Zhao Tao has emerged over the past decade as the preeminent Chinese actress of her generation. Yet, outside of the country and the international art-house circuit, she remains a relative unknown. Not that the 41-year-old is complaining about her position in life, or about a film industry that’s constantly evolving.
When we sit down to talk on the sidelines of the 23rd Busan International Film Festival, Zhao says the one thing that excites her most today is the change that’s going on around her in a domestic film market that will soon become the world’s richest. Another, she tells me, is her ability to inhabit the complex and very human characters she portrays — and then leave them behind once the day’s on-set shooting is finished.
“As soon as I get back home, the character is gone,” she says. “I just become Zhao Tao again and return to my own normal life.”
Given the acclaim that’s swirled around Zhao throughout her career, it might be hard for outsiders to define what, exactly, “normal” could possibly now mean. The Taiyuan-born actress has been feted at the world’s leading film festivals, including Cannes, as well as at the Golden Horse Awards — known as the Oscars of Chinese-language films — where she’s twice been nominated for best actress.
In 2011 Zhao was awarded Italy’s Oscar — the David di Donatello Award — for her first international role. In the Andrea Segre-directed Shun Li and the Poet, she played a Chinese immigrant who forms an unlikely friendship with an ageing fisherman.
Most recently, her role in husband/director Jia Zhangke’s gripping generational gangster drama Ash is Purest White took her back to Cannes, where the film competed for the Palme d’Or. It also saw Zhao pick up that second Golden Horse nomination for best actress, as well as collect the trophy for best performance by an actress at the 2018 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
In the film, which brought the actress to Busan, Jia allows Zhao full rein — as he has across the couple’s nine collaborations. Zhao’s soulful performance as a gangster’s loyal girlfriend — dealing with changes in life as much as in Chinese society — left critics around the world gushing. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich claimed the role offered “further proof that Zhao Tao is one of the greatest actresses in the world”.
“It’s about a woman learning how she can be strong in a world controlled by men,” Zhao says. “We see how she changes, how she evolves, and this was interesting to me. From their twenties to their forties everyone changes, but it’s more than what happens physically. She grows as a person and to see that from a woman’s point of view is not that common on screen. It should be more common, but at the moment it’s not.”
It was the contemplative Jia who gave Zhao her first big screen role in 2000’s Platform — famously finding her teaching at a dance school. “As a dancer, when the music started I could feel my emotions explode,” Zhao says. “But once I started acting in movies I found this was a way to express feelings we can all identify with. Acting gives you a chance to explore how we as humans express ourselves.”
The actress says she was drawn to the director’s ability to look into the everyday. “He makes films for normal people. He deals with situations and problems everyone can identify with. In terms of filmmaking he’s very ‘real’. There’s a trend in Chinese cinema now where the films are all about relationships, but Jia Zhangke is unique in that he focuses on the complicated emotional flow of relationships. It’s deeper and more thoughtful, and therefore more interesting.”
Off-screen, the couple’s work is sometimes discussed but never really dissected, Zhao says, with the creative process left to the film set. “Before he writes, there’s not that much communication between us in terms of the character as his story is being created,” she explains. “We don’t discuss the script until after it’s written.”
“Once I have the script, we analyse the character he’s created. But the co-operation really happens on set, and that’s where I can suggest ways to develop the character. You can study the script but it’s only really when you ‘become’ the character on set that you work out who that character really is and you can make suggestions on how you think she should be developed.”
Zhao reveals there’s a great deal of background preparation involved before she enters these worlds of make-believe. “There’s a process I go through with each character,” she says. “First I write a biography for the character, for their whole life, via my imagination. After reading the script, I think of all the things that could have had an impact on their life. This helps add dimension to the character, and depth.”
“Once I’ve done the biography, I analyse the part of this person’s life we’re concentrating on during the film. So when I get on set, I’m comfortable. I can stop being the actor Zhao Tao, and I can become this character.”
Financially, Ash is Purest White has been a breakthrough production for the pair, with its estimated US$5 million box office the biggest yet for a Jia film. The actress believes it’s an indication both of the respect that Jia is now afforded across China and how things are changing in the film industry across the mainland.
“After attending promotional events across the country for this film we realised our audience is getting younger,” Zhao says. “There were lots of people born in the 1990s and they had lots of questions for us afterwards. So we think this shows that what the audience wants today in China is changing. The film is also the most commercially successful for the director, so this we think also shows that tastes are changing.”
“The landscape for films is expanding. We’re seeing a new generation of filmmakers emerge and they have a wider interest, into all sorts of genres.”