It's one of those Washington things. You'd know it in a second. It's a "big event," generated entirely by large entities as they lumber through the universe in search of small amounts of leverage to use against each other. "Entities?" The corporations, governments, departments, associations, all those, er, units hiding behind monumental buildings on K or 16th or Massachusetts with their logos and receptionists and discreet plantings and high-end office suites, which never seem to make or sell anything, yet somehow, mysteriously, are at the center of power.
So it is with the "China Film Festival -- 2006 U.S.A.," which has been brokered by a litany of entities: the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Geographic Society, the China Film Bureau, among others, and from which everybody benefits, everybody has fun, everybody experiences a frisson of goodwill. Does it help the prospect of world peace? Probably not, but maybe it cuts down DVD pirating by 0.005 percent. It may also be a part of a Chinese Foreign Ministry charm offensive to coincide with President Hu Jintao's visit.
What can be seen is: important men in well-fitting dark suits dominating one end of an auditorium in a building as solid as Earth itself. All hair is trim. Age: roughly 40 through 65. It is the face of professional Washington. Some are American, some are Chinese; but after a bit you cannot tell them apart.
This is the opening event of the "festival" (most of which was closed to the public): A parliament of speakers was convened and a lot of words were spoken along the lines of this actual quote, "Therefore we can say that the film community is a bridge which can shorten the distance between countries." Blah, blah, or, to make the point more precise, blah, blah and, of course, blah.
However, in all this official celebration and meshing of big gears, the oil of well-paid smilers and handshakers . . . there was a moment when it all went away.
I mean vanished, as if vaporized. The whole entity-oriented assemblage of purpose-driven pilgrims, doing business in the capital of the free world on a rainy Monday morning, doing important work -- bingo. Gone.
Longtime observers are familiar with the phenomenon: As a part of the quest for attention and respect, Entities A, B and C will somehow get Celebrity A to join them, and Celebrity A's presence briefly galvanizes the dreariest, most corporate of events.
In this case, that celebrity is the 27-year-old daughter of an economist and a kindergarten teacher, a slight but not short (or tall) young woman of regal bearing and lively, intelligent eyes who seems almost a little embarrassed that such focus is beamed so brightly on her. Call it good breeding or good genes, but the moment when she enters National Geographic's Grosvenor Auditorium for her part in the "panel" (I can't stop using quotation marks!) you sense an audible gasp, the oxygen level in the room seems to dip as everyone sucks up an extra-large lungful of raw air, and then the flashbulbs start cracking off.
Standing nearby is Dan Glickman in a very nice suit as bespeaks the president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, and, guess what, nobody cares. He's a very important guy, but right now he's just another Joe Doakes with his mouth hanging open. He's also something he's never been before: He's in the way. Get out of the way, big boy, so we can see her!
Standing nearby is also the important Chinese official Zhang Pimin, bearing the exalted rank of China Film Bureau deputy director general, also in a very well-fitting suit, a man of dignity and power and prestige, and nobody cares. And it would help if the general would amscray, too; he's in the way.
Yours truly was sitting about 30 rows back, doing his usual imitation of Adlai Stevenson on a really fat day, and as exquisitely self-tuned as I am, I immediately ceased to notice myself, much less brood on my ample, deeply interesting problems.
For Ms. Zhang had come to Washington.
Star of heaven, star of night, blind us with your wondrous light. And she did.
Western audiences first saw Ziyi Zhang (that's her name Westernized, now permanently, from its Chinese form, Zhang Ziyi) in the phenomenally successful "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," of 2000, in which she was a sprite of martial-arts energy, all adorable, headstrong cuteness and ambition. To see her was to love her instantly, forever.
Oh, it gets better.
No one else from "Crouching Tiger" stayed big for long -- including poor Chow Yun-Fat, once the biggest star in all the world except the Americas -- but Zhang continued to prosper. She zoomed through "Rush Hour 2," she appeared in "Hero," then two years ago she blew the roof off in a romantic knife rhapsody called "House of Flying Daggers," in which she cavorted with a dancer's grace and a wood fairy's magic and a siren's beauty and won the hearts and minds of millions. Hollywood beckoned; soon she was fronting Steven Spielberg's production (Rob Marshall directed) of the phenomenal bestseller "Memoirs of a Geisha," at the very center of a major advertising campaign that featured her perfect features behind a pair of blue contact lenses.
Now she's here, lifting a wan wave and a brave smile in her Washington premiere, offering soporific quotes from behind the dais at the actual event. Other Ziyi obligations of the week included lunches and dinners, a screening of "House of Flying Daggers," standing still for the eternal pressing of flesh and unwanted eye contact that is at the heart of an official public appearance. And somewhere in there a sit-down with all the Johnny Reporters of Our Media Age, of whom there is, for unfathomable reasons, only one.
This lucky fellow finds himself alone with her -- but for a translator and a photographer; and next to her on a couch where she proves surprisingly warm and funny, yet at the same time a committed saleswoman for her client, the Chinese film industry.
