[This is a translation of the cover article of the July 14, 2009 issue of the Shanghai magazine "The Bund." It has been posted at the websites of several Chinese entertainment news services, for example, New China Net. Throughout the translation, the international English release title "Sophie's Revenge" is used, rather than the Chinese title, "Feichang Wanmei" 非常完美. A literal English translation of the Chinese title would be "Really Perfect," but an acceptable (and I think better) free translation could be "Absolutely Fabulous," although it is easy to understand why this was not used. Comments in brackets [like this] are those of the Chinese Mirror editor, where further clarification was thought desirable. The interview was conducted for The Bund by staff writer Liu Lifang 刘莉芳]
In order to accelerate the completion of filming, Zhang Ziyi put in 50-plus workdays of 12-hours or more, but on the set she was always cheerful, singing happy songs like a child. As Du Yang expressed it, "her cheerful attitude on the set kept everyone else at ease, and that was especially important."
Du Yang (杜扬) is "Sophie's" general producer. Before this collaboration, she thought Zhang Ziyi was too great an international megastar to get close to; but now that she knows Zhang, Du speaks of the actress's "little girl" nature, saying "she is especially straightforward, lovable, and very considerate of others."
Zhang Ziyi is the nucleus of this film, made with an investment of more than 50 million yuan [US$7.5 million/UK£4.5 million/€5.52 million] and a cast of more than 100. [Update: in later interviews, Zhang has denied the budget was this high.] Her acting role is as the main female character Sophie (苏菲) [Sufei]. Sophie is a cartoonist on a mission, namely to win back her boyfriend, a campaign which triggers a series of comical scenes. This is the first time Zhang has done comedy, and she bears a heavy share of that comedy. Art director Chen Siqin (陈思勤) revealed that Zhang's character assumes over 20 different images in the film. One could say that Zhang Ziyi's success or failure in acting out these various images is a factor in the movie's success or failure. Another aspect is that this is Zhang Ziyi's first assumption of production responsibility.
Last year, as one of the several producers of "Sophie's Revenge," Zhang Ziyi approached the cultural communications division of Du Yang's Beijing Perfect World Company with young director Yimeng's script, to discuss the company's possible investment in it. Du Yang needed only two days to decide to invest, saying that everyone at the company agreed she and Zhang should make this Chinese-style "Amelie of Montmarte."
[right, international English release poster for "Sophie's Revenge." International release date unscheduled as of this posting.]
At the Beijing Film Studio, the crew constructed a fantastic dream version of Sophie's home, a riot of clashing colors with green walls and red chairs. A pair of goldfish lamps bathed the room in a hazy yellow light. The overall vision was done in an Eastern style, but it was really a subversion of the traditional Eastern aesthetic. The set and all its props were entirely designed, modeled and made by Chen Siqin. The "Dream Room" became a favorite place for the cast, and when it was torn down the actors had a group photo taken.
Yimeng's original script did not detail the artistic aspects of the film. This may have been due to [the film's] fairy tale aura, and its being a sort of fairy tale romance. At the beginning of the movie, Sophie's long-time boyfriend Jeff transfers his affections to a movie star played by Fan Bingbing 范冰冰. But two months before Jeff is to marry, Sophie opens up a "love manual," and determines to use this to win him back. With the help of her close friends Yao Chen (姚晨), Ruby Lin (林心如) and Peter Ho (何润东), Sophie devises several stratagems.
[below right, Zhang Ziyi as the "really perfect" title character of "Sophie's Revenge"]
Back when acting was her only function in a movie, Zhang Ziyi could just leave when filming was completed; but as a producer, she now has a great many other things to worry about, like whether to acquire automobiles. Would that put the film over budget? Who should have the final word on film cutting, the director or the editor? Although she did not know them all well, she consulted with cast members separately to get their advice on how to make the film better. Du Yang describes Zhang as "wise," saying "she realizes she should not force others to bend to her will; rather, she absorbs their different views."
Chen Siqin says that when there was some disagreement among the film crew, Zhang Ziyi's opinions were especially important, but she never offered them hastily, always listening to the views of others before opening her own mouth. "There was nothing to be gained by making a hasty decision," says Du Yang, and when a dispute arose, Zhang's practice was to resolve problems through discussion, for she believed "there is no problem that can't be talked over."
"Sophie's Revenge" will go into nationwide [China] release in August. On July 6, at the Landmark Towers Hotel in Beijing, Zhang Ziyi sat down for an interview with this publication.
In the following interview, B=The Bund Pictorial, and Z=Zhang Ziyi.
An Attempt to Approach "Amelie of Montmarte"
B: I think that "Sophie's Revenge" is very special, its color, its rhythm are very special.
Z: (laughing) Is that good or bad?
B: It's especially un-Chinese, although you said you wanted to make a very Chinese comedy.
