Photo by Darren Hughes
Midway through A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia Zhang-ke’s violent and reality-inspired account of China’s seismic economic shifts, a massage parlor receptionist played by Zhao Tao is attacked suddenly by a non-descript businessman, who beats her with a fistful of renminbi while shouting, “Isn’t my money good enough? Not a prostitute? Who is then?” Jia documents the assault in a two-minute, unbroken closeup, whipping the camera from side to side with each blow. By the end, Zhao’s cheeks and neck are flush from exertion and physical contact, which is an interesting intrusion of documentary into such a fantastic scene. She reaches for a hidden knife and then, with a swift slash to the man’s chest, becomes transformed into a wuxia warrior.
A Touch of Sin
seems to have marked a shift in Jia’s filmmaking, away from the contemplative, docu-realist style that characterized much of his previous work and toward something more closely resembling genre. As a consequence, Jia’s longtime lead has notably expanded her range as an actress. In the aftermath of the beating in A Touch of Sin
, Zhao walks cautiously, blood-soaked and sobbing, toward the camera in a manner that would be unthinkable in a film like Still Life
(2006), which treats her and the other performers primarily as expressionless faces wandering through landscapes. What little optimism there is to be found in A Touch of Sin
is born of Zhao’s performance, which, as Jia told me in 2013
, represents a kind of redemption, suggesting a path “through this period of darkness and violence.”
In her latest collaboration with Jia, Mountains May Depart, Zhao plays a woman, Tao, at three different stages of life: a 20-something beauty in 1999, who must choose between two love interests; a middle-aged mother in 2014, who has become separated from her only child; and an older woman in 2025, who has found a certain contentment but still suffers the pangs of nostalgia. For longtime fans, the first section is uncanny, as Zhao herself first appeared in front of a camera in 1999, when Jia discovered and cast her in Platform (2000). Her performance in Mountains May Depart has earned much-deserved praise since the film’s premiere last year at Cannes.
When I spoke with Zhao, Jia was sitting just a few feet away, giving an interview of his own. I mention that only to illustrate a certain quality—“tension” is too strong a word, perhaps—I noticed at the time and again when transcribing our conversation. Zhao defers to Jia on all matters relating to the style and content of the films they’ve made together but doesn’t shy away from expressing her preferences, both in the specific choices she makes as an actress (in the moment of filming) and for the type of performance she’s given in the two most recent films. Her response suggests a depth to their creative partnership that is too often glossed over in critical appraisals of their work.
This interview took place on September 15, 2015, soon after Mountains May Depart received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A quick note about the photo: At the end of the interview I asked Zhao if I could take a picture. She agreed and then glanced at the lighting in the room, shifted in her seat, and tilted her head slightly to one side. When she looked into my camera, she was a movie star. It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.
NOTEBOOK: Have you watched Platform recently? I wonder what it’s like to see yourself on screen in 1999 at a time when you’re preparing to play a character in 1999?
ZHAO TAO: Cannes just gave our director a lifetime achievement award this year, so after the ceremony they showed Platform. It was the film version, not the digital version. That was the second time I saw Platform on a big screen. The first was in Venice [where it premiered in 2000]. This year in Cannes we invited a lot of our old partners, for example the actor who played Chang Jun [Jing Dong Liang] and the sound editor, Zhang Yang. The three of us sat together, watched the film together, and [revisited] the time when we met and started working together.
I was really, really excited when I saw the film. When the music started, I got goosebumps. So many wonderful memories came back when watching the film. For example, I remembered that scene where I was sitting on the bed, and I was trying to pretend that I didn’t know how to smoke [laughs] even though I was a smoker at the time. There’s also the scene when I was dancing in the office. I didn’t look at it as if I was dancing; it was Ruijuan [the character] who was dancing in the office. I thought it was beautiful and was very moved by the scene. When I saw the truck come, and everyone was on the tour, I completely lost it. I was so moved. I really love that film.
NOTEBOOK: Did you like your performance?
ZHAO: [laughs] It’s okay.
NOTEBOOK: Often Director Jia tells his stories through images of relatively expressionless faces, but in the last two films, you’ve given more traditional performances. For example, in Still Life, there are none of the emotionally-heightened scenes that we see in Mountains May Depart and A Touch of Sin. Is there any particular cause for that shift in style?