She's wearing -- if you must know -- a black taffeta knee skirt, full and billowy, almost like a crinoline petticoat; a kind of tan tunic over a tank top; some discreet diamonds around the neck and on a big-faced wristwatch. Her hair is a thick cascade almost down to the waist, raven black. Her skin is unbearably flawless, her legs lithe and muscular. Are we missing anything? Sigh. Yeah, she also smells really good.
She looks -- well, a humble newsroom hack could try for years and never get her right, so let's turn to poets, who know a thing or two about adjective-slinging.
Ezra Pound, before he went mad as a March hare, played with the Japanese form of haiku and came up with: "Petals on a wet, black bough."
That gets the extraordinary clarity of her beauty, the way it cuts through fog and light and buzz to assert itself. The neck has vaselike grace; the skin must be silk, the face, with its fine porcelain bones, suggests another tiny perfect dynamo, Audrey Hepburn, though intensified by virtue of the Asian DNA information at play throughout. Who knew they made waists that tiny, limbs that smooth?
"Beauty can pierce one like a pain" -- Thomas Mann, expressing in seven words what the above dozen odd paragraphs grope toward.
"I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?" -- the humorist Jean Kerr.
She knows all this, or at least she must.
We have to speak. It is part of the "interview," is it not, the idea that the reporter throws Q's and the subjects responds with A's?
Of course, my mind goes totally Zen. Empty of all. A perfect stillness, otherwise known as the Big Duh. I am no longer the doughnut, I am the hole.
Then finally a Q: Everywhere you go, lights, attention, flashbulbs, people pressing toward you. Yet there must be another you who looks at all that with suspicion.
Wait a second: She is not asked that. She answers that, but what she was asked was something like, "As a film star, you're a citizen of the world; yet you appear here in an official capacity as a representative of your country. Do you see any contradiction to the roles?"
"When I walk on a red carpet," she says, in English, though at times she diverts to Chinese for the translator to handle the subtler ideas, "and there's all the excitement, I am thinking only, 'It's a part of my job.' But I know: it's not me. It's for my work. It's part of what I do, and what I really enjoy is the process of making film. Every single shot, I give my best effort. That is my true self."
The process is not easy.
"Every time I accept a role, I have to feel I'm right for it. I like to take a long time -- two months, sometimes -- to get to know the character. On paper, it's flat; the character doesn't jump out. I think of it as a dress; you have to find the right person to wear it. Every time I put on a dress, I hope I can carry it well. So it is with a character; you have to try it on, get comfortable with it."
She is not a trained martial artist, but is a trained dancer -- and in her two biggest successes, she says, her dance background has been quite helpful.
"I had six years of dance. . . . I can express myself through movement very well. But it was perfect timing when I stopped. I was ready to find something else."
The something else occurred when she was chosen in a blind audition by the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou for a hair commercial, of all things. But quickly enough, she'd caught the eye of Ang Lee and made her international debut (her second film) in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as the feisty, young Jen Yu.
She'd work with Zhang Yimou, of course, in "House of Flying Daggers."
But now, "I'm looking for something I have never tried. Something new for me." She has nothing set. Perhaps this is a reflection of fatigue after the rigors of "Memoirs of a Geisha."
Next question: Speaking of things you've never tried, have you ever considering giving up your career and running off to Idaho with a fat, bald man 30 years older than you with a very nice gun collection?
No, no, no. Of course not. It was something hopelessly banal like, "Could you tell me about how hard that experience was?"
"It was a very long-lasting process. There were so many expectations from all the people involved. I could not let them down. There are so many Asian actors and to give us -- three Chinese women [Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh were the other two] -- a chance made us very conscious of our responsibilities."
As for the controversial casting of Chinese women as Japanese, when memories of World War II in Asia have yet to disappear, she says, "I didn't think of the politics. I just thought of it as a great chance for us as artists. It was hard to learn the Geisha ways, to be another person so different from myself. I'm proud of what we did. We did pretty good work."
Since then she's made but one film, a Chinese version of "Hamlet" called "The Banquet."
"I hope you like it," she says.
Big Critic thinks: I will. Oh, I will!
The offers since haven't been fabulous. "They now offer me stereotypical roles -- waitresses, victims, the poor girl who is sold. I want something else, which is why I take my time."
And she's wary of the Hollywood system, where the flattery quotient is higher ("Chinese directors never praise you") but so is the treachery.
"You have to have a balanced view, a neutral view of what's happening. People flatter you. You have to maintain integrity. I don't feel as though I'm a part of Hollywood. I feel like I'm just passing through."
And on that note, the adventure of Ziyi Zhang is over. She is fetched, she must return. Swarms of men and women in suits sweep down like Brooks Brothers ninjas to take her away, and as she steps out in public view again, the flash strobes begin to pop, a hungry public begins to press inward.
I watch her swallowed by the crowd and I think: God, what an adorable pancreas.