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NEW YORK — After watching Ziyi Zhang slink and strut her way through director Wong Kar Wai’s intoxicating visual stunner, “2046,” as the prostitute Bai Ling, one expects to find someone much more world weary than the energetic wisp of a girl folded delicately into a chair at the Regency Hotel. Gone are the come-hither glances and temperamental outbursts, replaced by the shy smiles and frequent giggles of someone seemingly younger than her 26 years.

“It was very difficult because this character was so far from me: the background, the experience, her age, her life … everything was just totally another person,” the Chinese actress explains in halting, accented English (with occasional promptings from her translator, Ling). “I was nervous if I would have the ability to do a good job for him [Wong] and he encouraged me a lot.” Zhang is perhaps best known here for her martial-arts heavy roles in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” in which her balletic moves and burning screen presence helped launch contemporary Chinese cinema into the American cultural consciousness. In “2046,” Wong’s follow-up to his “In the Mood for Love,” set primarily in Sixties Hong Kong and costarring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Gong Li and Faye Wong, Zhang gets to demonstrate a more sophisticated, womanly dimension.

Although it did not require the two months of fight training that preceded her other films, the physical preparation for “2046” was equally challenging. “I took a dance course for two months. I learned go-go, cha-cha, mambo, all the different kinds imaginable from the Sixties,” says Zhang. “I brought the high-heel shoes home and just practiced how to walk, to walk like a prostitute. I got a big mirror and just stood there, looking at myself, and 100 times just walked back and forth.”

Surely, her background as a dancer came in handy. Born in Beijing, a city she still calls home, Zhang began studying at the Beijing Dance Academy when she was 11 and later turned to drama. She was discovered at a shampoo commercial casting by Zhang Yimou, who later gave her the lead in his 1999 film, “The Road Home.”

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A bona fide celebrity in China, complete with the famous boyfriend (Eric Fok Kai-shan, grandson of one of the most prominent Hong Kong tycoons) and invasions of privacy (this past June, her mobile phone number was posted on the Internet, along with those of 600 other Chinese entertainers), Zhang is poised for a Hollywood breakout when she stars in Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” opening in December.

While shooting the film in Los Angeles, she barely left her room, but did manage to fit in some serious road time in a rental car. Is she a speed demon?

“No,” says Ling, before her charge can respond.

“Yes,” says a blushing Zhang, who admits to having also received a parking ticket. As for other pastimes, the actress, though not a clotheshorse like many of her contemporaries, did manage to take in the Dior couture show earlier this month where, she says, eyes widening, “I couldn’t breathe.”

Even as her international star grows, Zhang is keenly aware of the dearth of interesting roles for Asian actresses in America. Her next project will be “Night Banquet” a Chinese film loosely based on “Hamlet,” in which she will play Empress Gertrude. “I got a lot of offers from Hollywood, you know, action movies or the typical Asian girl roles they give to me,” she says, her soft-spoken voice turning biting on “typical Asian girl.” “I appreciate it, but that’s not what I want to do. I want a challenge, something with more of a story, more depth.”

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