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Interview: Actor Ryan Zheng on the Timelessness and Timeliness of Zhang Yimou’s ‘Shadow’

May 3, 2019Ben MK

A legend in his homeland of China, director Zhang Yimou is perhaps best known to Western audiences for films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. And with his latest epic, the renowned filmmaker is marking a jaw-dropping return to a familiar aesthetic.

In Shadow, Zhang tells the story of an exiled king (Deng Chao), his double (Ryan Zheng) and a ruthless military leader (Jun Hu) — three very different men, each with their own thirsts not only for power, but for blood. Shot in stark, almost black-and-white tones and filled with as much narrative tension and character drama as it is fast-paced martial arts action, the movie is equally ambitious. But for star Zheng, it also holds a special place in his heart.

I sat down with the actor and singer before Shadow's premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival to chat about his role in the film, and to find out why now is the right time to showcase Chinese culture on a global stage.

You were in Zhang Yimou's previous film, The Great Wall. But were you a big fan of his work prior to that?

Zheng: Of course. I think he's one of the best directors in China, so no one can refuse him. [laughs] And after The Great Wall, he just asked me for my time for this project. But at that time, I didn't know what it was exactly. And last year, before we started shooting, he just gave me the script, and I really liked it. I liked the character, I liked the story. And I really enjoyed to work with him again. It's a high-level film group in China. Everyone is really professional, so I'm very lucky to be here.

In Shadow, you play the King of Pei. Even though your character doesn't really have any fight scenes, did you do any martial arts training for the film? How did you prepare for your role?

Zheng: In China, we always do films and TV about ancient Chinese stories, so we know how to behave in this kind of movie. I trained in the Chinese writing on the ground. It's different from writing on paper. It's more like combining writing and dancing and poetry together. So I think it's very fascinating for Western people. That's the Chinese culture. So I trained in that. It's not very easy to do that with the costume. Everyone has a very complicated costume. Every time we put on the costume, two people had to help me for about 15 minutes to do that. [laughs]

There's a good deal of conflict in the film, whether it's the physical conflict between the characters or the internal conflict within the characters themselves. As an actor, which is more satisfying for you to play?

Zheng: For me, this time, it's more the drama. Because I used to be on the stage, after I graduated. So this time, it's more like a Shakespearean story, and the style is black-and-white, and everything is real. For me, the fighting scenes, of course we always do that. It's more the Chinese way to fight with the swords and the kung fu. But this time, I think the drama is more fascinating for me.

And speaking of fascinating, the film deals with the idea of a doppelgänger, which has a long-standing history in films. What makes that idea so interesting for you?

Zheng: In this movie, the story is about everyone having his own mask. And at the beginning of the movie, I'm just acting like a self-indulgent man, a king who doesn't care about any politics. But in the last act of the movie, I'm more like an ambitious man. He has his own thoughts and opinions. He's going to control the country. So I think it's like Yin and Yang. No one is really evil and no one is really a good man. Everyone has his own ambition for power. Everyone is complicated.

What was your initial reaction when you saw the film for yourself?

Zheng: Actually, I just saw it in Venice, and I was shocked. Because when we shoot, we don't have the music, the sound. We don't know how the green background looks like. But when we see it in the cinema, it's the whole thing. I really enjoy it with everything together. The music is really good. Even the sound of the sword coming to the ground, even the rain — everything is really different from when we were shooting. I think it's really, really good.

Can you talk more about your experience shooting the film? What really stood out for you?

Zheng: The makeup. Every morning, we had to spend two-and-a-half hours for the makeup — the hair and the mustache and the costumes are very hard to put on. I think it's a great film for us, and I can keep it forever. It's something I want to keep for a long time. And it's a big step for me, because I've never had that kind of character before.

Last but not least, what other projects do you have coming up and what are you working on next?

Zheng: It's very hard to choose. After working with Zhang Yimou again [laughs] I have to choose something better. But for me, because I'm starting to be a producer, I hope I can do more movies for young people now in China, or different cultures. So the movie cannot be only for the Chinese audience. It's a time and a chance for us to go out of China, for the people of the world to know us. To know what's happening in China, what Chinese boys and girls think. It's time to do it, I think.

Shadow is now in limited release and opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto May 10th, 2019.

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