Zheng Kai is one of China’s biggest actors, but in the West he’s hardly known. Promoting his latest film, Shadow, a visually striking period action epic from Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall, Zheng is hoping that all that is about to change.
Shadow’s visuals wowed audiences at its World Premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and is now playing at the BFI London Film Festival.
Chris Machell: Tell me a little about your new film, Shadow, and the character that you play.
Zheng Kai: As you know, Shadow is from director Zhang Yimou. He’s very big in China, very successful. Everything he’s done is a masterpiece. This is my second film with him after we collaborated on The Great Wall. After The Great Wall, he called me and said, “we’ve got another project”, so I asked, “what is it?” He didn’t have the script yet – he just asked me for my time. Time goes by and then last year, in February, he called me again and told me he’s ready to shoot.
I got the script, and I had the character of the King, and it was really good. I’d never tried that sort of character – I’ve done love stories, comedies, but this was a serious character. So I took it. The character is very ambitious, very self-indulgent. In the film, he kills someone, betrays them; he laughs, he drinks, he does whatever he wants to do on the whole, because he’s the King! He’s a monster in his heart, he wants to control. It’s very Shakespearean.
The use of colour in the film is very special. [Zhang] makes very colourful films; Hero, for example, is very colourful. But this time, you’ve got black and white in our costumes, background – everything is black and white. The only colour is in our faces, our blood, the trees. The music and sound are very good. I saw it in Venice for the first time, and I was shocked.
CM: Was it Zhang that attracted you to the project?
ZK: The most important thing is the script, the story. This is a story about shadows – everyone has his own shadow: certain characters have doubles, and others are pretending to be who they are not. The script is very dramatic. Sometimes when we would shoot, it would be like doing a [theatrical] drama on the set. I’d sometimes have lines that would run to two pages, like I’m performing on the stage. It’s such a dramatic, Shakespearean movie, that makes it very interesting to me.
CM: You’ve had a prolific and varied career to date, with TV work, drama, comedy, action, and music under your belt. But Shadow stands out as one of the more serious films you’ve made to date. Do you see your career moving in that more dramatic direction?
ZK: Yes, this is a big step for me. We’ve been to Venice, now Toronto, and maybe more festivals. This is progress for me. This is not only an art film but also a commercial film. The actors in this film are popular, well-known names in China, but Zhang Yimou is good at making actors more like artists, people who know us will forget what we look like on TV, how we sing, how we are on the reality shows; I hope they just remember the characters.
CM: For Western audiences, we aren’t as familiar with those actors, we don’t know them as celebrities.
ZK: Haha, that’s good!
CM: You’ve previously worked with the film’s director, Zhang Yimou, on The Great Wall. Which other directors do you see yourself working with?
ZK: I’ve worked with a lot of famous directors in China, but this film gives us a great chance to come to new directors in the Western market. Maybe, I hope so! I hope it’s a chance for Chinese actors to be known by more Western directors and producers.
CM: We’re seeing Hollywood studios catering more to international markets, particularly China. Are you seeing the effect of these decisions in China, and if so, what does that mean for the future of international cinema? Do you see yourself starring in more Hollywood or trans-Pacific films?
ZK: I’ve been to Hollywood once or twice already and they’ve given me interesting scripts, and I appreciate that. The past few years Hollywood has been focusing on China by writing some Asian characters or shooting some scenes in China, but they’re not always the biggest characters. Still, I’m hoping for more substantial Chinese involvement. Maybe some time in the future, we can produce films together.
CM: We’re seeing more films that are funded and produced by more than one country. Your biggest film in the West has been The Great Wall. That created some controversy here due to the casting of Matt Damon. What was the reaction to this in China?
ZK: This was something new for China. Zhang Yimou is very interested in new things. He’s trying to push things forward. He’s made a big contribution towards international collaboration – this is how it was mostly perceived in China. He’s the man who’s really doing that thing, and making that progress.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell