Zhao Tao: only in Europe or in America they call me “Muse”. In China, I am just an actor

By Francesca Lombardo. Often referred as the Muse of iconic multi-award winning Chinese director, Jia Zhangke (Platform, the World, Still Life, A touch of Sin, 24 Hours, Ashes is Pure White among his most acclaimed) to who is also married since 2012; former Chinese dance teacher, Zhao Tao has been invited this year at the Festa del Cinema of Roma to celebrate twenty years of her career as an actress during which she brought to the screen the desperation, the fragility and the empowerment of many unforgettable female characters. 

You are an incredibly accomplished actress. How do you feel about being referred to as the MUSE of Jia Zanghke. Do you find it inspiring or diminishing in some way?

I need to say that in China I am not considered or called a Muse as much as I am in Europe or abroad. I am mostly seen as an actor who has had a twenty years career and with an ongoing collaboration with a director. Our work together is seen as a long-standing artistic partnership. This is pretty normal in China. There are many of such artistic partnerships between a director who married an actress, or among males and female directors or a director with a female producer. It is very common in China to keep on working together. 

You have often talked about women’s conditions in China and in a lot of the roles you play women who go through a form of deep transformation and become empowered. What do you think about the female condition in today’s China? 

I think there is still a long way to go before we can talk about real emancipation. In general, this is because the concept of a person is very recent in China compared to other countries. We moved culturally and socially from a society where individuals were judged as part of a very structured and rigid social contest and not for their individuality. The past twenty, thirty years we have moved from a collective society to a society where the sense of individualism is growing very fast, both in its positive and negative meaning. So the public is more receptive to individual stories of women too. I hope we also have managed to represent truthfully this passage and this transformation where women from victims become more empowered or break the rules assigned to them. For instance, in the film Still Life, the woman I play in 2006 goes back to her city and asks her husband for divorce as she has another man. This is for that time still very usual and not very common among Chinese women whereas, in Europe, divorce was already very common. The women that I brought to the screen with Jia’s films, are women whose story is to be contextualised in China but I think their desperation, their suffering, and their fights and their condition represent universal values that any women can relate to. 

How did your collaboration with Jia evolve over the past twenty years?

I started that I was very young. He chose me for that role in Platform (2000), from the dance school where I was teaching. I had no notion whatsoever of acting or filmmaking. Our artistic collaboration has certainly become over the years deeper, there are more layers to it, and our ability to understand each other on set and outside the set has changed dramatically. In 2012 we also got married – we are a family now, hence now there is that layer to our collaboration too. But I look back at my very first film with him, Platform was very much relying on the director’s guidance. I don’t feel I brought a lot from an actor’s point of view. Somehow that character was simply me; I was playing myself as she was born in the same place I was born, she lived a very similar life to mine. I felt I was kind of re-enacting my life rather than creating something very different from me. But thanks to Jia’s directorial approach who on the set who always allows his actors to improvise and express what we feel is relevant to the story of the character, I have started growing as an actor quickly and have developed my craft and my way of acting. 

As you said, the roles you played there are often women that go from a condition of extreme vulnerability but sometimes empowerment happens by embracing the same violence man are capable of, like for instance in Ash is the Purest (2918) How do you feel about this type of empowerment? 

That’s right – the character in this film is involved with a man who belongs to the criminal world. I think what we need to see is not so much how she has empowered herself which is in this case it is by becoming like her man and part of the criminal world. But this is the contest the character operates within. I think what is important to witness in this story is her transformation, evolution as you said from a condition of being a victim to a condition where she becomes in charge of her life yet through being violent. I believe every woman’s aspiration is to be heard, to have a voice, and to gain a sense of respectability. This character achieves it in this way. In films, stories and processes can be taken to an extreme level, but what it’s important that a woman reaches a condition of strength and that in the arc of the story, we see a transformation that has taken place from a place of truth. 

Do you consider your job as an actress about voicing women’s condition as a mission?

I wouldn’t say it is a mission, but it is yes very important for me to be able to tell stories of Chinese women, to be the vehicle to their emotions somehow, and to make their stories universal.

What do you think is the main challenge for an actress in the Chinese film industry that actress in Europe or the US doesn’t face? 

In Europe, in the States, actresses are much more ambitious and assertive in their goals and in what they want to achieve. I think they have many more opportunities that we have to build a long lasting career and as they offered important roles even in their sixties or even seventies. The biggest problem in the Chinese film industry is that you tend to work until you are forty. There are not enough roles for women after this age because the public dictates what they want to see. 

And what do they want to see?

Beauty and youth. Most film actresses in China once they reach their forties, start doing TV as they struggle to find roles. My goal as an actor and Jia as a director is to change this perception. Actresses in their forties and fifties reach a level of maturity and have such a wealth of experiences, that is probably the time where we can bring the best out of their craft. 

So the beauty/youth myth is a much stronger value and deterrent in the Chinese film industry than in Europe? 

