Crouching Tiger Shooting Star : Zhang Ziyi Can Kick, Swing a Sword and Throw Jackie Chan. No Wonder Hollywood Loves Her

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Zhang Ziyi never dreamed she'd spend her 21st birthday in a Las Vegas casino. But then, the Chinese actress probably didn't imagine she'd be costarring with Jackie Chan in an American action film, either. Or, for that matter, deciding what to wear to the Oscars next month. Nonetheless, those are the circumstances she found herself in two weeks ago. During a break from filming inside the Desert Inn casino, the cast and crew of "Rush Hour 2" burst out singing "Happy Birthday" to Zhang, who plays a high-kicking, crimson-fingernailed villain. Chan gave her a necklace; director Brett Ratner gave her heart-shaped Cartier diamond earrings. "Jackie and I competed to outdo each other," he jokes. "I told Ziyi, 'I'll put you in my next movie.' Then Jackie said, 'I'll put you in my next three movies'."

They're not the only ones clamoring for Zhang. Ever since she starred in Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home" three years ago, the glossy-haired actress with the warm smile and the dancer's physique has been winning kudos--and ardent fans. Currently, she gives a captivating turn as a rebellious fighter in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the lyrical martial-arts film by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee. Last week "Crouching Tiger" snared 10 Oscar nominations--a record number for a foreign film--including best film and best director. At the same time it became North America's highest-grossing foreign-language film ever, topping $62 million to beat out Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful." Which explains why, during a break in filming "Rush Hour 2," Jackie Chan is ordering Zhang a custom- made gown, barking questions into his mobile phone. "Do you want it low- cut in the front?" he asks her. "No, Chinese-style," she says, "with a little Mandarin collar." "How about low-cut in the back, showing your bottom?" Chan jokes. Zhang fires back, "Better yet, have it push my bosom up in the front!" She giggles. Plopping into an armchair, Zhang shakes her head. "It's like a dream," she says in Mandarin.

Zhang's rapid rise parallels that of China's film industry. Little more than two decades ago communist Beijing limited public cinema fare to "revolutionary operas," starring the favorite performers of Chairman Mao Zedong or his wife, Jiang Qing. Only after Mao's death in 1976 did China fling open its doors to outside investment, allowing the mainland movie trade to return to making films for entertainment. Since then, Chinese films have become increasingly popular in the United States: Zhang Yimou's "Raise the Red Lantern" for its sumptuous sets, Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" for its rich emotion, and today's martial-arts extravaganzas for their gravity-defying action. Mainland director Zhang Yang calls the West's growing fascination with the East "China Fever."

Now "Crouching Tiger" proves that a Chinese-language film can become a blockbuster. Its success came as an unexpected triumph for Ang Lee, who has demonstrated a gift for transcending cultural differences to get at the universal emotions beneath his subjects, in films ranging from "The Ice Storm" to "Sense and Sensibility." "Crouching Tiger" also resonates among many Asians because of Zhang's portrayal of Jen Yu, the willful daughter of a wealthy official who defies her family to pursue her passion for swordplay and adventure. Paradoxically, the film has been less of a sensation on the mainland. But no film can count on becoming a hit in China, where a prolific video- and DVD-counterfeiting industry regularly sabotages the box office. …