ZHAO: Perhaps that question could be answered better by the director, but from the actor’s point of view, my understanding is that the plot of A Touch of Sin requires it. It’s a very sudden, emotional event. It’s very, very direct. The character would naturally have a clear emotional response that demonstrates how the event affects her.
With Mountains May Depart, I think the intent of the director is to represent life and to represent the evolution of human emotion through this character. For example, the scene when Tao goes to the hospital to claim the body of her deceased father—before we filmed that, the director had a discussion with me, and his approach—what he thought would be most beautiful—was to not have a lot of emotion outwardly expressed. He didn’t want hysterical crying. From my understanding of the character, she was at that particular point in her late-30s, she has a son who she hasn’t seen for several years, and her only close relative is her father. He was the only person she was close to. She doesn’t have any other outlet to express emotion, and I would imagine this would be an appropriate opportunity for her to let those emotions out. I toned down the emotions, according to the director’s wishes, but I had the character crying the whole time, with tears running down her face.
NOTEBOOK: Is that performance style more pleasurable to you as an actor?
ZHAO: If you compare the two characters, Shen Hong in Still Life and Tao in Mountains May Depart, I think it’s easier to play Shen Hong. A character like Tao is a wonderful opportunity as an actress—to play her in her youth, in middle age, and when she’s older. How do you do it so that it’s convincing for the audience? How do you perform so that the audience can feel the passage of time? In Still Life there isn’t much time dedicated to Shen Hong’s everyday life. We don’t know what her marriage was like. Most of the time she was just wandering. It’s easier to portray her wandering. With Tao, one must create three different ways of acting.
NOTEBOOK: We only see Tao very briefly in 2025, so you had less screen time to reveal that version of the character. Director Jia said during the Q&A that he was inspired by a vision of an older woman dancing alone, and I’m wondering how you felt about the character in that moment?
ZHAO: That is the kind of work I need to do as an actor. The director chose to show a month in 1999, a week in 2014, and a couple days in 2025. As an actor, I have to use my imagination to fill in the blanks because it’s not a continuous biography. It’s obviously a very emotional scene for me, so as we were filming the director kept reminding me, “Do not show too much emotion. Do not cry.” I put on the clothes of an older woman, I had a little dog and I was walking through the snow, and I heard this music—it was very moving because I thought, “I’m not dancing; the character is dancing, and this is a dance of her whole life.”
There she is, in her 50s, and she hears this piece of music from her youth, as if it’s floated through the air and drifted to her. It reminds her of her youth and of where she is today. It’s very complicated, but it’s the music that brings these feelings directly to her.
I wrote a full biography of the character—when she was born, when she went to kindergarten, all the different stages of her life. So when I act a certain scene—when she met Zhang Jinsheng, when she got married—I’m acting a particular segment of that life.
NOTEBOOK: For fifteen years now, you’ve been part of Director Jia’s project, which for me—and for many other film critics and audiences in the West—has been, among other things, an important document of the recent transformation of China. Is that something you’re aware of? Or perhaps even proud of?
ZHAO: I’m not really aware of that. In fact, I’m a little surprised to learn that people’s understanding of China, and the changes happening in China, [have been shaped by] the films I’m in. That’s surprising to hear. [laughs] So many films are made in China, and the films I’ve made are such a small part of the films that come from China.
My life before Still Life basically consisted of three parts: make a film with the director, do the actual filming; go to festivals with him to present the film; and teach dance at the Taiyuan dance school. Right after Platform I went back to being a teacher. At that point I didn’t think I should get an agent or plan my acting career. At the time I thought my normal life was as a dance teacher. Making films and going to festivals was something extra—and wonderful. Quite often I think, “I didn’t choose to be an actress. The career chose me.”
Even after I went to festivals and saw that so many people liked the films, I didn’t act for a particular audience. I act to what I think the character should be. I’m sure the director didn’t make Mountains May Depart to show it to an American audience, and he didn’t make Platform to show it to a European audience or Still Life for such-and-such audience. He just wants to make what he thinks are good, quality films that make creative sense for him. I think the reason his films are well accepted in the West—and in the world, in general—is because film is a medium with a lot of common ground. If he presents quality films, he will continue to have a place among the world’s filmmakers.