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Zhang Fengyi: Staging Another Career Success
It seemed that film star Zhang Fengyi was destined to only enjoy great success every 10 years.

Starring as Xiangzi, in the "Rickshaw Boy" (Luotuo Xiangzi) in 1982, Zhang Fengyi won over millions of movie-goers with his performance and the film became an instant national hit.

A decade later and Zhang won fame with another film "Farewell My Concubine" ({Bawang Bieji}), which co-starred Gong Li and late Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung. The film, directed by renowned Chinese film director Chen Kaige, was acclaimed as a masterpiece and earned numerous praise from all over the world.

Earlier this month, Zhang won the plaudits once again, this time on stage instead of screen. He was given the Plum Blossom Award - the top award in drama and opera circles in China - for his performance in the drama "The Dawns are Quiet Here" ({Zheli De Liming Jingqiaoqiao}).

After spending more than 20 years appearing in films and TV series, the 47-year-old actor again fulfilled his potential in performing art.

"The Dawns are Quiet Here" is based on the novel of the same title written by Russian writer Boris Vasilyev. It depicts a small group of five young Russian women soldiers under a male commander in World War II.

Directed by director Zha Mingzhe, the play was the first production of the National Drama Theatre of China, which was founded at the end of 2001. Through this play, the theatre expected to get off to a flying start.

"That's why I had to be very picky in choosing the right actors and actresses," said Zha, adding that the storyline was relatively well-known among households in China since the Russian film of the same title was shown in China in the mid-1980s.

"Zhang is the Vaskov in my mind - simple, honest and humorous," Zha said of the character of Vaskov, the women soldiers' male commander played by Zhang Fengyi.

Zhang did not let down the expectations of the director. The play was widely acclaimed after its debut in Beijing in May. And his towering performance was applauded by the audience, as well as members of the appraisal committee of the Plum Blossom Awards.

Zhang was invited last week to "Dongfang Zhizi ( People in the Orient)", a popular TV show on CCTV, the largest national broadcasting company in China. Zhang was confronted by the anchor with an aggressive question: "Do you think it was your established fame, instead of your acting skills, that helped you win the award?"

Zhang put the answer in a simple and confident way.

"I will not comment on this, but if that's what you think, you are not very respectful of the appraisal committee," he said.

Zhang admitted his confidence comes from hard work. It is also the subject of a joke spread by his colleagues.

In "The Dawns are Quiet Here," Vaskov needs to lift Zhenia, a woman soldier played by actress Zhang Kaili. In order to strengthen his muscles so he can lift Zhang Kaili, Zhang Fengyi joined a fitness club and went to the gymnasium three or four days a week. His friends all joked that he should ask the theatre to pay his fees.

Comparing drama with TV series and films, Zhang said the biggest difference is in the volume. On stage, actors are supposed to speak louder - but not to the extent of exaggeration.

Having not appeared on the stage for 20 years, Zhang said he felt a strangeness at the beginning. But with the help of the experience he has accumulated over the past two decades, the acting veteran soon overcame this initial feeling and felt at home when playing Vaskov.

It seems that Zhang was born to act. He is quite satisfied with his life as an actor.

He did have some chances to switch to become a director.

Deng Jianguo, the boss of one of the largest private TV and film production companies, once invited him to direct a 20-part TV series. On another occasion he received a similar offer when the director of a TV series in which he was starring fell ill.

He turned down all those offers, believing that acting, which he began as a career at 14, was the most suitable for him.

In 1970, Zhang joined a local art troupe in Dongchuan, a city in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, where he was born.

During the first two years with the troupe, he practised Peking Opera. And over the following two years, he focused on dancing.

The troupe was relatively small, and all members were required to be versatile. Zhang also learned many other art-related skills, such as crosstalk and local operas.

In 1978, after the decade-long "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) had ended and the national college entrance examination was resumed , Zhang's father encouraged him to sit the exam.

He was admitted by Beijing Film Academy, the Alma Matar to most big names in China's movie circles.

That was the first stage in his transition from an ordinary actor in a small local troupe to a screen star.

Four years later, Zhang arrived at another crossroads. He earned the chance to join the crew of "Rickshaw Boy," starring as Xiangzi. The film became an instant national hit, and Zhang's name became known.

After delivering a subtle performance in "Farewell My Concubine" in 1993 as Peking Opera actor Duan Xiaolou, Zhang's fame became established in Hong Kong as well as regions outside the Chinese mainland.

In addition to movies, Zhang also appeared in TV series.

In 1997, his performance as a PLA special forces chief in "Peace Time" ({Heping Niandai}) landed him China's top TV acting award. Zhang was so confident in his acting that he said in public: "No one will play a PLA officer better than me in five years in China."

With a height of 185cm and a strong body, Zhang has the image of a "tough guy", and seems to be the best candidate to play roles such as soldiers or policemen.

His personality matches with that image well: he is persistent, both physically and mentally strong, honest and responsible.

"Actually I am very shy and coy in public," Zhang said. "Generally speaking I prefer to stay alone. It makes me feel quite uneasy to read my name in newspapers, or watch myself appearing on the television screen."

(China Daily April 25, 2003)

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