ZHANG JING CHU
She is a student at China's prestigious Central Academy of Drama, Zhang Jingchu had no idea how to be a tree. Watching her classmates dutifully undertake their assignment by emoting oak, willow and birch, Zhang stood rooted to the ground—but in a distinctly untreelike fashion. "I was so scared," she says. "I had a lot of passion inside me, but I didn't know how to unlock it and act."
Since then, international audiences have glimpsed Zhang in Peacock, a finely wrought coming-of-age tale that captured top honors at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and Seven Swords, a swashbuckling epic that opened the Venice Film Festival in August. Both reveal just how well the 25-year-old Chinese actress can unlock her passion. Zhang doesn't just act; she displays a smoldering luminosity that keeps the camera longing for her even after she has exited the scene. Though Zhang may resemble many of China's interchangeable celluloid cuties—bamboo-slender physique, doe eyes, knife-edge cheekbones—her acting has a seasoned intelligence that sets her apart from other "it" girls. (Think Nicole Kidman in one of her sultry, librarian-let-loose turns.)
What's more, her fluent English could mean that a Chinese star named Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Rush Hour 2) won't be the only crossover Zhang to win global acclaim. For a newly resurgent nation that wants to measure up to the West, Zhang, with her taste for traditionally-inspired dress and her reverence for ancient Chinese aphorisms, may very well be the perfect ambassador.
Zhang's next project is an East-West collaboration with Finnish director AJ Annila called Jade Warrior. It marries Finland's national epic Kalevala with kung fu adventure and Chinese mythology, and Zhang hopes it will "make European people understand that Chinese women may seem demure but they are as strong as Western women." Her own parents learned that lesson when they tried to steer their daughter toward a more stable profession, like teaching. "They come from a generation that doesn't like to take risks," says Zhang. "But for people my age, we have to try new things, even crazy things, so we can find what we love." Anything crazy, that is, apart from channeling the spirit of a tree.