Z: Although a movie may be a Chinese production, the end product can still be made somewhat differently. The may be the reason why everyone thought it allowed considerable room for creativity after they had read the script. For example, the music arranger Jin Shiyuan (金石源) felt it was a lot of fun, in different places. He used symphonic arrangements, but also used the erhu. The art designer Chen Siqin worked very hard on this movie, but he also appreciated having so much room for creativity. The characters were also like this. And while it's an urban love story, and sounds very conceptualized, the content of this movie is actually very rich.
B: The scene in the slaughterhouse, where you imagine Fan Bingbing wants to kill you, called to mind absurdist theater.
Z: Sophie is a cartoonist with a rich imagination. In the slaughterhouse scene, she imagined Fan Bingbing killing her, and she was afraid. Sophie imagines a lot of things, like when she visualizes a lot of little people flying around her, like animated cartoons. Various art forms were merged together. Although it's a simple story, it's not told in a simple way.
B: In its story of a girl trying to win back a lost love, this movie reminded me of the American comedy "Legally Blonde." Did you draw on similar foreign films?
Z: These are part of a particular film genre, and there's no way to get too far away from it. But we hope "Sophie's Revenge" will stand out on its own in the genre, and maybe establish its own subgenre. Director Yimeng especially liked "Amelie of Montmarte," and China still hasn't made this kind of comedy, which doesn't prevent "Sophie's Revenge" from being looked on as a daring attempt. Whether it's successful or not is something to talk about later, but if young people are enthusiastic about trying it, I think its chances are particularly good.
B: "Sophie's Revenge" is a commercial film. How do you view commercial films?
Z: I feel that if a film is good, and audiences think it is worth the price of a ticket, that is enough. I just recently spent 280 yuan [US$41] for a ticket to see "Transformers 2," but I thought it was a lot of fun, and especially worth it. There is a wide variety of art films, and some audiences may not like a particular film among these. There are art films that win Oscars in the US, and many of them don't do well at the box office. Audiences will find the movies they enjoy.
Zhang Ziyi as Producer
B: Ruby Lin's screen image has always been one of traditional gentility, but in this movie she plays a rebellious female, who changes boyfriends as fast as she changes her underwear. How did you come to unearth this latent peculiarity in her?
Z: I just thought she would good in the part. (Laughs) In the role, she is changed quite a lot, with short hair, wearing leather miniskirts, tight leather pants, very modern. She had never played this sort of role before, and it gave her a feeling of freshness, of renewal. Actors all want change, and whether the role is large or small, if it is something they've never tried before it gives them a creative feeling.
B: You chose your cast very well.
Z: Yes, we did that well.
[left, young director Jin Yimeng (file photo)]
B: Jin Yimeng, the film's director, is very young. When they are just starting out, many young directors are confronted with problems they've never had to deal with before. How do you view Yimeng? Had you seen her cartoons, her short films?
Z: In my view, Yimeng's previous works were irrelevant. I was impressed most by her original script and her approach to story-telling. Her way of telling a story is so special. Actually, urban love stories are very routine, going from a breakup to a reconciliation with several twists and turns in between. This story's uniqueness lies in its content and form. When I first read this script a few years ago it piqued my interest right away as something I felt could be done in a very modern, very international way. When I first met with Yimeng, I could envision the completed film, and it was like fireworks. Yimeng had nothing at that time. We set up a group, organized a team, sought financing, and bit by bit it came together. As for her being a new director, such opportunities are really rare. Looking back on it now, I feel that my getting to know Yimeng was destiny.
B: What were the circumstances of your first meeting Yimeng?
Z: It was winter. I had read the script already, and very much wanted to play "Sophie" myself. So when I met with her I wore a pair of especially flowery boots, and a hat. I asked her, "Do I look the part?" She said "You've already stepped into the role!" (Laughs) Very funny. After a very good chat, we decided to get started on doing it.
B: How do you view "producer centered" and "director centered" [movies]? Hollywood has from early on been "producer centered" while domestically we are still "director centered." What was the director-producer relationship in "Sophie's Revenge?"
Z: We've both had to make some compromises. For example, in [Chinese filmmaking] the director has final control of editing. But in order to get this film done on time, everyone had to work separately, so there had to be some separation of powers.
B: Producers inevitably have to deal with financing. What's your attitude toward that?
Z: I only ask that the money be controlled by people who specialize in that. I don't move the money around, the farther I am from it the better. But budget control, staying within budget, I can have some hand in matters like that.
B: You are now Zhang Ziyi the actress, and Zhang Ziyi the producer. Might you someday become Zhang Ziyi the director?
Z: I've not thought about that much. I think directing is a career not made for women. Sometime I see TV specials, large scale events, or movies directed by women, and I think, that's too much work. The physical demands, and having to deal with all sorts of people, all kinds of things, all kinds of links. I don't know that I could do it. Maybe not.
B: If you had to choose, which of the following three people would you choose as your objective: famous producer Walt Disney, actress Audrey Hepburn, or French filmmaker Jacques Perrin?
Z: Whoever I chose, I would try to do the best I could. When a film is to be made in which quality is assured, everyone will be interested in going to see it. If there is an opportunity to make such a film, I don't want to pass that up. The rest we can talk about later. In the future, public affairs might take up a larger share of my time, and when I reach a certain age I may want to do more of that.
