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'Grandmaster' Ziyi Zhang: 'I Can Do Better Than Just Kicking Ass'

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Actress Ziyi Zhang is probably best known for her roles in the Oscar-winning films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha. Now she co-stars in a new film, The Grandmaster, where she plays a fierce martial artist who stops at nothing to protect her family's legacy. But she says she can "do better than just kicking ass." She can seriously act, too.

The Grandmaster, which opens in theaters Friday, is inspired by the life of Ip Man, the legendary kung fu master and teacher of Bruce Lee. The film takes place after the fall of China's last dynasty. It was a time of political chaos and war, but also the golden age of Chinese martial arts.

Zhang explains to Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee that the film is about the struggle to become a kung fu grandmaster and the tension of forbidden love. She also talks about how women are portrayed in kung fu movies, and why she still won't move to Hollywood.

Interview Highlights

On a strong woman's "love at first fight"

"She's a very strong lady. You know in the old days in China, females were not allowed to learn kung fu. But Gong Er's father taught her secretly, and she became a grandmaster. Her father not only taught her physical skills, but more importantly, she learned how to be herself, know herself and do what she feels is right.

"So for the character, when she first met Ip Man, I think, they fall in love immediately because they had a huge fight. But that fight — at the end — somehow it becomes very romantic. I call the scene 'love at first fight.' "

On how her dance background helped with martial arts training for the film

"I learned folk dance when I was 11 years old. I went to Beijing Dance Academy. I think that experience helped me a lot. But for this movie, we had very intense training. It was like eight hours a day. I had three different masters to teach me different kung fu skills."

On being part of director Wong Kar-wai's vision

"Wong Kar-wai, you just cannot say 'no' to him. As soon as he called me, I say 'yes.' It's like Steven Spielberg offer you a role, and you say 'yes' right away. So I knew it would take a long time to shoot, but what I didn't know was it took three years."

On how women are portrayed in kung fu movies

"I think kung fu films now are very different from kung fu films before. The Grandmaster is clearly a multilayered film. Women play an important role. I think society has changed, too, so I experienced this. I think I'm really lucky.

"My character has a line. She says, 'Let's be clear. You didn't return it to me. I took it back myself!' So I think the message is really strong and all the women can relate to her.

"I really identified with my character, Gong Er. I think every single woman has a Gong Er in her. They just have to find it.

On why she still won't move to Hollywood

"I think I'm still waiting for the right project because I'm often offered roles, but they all look similar. I think I can do better than just kicking ass. That's why I really appreciate, you know, a few years ago I got this opportunity to do Memoirs of a Geisha. I think that's the open window for us to show the world that we can really act, not only just, you know, do the action part."

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