Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu, who is in Cannes with Anthony Chen’s Un Certain Regard title The Breaking Ice, has had a fairytale career trajectory.
Although she had no desire to act, she was plucked from obscurity by Zhang Yimou when still a high school student in 2010, and became one of China’s most respected young actresses, with a string of award-winning films.
She agreed to star in The Breaking Ice as soon as Chen called her and before he’d even written the script. She’d worked with him before on short film The Break Away, part of Neon-produced anthology The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, which Chen had directed remotely during the pandemic.
“He called and said he wanted to shoot a film in China, quite quickly over the winter, because he had a month free when another project was postponed,” Zhou tells Deadline. “I agreed immediately because we’d both said we wanted to work on a feature together. He told me the basic outline of the story and sent me a list of ten films to watch.”
The list included French New Wave classics, Jules And Jim by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande A Parte, both films that Chen says inspired The Breaking Ice. Liu Haoran and Qu Chuxiao also star in the film, about three young people who drift together and bond over an alcohol-fuelled weekend in a small city in the frozen borderland between China and North Korea.
Critics are lauding the film as an intimate portrait of China’s Gen-Z, who often appear adrift and disappointed by life, especially when compared to the economic boom times enjoyed by the previous generation.
“We moved very fast from that first phone call into shooting,” says Zhou, who had also worked previously with Liu, on Zhang Ji’s Fire On The Plain (2021), which premiered at San Sebastian film festival. “Anthony was revising the script as we were shooting, so it was a very spontaneous process. We were sometimes waiting until midnight the day before shooting for the final script.”
None of which would have phased Zhou, who in a 13-year career has already worked with some of China’s top filmmakers and won multiple awards, including Best Actress at Spain’s Valladolid International Film Festival for her debut in Zhang’s Under The Hawthorn Tree (2010), and Best Leading Actress at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards for Derek Tsang’s Soulmate (2016).
She also won Best Actress at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and Asian Film Awards for Tsang’s Better Days, which was nominated for Best International Feature at the Oscars in 2021.
China likes to categorize its actors and filmmakers in generations, and Zhou is known as one of the ‘Four Dan Actresses of the Post-90s Generation’, along with Yang Zi, Zheng Shuang and Guan Xiaotong.
She was discovered by Zhang’s team while attending a college entrance exam in Nanjing – one of his scouts asked her for a photo and a few days later she received a phone call asking her to travel to Beijing.
“I thought it might be a scam, and I’d just be meeting a con artist pretending to be a famous director, but I decided to go anyway to check it out,’ says Zhou, who grew up in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, which is a short journey from Beijing. “Everyone else at the audition brought along one person, but I was there with about five or six people from my family.”
Being discovered by one of China’s biggest directors certainly helped launch her career – Zhang is also credited with discovering major stars Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi – although not every actress he’s found has gone on to find fame and accolades.
But Zhou has carved her own path since her debut and stands out as a genuinely talented actress. She’s known for playing strong female characters and bringing depth to roles even in mainstream comedies, where she could get away with just looking pretty. However, in most of her films, she’s played quite complex characters. She’s also worked with some of Greater China’s leading women directors, including Barbara Wong, Clara Law and Rene Liu.
“I’ve been lucky with the roles I’ve been offered, but then I also think there are many talented filmmakers, both men and women, in Chinese cinema, who know how to write for female characters,” she observes.
“I lean towards more realistic stories and characters – roles that are meaningful and stay with the audience long after they’ve watched them, otherwise what is the point in making films?”
She says there is also a new generation of young Chinese female filmmakers that are worth watching out for. Her upcoming films include Tainted Love, the debut feature of Spain-based Chinese female director Ma Yingxin. Already in post-production, the film also contains a threesome of sorts, in the story of a woman who moves to a small town and encounters two men who may have previously tricked her in a romance scam.
“I like growing together with these talented young Chinese female directors,” Zhou says.
Her upcoming films also include a second outing with Zhang Yimou, more than a decade since he first discovered her, corruption-themed crime thriller Under The Light, one of many films stuck in China’s bottleneck of local productions, but expected to be released later this year.
“I’m really glad he wanted to work me again and looking forward to the film, which should be released very soon,” she says.