste for adventure, anchored the movie and demonstrated her astonishing range, while stealing the thunder from stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat. Already one of the biggest stars in China - and the frequent subject of many tabloids in her native land - Zhang reached mainstream success in America with "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), a role that earned her widespread critical acclaim and the rare opportunity to become a high-profile Chinese actress in the United States.
Born on Feb. 9, 1979 in Beijing, China, Zhang was raised by her father, Yuan Xiao, an economist for the state-run telecom, and her mother, Li Zhou Sheng, a kindergarten teacher. Like most families living in communist China at the time, Zhang's family had very few possessions. Her life changed for the better when at 11 years old, she was admitted to the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, where she spent the next six years of her life away from her family, engaged in a rigorous training program of 16 hour days for six days a week. All the hard work paid off. When she was 15, Zhang won the national youth dance championship, which led to bigger and better opportunities, like appearing in Hong Kong television commercials. Two years later, she auditioned for a shampoo commercial directed by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. After enrolling in the Central Drama Academy, China's best acting school, she made her feature film debut in Yimou's "The Road Home" (1999), playing a young girl who falls for her village's new teacher, only to spend the next two years holding vigil after he is ordered to leave by the communist authorities. Zhang earned critical raves and a Chinese Flower Film Award in 2000 for her performance.
Though she had little experience besides a few years of drama training, Zhang had made a lasting impression with her first film. She reached international stardom with only her second feature, pulling the rug out from under established stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). Zhang played the rambunctious and strong-willed daughter of a general destined for an arranged marriage who seeks adventure by stealing a valuable sword called the Green Destiny and flees to the desert, where she falls in love with a bandit named Dark Cloud (Chang Chen). While the film earned numerous awards and nominations, Zhang was singled out from an excellent cast for her fiery performance. She next had a co-starring role in Tsui Hark's sequel "Zu, Warriors from the Magic Mountain 2" (2001), which she soon followed by making her American debut opposite Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in the successful, but contrived sequel, "Rush Hour 2" (2001), playing a dangerous femme fatale - a role that found her struggling with uneven English, which she quickly improved upon in the next few years.
Zhang continued her impressive run, starring in another towering cinematic and commercial triumph, "Ying xiong" (2002), which was released in the United States under the title "Hero" (2004). Zhang reunited with director Zhang Yimou to star alongside Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Daoming Chen and Donnie Yen for the big-budget tale set at the violent dawn of the Qin dynasty, circa 220 B.C., where the soon-to-be first Emperor is on the brink of conquering the war-torn land. The emperor, however, is threatened with assassination and hides himself in the Forbidden City where a lowly policeman (Jet Li) hears his story about the country's three most feared assassins - Broken Sword, Flying Snow, and Sky. Zhang played the faithful servant of Broken Sword (Leung). The film become a phenomenal hit in Asia and Europe, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 in the foreign language category before its North American release in 2004, where it went on to become a solid box office hit.
In "Purple Butterfly" (2004), a historical romance about the innocence of new love torn asunder by the Sino-Japanese War, Zhang played Ding Hui, a beautiful Chinese girl in love with a Japanese man (Toru Nakamura) whose brief love affair ends when he is shipped off to join the military. After Japan's occupation of Shanghai, Ding Hui joins a resistance movement that plans to assassinate the head of the Japanese secret service and boss of her old flame. Just weeks after the release of "Purple Butterfly" in America, Zhang was seen again in another high profile film from Zhang Yimou, "House of Flying Daggers" (2004), a stunningly visual martial arts romance set in 9th century China during the decline of the once-flourishing Tang Dynasty. As Mei, a blind dancer who leads a policeman (Andy Lau) to the secret lair of a group of wanted assassins, The Flying Daggers, the actress gave a nuanced performance that juggled a superficial innocence with darker ulterior motives and a descent into love, despite nefarious intentions. Widespread critical praise and box office success helped elevate Zhang into a rare high-profile Chinese actress in the United States.
For her next film, Wong Kar Wai's hypnotic "2046" (2005), Zhang displayed a simmering intensity in her performance as a high class prostitute residing next to a struggling author of erotic fiction (Tony Leung) in a rundown hotel with whom she engages in a love affair doomed to end in tears. She next starred in "Operetta Tanuki Goten" (2005), a strange fairy tale about weird raccoon-like creatures living atop a mountain ruled by a vengeful princess (Zhang). Next for the actress was "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), Rob Marshall's long-awaited adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel about a poor Japanese girl torn from her home and raised in a geisha house; a role which helped turn Zhang into a household name in America. Under the guidance of the famed Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the girl develops into Sayuri (Zhang), a beautiful and accomplished geisha who captivates some of the most powerful men in the world, but is haunted by a secret love for the one man beyond her reach (Ken Watanabe). Zhang was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama. After voicing Karai in "TMNT" (2007), she starred opposite Dennis Quaid in "Horsemen" (2009), playing the prime suspect in a serial killer spree linked to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Feature film acting debut, "The Road Home", directed by Zhang Yimou
Breakthrough screen role as the impulsive romantic heroine Jen Wu in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", helmed by Ang Lee
Co-starred in "Zu, Warriors of the Magic Mountain 2", directed by Tsui Hark
English language acting debut, "Rush Hour 2"
Co-starred with Jet Li and Maggie Cheung in "Hero," helmed by Zhang Yimou
Starred as a blind girl in "House of Flying Daggers" helmed by Zhang Yimou
Starred as Sayuri, the lead in Rob Marshall's film version of Arthur Golden's best selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha"; earned Golden Globe and SAG nominations for Best Actress
Voiced the character of Karai in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot, "TMNT"
Co-starred opposite Dennis Quaid in the drama thriller "Horsemen"