Interview: Zhang Jingchu

Zhang Jingchu relishes playing strong or tormented women on the silver screen and brims with poise and confidence. But the Beijing-based actress, whose command of English has led to parts in international productions, tells us how sometimes she just needs to be alone...

Zhang Jingchu likes to struggle – with her characters and sometimes herself. The actress who has it all – she’s gifted, beautiful, elegant and gracious – would rather not work than play an unchallenging role, as she proved last year. We first shot Zhang for our cover in early 2010, after she had finished the harrowing Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang’s melodramatic epic about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. “I’ve played many dark roles, but this was too realistic for me,” she shared, noting how some of the extras had relatives who had perished that night, buried under the rubble.

Wrapping up two lighter outings – The Double Life and Flirting Scholar 2 – and Benny Chan’s over-the-top sci-fi action flick City Under Siege, Zhang retreated to New York, where she spent eight months alone, studying and absorbing the culture.

“You can get easily distracted in life,” she says now, chatting easily and confidently in the spacious bathroom of her suite at the Intercontinental Hong Kong as her makeup artist and hairstylist hover (making this particular artist look stunning for a photo shoot is not difficult). “I really wanted to spend time by myself; it’s the only way you can get truly close to yourself, to know yourself.” She even spent her 31st birthday last February, which happened to fall on the eve of Chinese New Year, in self-imposed isolation. “That was just my mood (in 2011),” she says with a shrug and a wry smile.

"I don't want to waste my time playing characters that aren't interesting or challenging. There's no point doing movies that just going to be so-so."

It had taken the introspective actress four years to realise her dream of a New York retreat. After shooting her small part in Rush Hour 3 in LA in 2007, she had stopped over in New York and “took in five musicals and three museums in four days”. She recalls: “I was exhausted but so happy with that trip that I vowed to return and spend time in the city.” Zhang has kept in touch with Rush Hour star Jackie Chan too, having dinner at his home during this fleeting visit to Hong Kong.

“I think people get lazy if they stay in a familiar environment; they lose interest,” says the Fujian native, relating that in more than 10 years of living in Beijing she had ignored great monuments like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City until a friend came for a recent visit. “It’s important to be more sensitive to our environment,” she declares. In the spring of 2012, Zhang returned to New York in a more sociable frame of mind, meeting old friends, having fun and “not being so hard on myself”.

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Taking off last year, dissociating herself from friends and family just as her film career was kicking into high gear, shows an admirable determination and strength of character. “I don’t want to waste my time playing characters that aren’t interesting or challenging,” she says simply. “There’s no point doing movies that are just going to be so-so.” Would she agree with our assessment of her own character? “I wouldn’t say that I’m such a strong person. I think I just love having my own freedom.”

Zhang’s radiant inner beauty and sincerity shine not only on the screen – when she is playing non-tormented souls – but also in person. Having attended this magazine’s 100 issues party the day before this shoot – she picked up our award for Most Radiant Cover Star – she is relaxed and her usual eloquent self during our five-hour shoot at the hotel, where she and the two assistants who accompanied her from Beijing, were happily ensconced.

Her fluency in English – after high school she studied directing at the Central Academy of Drama and English at the New Oriental Institute in Beijing – is an advantage in both her personal life (her love of travel, which she uses as an escape after an intense film role) and her career. Since Rush Hour 3, she has done two other international productions, John Rabe (2009), a German biopic about a businessman who saved Chinese lives during the Nanjing massacre in 1937-1938, and I Trust You, an Italian production shot in Rome, Hong Kong and Beijing which centres around illegal trafficking in food products and is scheduled for release next spring.

The latter, directed by veteran Italian actor turned politician Luca Barbareschi, was an eye-opener for the actress used to the spur-of-the-moment, can-do approach of many Hong Kong filmmakers. Arriving in Rome for her first shooting session, she was amazed by the professionalism and pre-planning of the Italian crew. “The PD was one of the best in Italy and it turned out that the costume designer had won three Academy Awards! They had done so much prep for me and my possible looks; it was very impressive.”

 

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Having had “very messy” previous experiences when travelling in Italy she was surprised by the clockwork organisation and discipline of the crew. “I’d worked on a German film before, but this Italian one proved that the country has a profound background in film-making. The team was very professional and there was a happy spirit on set.”

Having a regular day off per week may have helped in this regard. Zhang notes: “People in the film industry are still human beings after all and should have a normal life and rhythm. It’s difficult to work for three months non-stop [as in local and China productions] and still be efficient, as people get tired and moody. I hope one day we can follow the Italian example.”

Barbareschi, whom Zhang praises for his sensitive direction – “he respects your creativity and offers a lot of encouragement and space to actors” – cast her because of her skill in playing strong, dramatic roles. “Luca had watched a lot of my movies and liked Peacock [her breakthrough film for Gu Changwei in 2005] and Protege [2007, Derek Yee]. The character was difficult to play, a mother whose son had died because of contaminated food, and Luca wanted to make sure the actress could bring an inner strength to the role.” For Zhang, whose repertoire includes a drug addict [Protege], a grief-stricken mother of a kidnapped child [Dante Lam’s The Beast Stalker, 2008] and an abused wife [Ann Hui’s Night and Fog, 2009], it was just the kind of stretch that she relishes.

“There’s often not much chance for an actress to really show a dramatic range, especially in commercial films,” she says, lamenting the man’s world of modern movies. “Indeed there are not many good choices for any actor, male or female. I’m really picky in this respect [taking only challenging roles] so it’s even harder for me.”

Could the actress who trained as a director make her own statement in this regard? “It’s possible that I’ll try directing one day, but I don’t have an exact plan at the moment. If I really have something to say, then yes I’ll do so, when acting is no longer enough for me to express myself.”

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Hopefully there will be sufficient material to engage this intelligent young actress for many years to come. After her self-imposed hiatus in New York, Zhang retuned to Beijing to shoot Lacuna “a crazy modern-life” rom-com, which she compares (loosely) to The Hangover. Directed by the up-and-coming duo of Derek Tsang (son of comedian Eric Tsang) and Jimmy Wan, produced by Edmond Pang Ho-cheung and co-starring Shawn Yue, it was released this summer to fairly positive reviews. While the premise – the two leads wake in a bed in a shopping mall furniture store with no recollection of how either met or got there – seems lightweight for Zhang, she insists there is “a struggle” there for her character, which attracted her to the part.

Apart from the fact that the actress herself doesn’t drink yet spends a copious amount of screen time drunk, her interest in the project stemmed from its portrayal of the lives of young Beijingers, the burgeoning nightclub scene there and their dream of making it in the big city. “This side of life is rarely shown in Chinese movies and I found it interesting for young people to see it, to see part of themselves while watching the film.”

"There's often not much chance for an actress to really show a dramatic range, especially in commercial films. Indeed there are not many good choices for any actor, male or female."

A second film, now set back for release next year, sees Zhang opposite Andy Lau in a glitzy, big budget, James Bond-type extravaganza. Switch, from new mainland director Sun Jianjin, was shot in Dubai. She was excited to be “coupled” with Lau, with whom she had a brief scene in Protege – the pairing also demonstrates how Zhang’s acting star has brightened from supporting role to headliner in five years. She says, with a laugh, that her character is an independent career woman and single mother who is also some kind of secret agent “who can fight really well”.

It sounds like a breeze compared to her usually intense onscreen personas, but no doubt the character will undergo some inner turmoil so the talented Zhang can display her acting chops.

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