Absolutely. Unfortunately, a lot of Chinese film actress try to look as young as possible so they can get roles where their characters are much younger than their real age.

Is there a scene of a film or a character that has had had particularly affected you emotionally on the set? 

Yes. There is a scene in a Touch of Sin (2013),which is quite crude and realistic. The film is based on four stories and one of these characters I play is based on a real story. When I read the script the first time I felt very moved and shocked at the same time by her story. She worked very hard to be able to support her family, but then she gets humiliated as she is treated and mistaken for a prostitute by these two men. She wants to defend her dignity but she was so humiliated that eventually kills one of the two men. Many condemned the way this woman reacted but after playing the part I understood her reactions. I didn’t know how Jia wanted us to shoot that scene as he wasn’t giving us much information. He asked us to repeat the scene over and over and that went on for six hours with one of the two actors that were slapping me for all that length of time with a pile of bills. Six long hours … at the end I could not take it anymore. I felt deep down all the anger she had and why she reacted so violently. I experienced the desperation of this woman very very deeply, it was almost disturbing to the point that I thought; how I would have felt if that had happened to me in real life? How would have I coped, reacted? Would have I stayed silent, would I have allowed them to make me feel humiliated and deprived of my dignity to that extent? No – I probably, I would have reacted in the same way..

Has your acting changed and your collaboration with Jia has changed following your experiences with foreign directors you worked with?

Yes, the experience that changed me the most is the film IO SONO LI, with Italian director Andrea Segre. It was the first time I was working with a director who wasn’t Jia and if you consider that was not even a Chinese film but a foreign film, it was very challenging for me at the beginning. With Jia, there is a very specific way of working. We start from a script that is very set, but once we start shooting the scene it can change a lot. We actors are given a lot of space to improvise and find our way of acting at that moment; it can be very spontaneous and from a place of truth. 

I felt very insecure as I started on that set, like an elementary student that is on her first day at school. I felt unnatural. 

But you went on to win the Davide, the Italian Oscar, as best actress for your role in that film, didn’t you?

Yes, I did(Laugh)  I went from extreme acting realism with Jia to repeating the lines over and over without feeling any emotion. With Andrea Segre, we rehearsed the script five times and for an entire month. This allowed me to get to know the cast very well on one hand, which helped me in making me more familiar since I was a foreigner on an Italian film set. On the other hand, this way of working was very disorientating for me. Andrea also told me when we started shooting that I had to reproduce exactly what we have rehearsed in the movements, in the voice and no make any variations. I could not feel the character deep down and I didn’t feel natural. At some point, I have asked Andrea to allow me to express what I was feeling at that moment on the set. He went silent for a few minutes then he said ok, let’s try that. I kind of erased everything that we had tried for a month, and I allowed myself to act more spontaneously, but at the same time I manage to internalise the role very deeply thanks to the many rehearsals, and what came out eventually and was a method that was entirely mine and also very personal to me. It has been a very important experience that has certainly informed my acting after.

How do you craft a character?

When I read the script I need to find a point through the story that really strikes a chord with me and touches me emotionally on a very deep level. I also start writing a biography about the character and try to imagine as much as possible about her life. But if I don’t find truth in the character, I am very honest and I say to the director that I don’t think that character won’t be touching emotionally the audience if it didn’t touch me personally, or at least, not with me playing the character. 

Do you think there is a misrepresentation of Chinese or Asian females in foreign films? 

There can be a misconception yes, on how a non-Asian or non-Chinese director thinks a Chinese or Asian women would express her emotions when she is in pain or suffer in certain circumstances. For instance, in Segre’s film, there is a scene where Li who is on the beach needs to express a certain level of sadness and Segre suggested that I would take a swim. I said to the director “ A Chinese woman would not react which such action to deal with her sadness”. We tend to internalise more. He took into account my viewpoint and we change the scene based on my suggestion.

How important is for two artists of the stature (you and your husband) to have artistic boundaries, especially since you don’t just work together but also live together and are married to each other?

It is indeed, very important to have boundaries, in fact, we have a very strong division of roles. When Jia writes he doesn’t talk about the script with any actors and neither with me. Sometimes he talks with the camera people or director of photography. Often, I don’t know if the film he’s writing has a character for me or which role I am going to play. I don’t ask anything and never interfere with the scriptwriting process. I think this way of working is very beneficial and healthy for our personal as well as artistic relationship. There is never a situation based on the fact that I need to have a part, just because we are together and married. It’s not like that. What it is important in our collaboration is the film as a whole and for us, actors working with him is to make sure that the director’s idea is represented from a place of truth. 

You have recently produced a documentary, do you harbour any aspirations to become a director yourself one day?

Well, I have to say that when I see films that I don’t like I do feel a strong urge to say, ok, I am going to re-shoot that film and make it better (laugh). But apart from that, the answer is No, There is one director at home and that is enough. I wonder if I become a director too, how are we going to make it as a family? He is the director – I am OK with that (laugh). 


By Francesca Lombardo, journalist and children’s book author

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