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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

Another muse is born

Zhang Yimou is clearly a slave to the muse, a director for whom actresses bring out the best in him. After a string of memorable works with Gong Li -- "Ju Dou," "Red Sorghum," "Raise The Red Lantern" -- Zhang has sought out new talent in recent years, scoring big time with Wei Minzhi in "Not One Less" and Zhang Zi Yi in "The Road Home."

News photo
Actress Dong Jie in Tokyo

For "Happy Times" (reviewed in these pages last week), he widened the net by holding an open casting call that attracted around 50,000 hopefuls to audition for the lead role. Zhang eventually settled on Dong Jie, a winsome, doe-eyed dancer from Guangzhou. Just 20 years old when the film was made in 2000, Dong shed a considerable amount of weight to appear even more fragile and waifish in her role as a teenage blind girl living with an abusive stepmom.

"Happy Times" involves a sly retiree named Zhao (Zhao Benshan) who's wooing a middle-aged divorcee. When he boasts that he owns a hotel (in truth, he's been downsized), his honey foists off her unwanted stepdaughter Wu Ying (Dong) on him and tells him to give her a job. Thus begins an elaborate ruse in which Zhao and friends convert a room in an abandoned factory, trying to convince the sightless girl that she's actually working as a masseuse at a classy hotel.

In this bittersweet comedy of deception, Zhao handles the laughs while Dong provides the pathos. She shows a face deadened by lack of love and bitter experience. Her gaze becomes unfixed and wandering, as she senses out her surroundings with her hands, a heartbreaking portrayal of a girl who's lost her sight and never had any help in adjusting to her new condition.

Half of any movie actor's performance is in the eyes, and Dong's ability to express emotion without using her eyes would be a triumph for a veteran, let alone a newcomer. In a stroke of typecasting, she plays a mute girl in "Sky Lovers," currently being shown in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

She's obviously got talent but, believe it or not, what the media at a press conference held last week in Tokyo's Ginza really wanted to know was: "How did you lose all that weight?"

On working with Zhang Yimou

Once we started shooting, the director gave me a lot of confidence, talking a lot with me about the character and analyzing the role and encouraging me. But the words that left the biggest impression on me were, "There are no bad actors, only bad direction." So we worked together closely throughout the film. He's quite demanding in his standards, but he never puts pressure on his actors.

On playing a blind character

It wasn't something I could have ever imagined doing in my first film, but as the director pointed out, most actors don't get a role like this in their entire career, so I felt quite fortunate to have this challenge. I spent a long time living with a blind girl, observing her ways and that's how I was able to play the part.

At first I made a lot of mistakes on set. For example, when there's something in front of me, I'd pretend not to see it and then touch it with my hands. But a real blind person wouldn't be so direct. They'd feel around to find it first.

On how old she was in the film

I'm sure I must look quite young in the film, but I had already turned 20. But my character in the film is a girl of 16 or 17, and the director also instructed me to look thin, so I did my best and lost 5 or 6 kg and so I look really scrawny in the film. When the director suggested I lose some weight for the part, he hadn't decided yet whether he would cast me or not. So after that, I had a month to lose some weight, so I did my best.

On her diet

It was really hard. Morning, noon, and night I went swimming and jogging. That took most of the day. My diet was all vegetables, I didn't have a bite of rice for almost a year (during the shooting)! But I really don't recommend this to anyone. I don't think it's healthy.

On what she'd like to do next

The next film I do, I definitely want to play a strong, independent-minded woman. Actually, when I was 10 years old, I left my parents' home to go join the Red Army's dance troupe, and I could only meet my parents once or twice a year, and I continued like that for quite some time. So my own character is very independent, and I'd like to play a role that reflects that.

On why she thinks she was chosen for the role

Hmmm. I guess the main point was my personality, or my individuality. Girls now in China -- and Japan too, I guess -- look more adult at an early age. Maybe it was because I was in the military all that time, but I still looked a little young for my age. The director was auditioning all these 16- and 17-year-old girls, looking for a kind of naive, innocent type, but he really couldn't find any. So even though I was 20, I looked a bit childish, so he thought I was OK. But also, because I had a few more years' experience, I was better able to handle playing a blind character than those younger girls -- that's what sold him on me, I think.

On whether she really can give a good massage

I really did learn from a blind masseuse for over a month. I learned how it's not so much about strength as finding the tsubo (pressure points). Of course the cast in the film are acting, but I did give them real massages, and they all said it felt great!

On how the movie was received in China

It opened in China for New Year's holiday in 2001, but -- to be honest -- it was both praised and panned. Some people really liked it, but others want Zhang to make something more dramatic or historical. But, for me, it's a very emotional piece about ordinary people. I've done another film since then, but I think more people in China know me from the TV series I've appeared in.

On being a celebrity

The fun thing about being famous is that everybody knows you. People notice you, they'll say "Ah, it's Dong Jie!" when I'm walking around town. But the down side is you become public property, it's hard to maintain your privacy. I've got this really fresh young "idol" image, so I've got to try and live up to it. The most important thing is to remember what you were like before you were famous, and not become distracted by the hype.

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