Inside the Chinese film industry, only a lucky few girls go far beyond simply being well-known in China. But those who are selected by legendary director Zhang Yimou, one of the few directors to achieve international acclaim for Chinese language films, and creator of such breathtakingly epic films as House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Raise the Red Lantern and Curse of the Golden Flower, are destined to have a brighter future than most. ‘Mou’s lady’ is the title that is given to the leading actress in his films, and only a handful of China’s actresses have ever been bestowed with this accolade.
Ni Ni achieved this status, not through connections but through extremely hard work and effort, just like Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and the other “Mou’s ladies” that came before her. Being a talented and beautiful university student, but otherwise ordinary, Ni Ni graduated from the Communication University of China, Nanjing, with a broadcasting and host degree but without any acting experience. She started her career as an actress when she was chosen from many promising girls during a casting which Zhang held. She was selected, along with a few other finalists, to be trained for two years secretly as a kind of special mission for shooting. The character she would play was a lady of the night called Yu Mo, and she had to learn how to act convincingly as such, as part of her acting lessons. This included her gestures as well as her way of smoking and flirting. During the last stage of Zhang’s secret audition in 2011, Ni Ni stood out among all other candidates through her convincing and emotional performance, and thus her career as an actress was begun.
Yu Mo was the leading female character in Zhang Yimou’s latest film The Flowers of War, and for this, her first role, Ni Ni received nationwide recognition and appeared alongside Christian Bale, one of the most famous Hollywood stars. This was a rare appearance in a Chinese film and a testament to the huge reverence for Zhang Yimou among the international film community.
Surprisingly, Ni Ni keeps a very low-profile attitude towards her life and performing career, and on a crisp, autumn morning in Beijing she candidly answered our questions between takes, whilst on the set of her latest film.
How old were you when you knew that acting in films was what you wanted to do?
I would say it’s when I finished the movie The Flowers of War. Actually, I had never thought of becoming an actress before, you know. I thought I was too ordinary to become a famous movie star.
What qualities do you think a person must possess in order to become an accomplished actress?
To experience enough to be able to act out what you have experienced is crucial for a good actor. It is how much and how deep you have experienced life that determines how well you can perform. And it also determines how much you can utilise those feelings you’ve got in life and put them into your acting. Basically, it involves the training of enriching your inner world as well as your acting skills.
Do you use a particular method? Or were you trained in a particular style?
As far as I’m concerned, you can be talented in acting, but in fact there is no short cut for building up your knowledge and skills. The way I use is to feel and learn constantly by reading lots of books and watching a wide range of classic films to train myself. And before we shot the movie, our director Mr. Zhang Yimou had enlightened me a lot. I really appreciate his help.
What films and heroines influenced you while you were growing up?
I’ve always been a big fan for movies. As an ordinary fan before, I think any movies with scenes that could move me, I deemed a good one. I can feel purity and serenity in those moments. And acting in the film The Flowers of War led me to the track of being a professional actress. Director Zhang showed me how much a professional actor can be dedicated and committed in every piece of work and made me feel so grateful for everything I’ve got.
What were the most influential films of your childhood?
That would be the film called Not One Less which is also directed by Mr. Zhang Yimou. The movie let me know that there is a group of lovely people living in the faraway countryside, completely disregarded by others. Compared with those children, I felt so lucky and stopped complaining about all the studying and course work from school primary at that time.
How do you think the Chinese film industry has evolved in your lifetime?
The Chinese movie industry is in the primary state of industrial development. Things need to be improved in many movie-related fields. For actors and actresses, I believe challenges are coming with opportunities.
In your opinion, what do you think separates Chinese films from other types of film?
It’s hard to summarise it in one sentence, but I would say Chinese films are unique in that many of them reflect the changes in China and have a connection with Chinese traditional culture. They reflect the change of the times in China. People could see the national characteristics through those films.
Do you think that Chinese cinema will start to play a bigger role internationally?
I don’t think there is a fixed standard to measure what is the so-called “important role”. Just like movies in other regions such as Iran, Japan and Europe, Chinese movies have unique values.
What was it like working with Zhang Yimou? How would you describe him as a person?
He is definitely an inspiring teacher as well as a beneficial friend. He is the icon of talent and diligence.
Did any of the more senior actors working on the film with you share any of their knowledge or give you any tips?
Yes. I am still new in the movie industry. Apart from director Zhang, many others I have worked with helped me a lot and I benefited a lot from their experience.
by Michelle Shi
The rest of the interview is available in the current issue of Glass – Joy
Posted: 18 January 2013