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(Yonhap Interview) Chinese actress Zhao Tao: Portraying life in mobster territory was most difficult

All Headlines 11:44 October 06, 2018

By Shim Sun-ah

BUSAN, Oct. 6 (Yonhap) -- Zhao Tao, the wife and favorite actress of Jia Zhangke, has starred in all of feature films by the celebrated Chinese filmmaker since "Platform" in 2000.

In her latest collaboration with Jia, "Ash is Purest White," Zhao plays a young woman, Qiao Qiao, from a coal mining town who falls in love with a low-level local gangster, Bin. When Bin is attacked on the street by other gang members, she fires a gun that she illegally acquired to save him and is sentenced to five years in jail.

Chinese actress Zhao Tao of "Ash is Purest White" poses during an interview with Yonhap News Agency during the 23rd Busan International Film Festival in Busan on Oct. 5, 2018. (Yonhap)

"I think the most difficult thing about this role is having to portray life in a gangster underworld called 'jianghu'," Zhao said during an interview on Friday with Yonhap News Agency at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival. "Since I had nobody around me who belongs to the world, I needed many references to study the character."

And then she found the true story of a famous Chinese gangster woman, Xu Aizhen, who worked for an underground gang in Shanghai in '30s and '40s. "She married a gangster man, was convicted of spying for Japan during World War II. And then she married another gangster, went to prison and ran away to Japan ... Her life helped me imagine all about Qiao."

Playing a woman at three different stages of life in "Ash," ranging from a 20-something dancer to a gangster woman in her 40s, was equally difficult, according to her.

"For me, showing how Qiao is changed from a naive young woman to a strong woman who lives in a man-centric gangster underworld was tremendously important. I found all these were quite attractive, but it was really difficult to act."

Chinese actress Zhao Tao of "Ash is Purest White" poses during an interview with Yonhap News Agency during the 23rd Busan International Film Festival in Busan on Oct. 5, 2018. (Yonhap)

Out of prison, Qiao tracks down the boyfriend who never visited her in jail and has moved to a town near Three Gorges Dam. That is where the road movie of Qiao starts. She meets various people on the road with the rapidly changing nation in the background like the main characters in "Still Life" (2006) do.

"We actually traveled over 7,000 kilometers all over China while shooting the film for over six months. So we actors had to repeatedly pack and unpack for each spot."

Maintaining the same tone and quality of acting during the long trip was challenging, she recalled.

During the interview, Zhao also spoke about how she was discovered and cast for Jia's "Platform".

The director was looking for a native speaker of the Shanxi provincial dialect who could dance because the film follows a group of twenty-something performers from a small town in the province as they face personal and societal changes.

"I was a dance teacher at a college when Jia visited the school to pick one of my students for the film. When I came out of class, his assistant director told me that Jia wanted to work with me. So, I was picked at the final stage of the audition."

A still from "Ash is Purest White" provided by Busan International Film Festival. (Yonhap)

When she worked on "Still Life," Zhao quit her teaching job and moved to Beijing to become a full-time actor.

After that, she worked on films with a British director and an Italian director. She said these experiences gave her a better understanding of acting and changed the way that she collaborated with the director.

"Before, I had no idea if my acting was good or bad. But when I returned to Jia's team after having many different experiences overseas I came to have lots of things to talk about. When we talk with the director, we usually sit together and discuss how to fill in the blanks in the script or suggest new ideas for each scene," she said.

The project, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May to critical acclaim, was screened in Busan on Friday evening.


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