An actress of almost eerie, otherworldly beauty and simmering intensity, Zhang Ziyi burst onto the international film scene with her role as the governor's daughter in Ang Lee's acclaimed martial arts adventure Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Stunningly convincing despite her lack of martial arts skills, Zhang's dramatic talents were equally impressive, and she was soon cast in such highly regarded films as Zhang Yimou's Hero and big-budget stateside efforts as Rush Hour 2. Born in Beijing to a working-class family that included her economist father, kindergarten teacher mother, and an older brother, Zhang found creative outlets early with dancing and gymnastics. At the age of 11, she was accepted into a secondary school affiliated with the acclaimed Beijing Dancing College. Though her skills earned Zhang numerous awards there, she soon became frustrated with the pressures of school and began seeking other creative outlets. At 15, she enrolled in Beijing's Central Drama Academy, where she finally seemed to find her niche. Fate sealed the deal when the aspiring actress auditioned for a role in a shampoo commercial directed by acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and after working with her, the veteran director thought her ideal for the lead in his upcoming movie The Road Home (2000). Cast as a young girl who falls in love with an older teacher, the film won international praise, in addition to numerous awards.
If The Road Home had been her breakthrough, her next film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, brought her even more exposure and fame. With few martial arts skills, Zhang utilized her dancing to perfect the moves needed for the physically challenging role. Though the actress began learning English in hopes of breaking into the Hollywood scene, her first major role in the West, ironically, found her speaking her native Chinese (which was subtitled in English). Parts in such high-profile Chinese features as Zu Warriors and Musa (both 2001) followed, and in 2002, Zhang once again stepped before the camera for Zhang Yimou in the visually dazzling, historical martial arts drama Hero. In addition to earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Zhang Ziyi was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2003, she took the lead for the political drama Purple Butterfly. Later that year, she accepted a supporting role in the popular action comedy sequel My Wife Is a Gangster 2. The actress appeared in no less than three films in 2004, including Wong Kar-Wai's romantic sci-fi drama 2046.
She continued her impressive ascent with hits like House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), which were both nominated for Academy Awards and earned Zhang back-to-back BAFTA nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In 2007, she provided the voice for Karai in TMNT. Zhang had another critically-acclaimed hit with The Grandmaster in 2013, and starred in John Woo's epic The Crossing in 2014.