B: You've said in the past that before you start filming you will spend two months time preparing your role; but what could you do to prepare for this comic role of Sophie?
Z: There was really little I could do to prepare. Comedy is never something that can be acted out: it depends on one's personal experiences and feelings. In this movie, with the help of costuming and art design, I changed myself into Sophie. My attitudes, my manner of speaking, were Sophie's attitudes and manner of speaking, and it was very hard to draw Sophie and I apart. This was the correct approach.
B: You and Sophie are unalike in temperament. At what point did you "merge" with Sophie? Some actors have said that before they could achieve this "meeting point" they had to in effect kill themselves before they could "meet" the character. You?
Z: Sophie is like my intimate friend, and I understand everything in her innermost being, as if I had already met her in a previous life! Haha, I'm joking, like an actress talking like a little girl.
B: How did you get into the part? Some actresses rely on high-heeled shoes to feel a role, some rely on makeup. In this movie, did you rely on image?
Z: Yes, the outiftters can be a great help to an actor. Sophie starts out making herself up like a tart, careless with her hair and dress. I'm not that kind of person, and I can't comb my hair like that.
B: As your first comedy performance, this movie called for you to break with everything you had done in the past. You have a line in which you say that you will use scienfitic methods to win back the lover you lost. This made a very deep impression on people.
Z: Yes, and I don't know how one could do that. (Laughs) The longer you live inside a character, the less you feel that character is indispensable. Add to that the costuming and makeup, the surroundings, as well as Yao Chen and Ruby Lin at your side fanning the flames, and the portrayal emerges from that.
B: Even when you were not filming, you were still especially glad to be on the set. Were you happy during the entire process of making the movie?
Z: Yes. When making a comedy like this, if you're not in a good frame of mind you won't capture the correct mood for your character, and can't act it.
B: When "All About Women," had just wrapped, Zhou Xun and others in the cast remained in character when they did interviews. But here you are, out of character very quickly, suddenly yourself again.
Z: I can't get out of a character afterwards, I'm still in the movie. For example, when I was making "The Horsemen," I was very nervous every day, and had nightmares every night. That was because I was portraying a killer, and my lines were so apocalyptic, it would give anyone nightmares. But when we finished filming, although I was able to immediately return to my own life, and had a great many things I wanted to do, I still had the feeling all day that things just weren't right. I was very excited about Sophie every day, and the work was so fresh and new, the role such a challenge for me, brimming with possibility.
The Coming Urban Fashion
B: I think a lot of young women will wish your home in the movie could be theirs.
Z: The first time I entered the room was at the first dress rehearsal, and I thought it was so awful it was funny. The floor was inlaid with a ring of small monkeys, there was a drum, a large shovel, many toys, writing instruments, and the ornaments and colors were like in a dream, very fanciful. But everything was in keeping with the character in the story, like a fairy tale. Everyone who did a scene in the room didn't want to leave it, they wished they lived there. I told the art designer Chen Siqin that if I get another home I want her to design it for me.
B: Chen Siqin said that she paid a lot of attention to designing things you can't see. Could you clarify that a bit?
Z: Well, we could talk about my home's bathroom. I only have one scene set in the bathroom, but quite a long time went into building it. The scene tells how a woman may have an enormous appetite after she is disappointed in romance. In the scene, Sophie is sitting on the couch, crying, watching TV, and eating. She eats to the point of making herself sick, and has to give it up. So Sophie runs to the bathroom to throw up. The camera lens shoots the scene from a lower level, so there are a lot of details you can't see. This is just one prominent example of this type.
B: You wear an unusually large number of outfits in "Sophie's Revenge." Which one was your favorite?
Z: I especially liked the sheep's costume, because that was a particularly funny scene. I also liked the tangerine-colored cape Sophie wears in the scene where she creates a disturbance in the hospital, when she is most demented. Sophie also has a lot of nightclothes, with many patterns and colors. There are a lot of costume changes in the movie. Not just me, Bingbing also has a lot. Several of the girls do. Yao Chen wears expensive Tiffany jewelry every day. This movie will make everybody want to give it a try, and every link is like this.
B: Fashion is one of the labels of "Sophie's Revenge," but its fashion concept is somewhat different. How do you view those fashions?
Z: Director Yimeng hopes that years from now, when people see this film they won't feel that is a film about 2009 fashions. She hopes they won't think about when it was set, just feel something. For example, the taxicabs in the film were all specially made, to try and give a cartoon feeling. As for fashions, I feel that they only have to suit you, sufficient to express who you are, and that's enough.
B: What props did you keep for yourself? Costumes?
Z: It seemed like everything was locked in the office, nothing else I wanted. The desk props were all so attractive, so I asked if I could keep some. They all said I could, but when we finished filming, everything was gone. (Laughs)
B: This is very much a woman's film.
Z: Yes, but how could she be a truly independent young woman? Although in seeking true love, she is me.