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Gong Li: Style and Substance

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Wherever you go in the world today, it's hard to avoid seeing Gong Li's face. The mainland China actress has now all but achieved world domination, having not only won the hearts of audiences at home and the admiration of the notoriously fickle film critics of Europe, but also conquering the Hollywood box office, with roles in the big budget blockbusters Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice. Despite being more than forty years of age, it is her, rather than younger starlets such as Zhang Ziyi, who has emerged as China's top acting export, after a career spanning nearly twenty years which has seen her working with all of the country's top directors, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Wong Kai War. She has been hailed by many as the Chinese Greta Garbo, in part due to her ethereal, enduring beauty and desire to keep her private life out of the public eye, though more importantly for her versatility and dedication as an actress.


As if these cinematic achievements, along with the multiple awards and accolades that have been bestowed upon her were not enough, she has cemented her status as a household name worldwide through performing a variety of high profile and diverse roles, including beauty ambassador for L'Oreal cosmetics, a UNESCO Artist for Peace, and an activist for free speech in the arts. As such, she is one of the few actresses in the world for whom the oft-quoted epithet "more than just a pretty face" is truly appropriate.


Gong Li was born the daughter of an economics professor on New Year's Eve, 1965, in Shenyang, though she grew up in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. As a child she dreamed of becoming a singer; after failing the entrance exams for China's top music school, however, she was admitted to the Central Drama Academy in Beijing in 1985. Although she didn't actually graduate until 1989, she caught the eye of director Zhang Yimou in 1987, who cast her as the lead in his first film, Red Sorghum while she was still a student. Despite her lack of experience, she was given the tough role of a young, timid woman whose father sells her into marriage with a leprous winemaker. Upon his death, she inherits the winery, and through force of will transforms it into a prosperous community of laborers, only to have her efforts threatened by the brutal Japanese invasion. The nationalistic film was a critical smash across the world, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and establishing director and star as the new voice and face of Chinese cinema.


Gong and Zhang continued to work together for many years, as well as carrying on a relationship which lasted until 1995. Their next films together were the hijack drama Codename Cougar in 1987, which Zhang co-directed, and then The Empress Dowager and The Terra Cotta Warrior, two period set romps in which they acted together. After these rather forgettable efforts, Gong starred in a series of more substantial films for the director, which saw her come to embody the struggle of Chinese women in modern society. The first of these was Ju Dou in 1990, which saw her playing a woman, married to a brutal mill owner in rural China, who has an affair with her young nephew with tragic consequences. Despite being set in the pre-communist 1920s, the film angered the Chinese government, which censored it on moral grounds. It was a great critical success on the international stage though, winning nominations at the Academy Awards and the Cannes Festival. At the heart of the film is Gong's acclaimed performance as a woman trapped by an increasingly hopeless situation, bringing a sense of longing and repressed sexuality that lends a real tension to the proceedings.


Ju Dou was followed by Raise the Red Lantern, in which Zhang cast her again as a woman who disrupts the social order, this time as the latest addition to a rich man's collection of wives. As an independently minded woman trapped by the rigid patriarchy of 1920s China and sucked into a never ending circle of scheming and betrayal, she fights back against her oppression with inevitably disastrous results. The film was the first to show Zhang's emerging style and use of color, with gorgeous set design and costumes, though it was still very much a character piece driven by Gong's powerful performance. Again censored in China, it furthered the reputation of the actress and director worldwide, picking up a variety of awards and nominations. Perhaps seeking a break from such dramatic material, or perhaps as an effort to capitalize on her growing stature, in 1991 she starred in notorious exploitation filmmaker Wong Jing's God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai alongside rising comic star Stephen Chow. Although the film is entertaining enough, Gong's role as a set of twins, one of whom is mentally retarded, was somewhat embarrassing, and is certainly not amongst her finest moments.


The Story of Qiu Ju, the next collaboration between Gong Li and Zhang Yimou in 1992, was arguably their best yet, venturing away from the director's previous heavy handed approach and showing a lighter, almost comical touch whilst achieving a very real and believable sense of social justice. The film saw Gong taking on the less than glamorous role of a pregnant peasant woman in present day rural China who obsessively pursues the righting of a wrong done to her husband by their village chief. Determined to give a realistic performance, the actress reportedly spent weeks in a similar village, learning the local dialect, an effort which is certainly visible on screen. The hard work paid off, winning her accolades at the Golden Rooster Awards in China and at the Venice Film Festival, where the film itself took the Golden Lion statue.


Although she also starred in Sylvia Chang's well-received drama Mary from Beijing in the same year, it was her next role, her first major undertaking away from Zhang Yimou, in Chen Kaige's 1993 epic Farewell My Concubine that proved to be a breakthrough for the actress, as she gave what many still regard as the best performance of her career. The classic film follows the fortunes of two opera performers, played by Zhang Fengyi and the legendary Leslie Cheung, through tumultuous twentieth century China, with Gong playing the woman who comes between them. Managing to combine political history with wonderfully human drama, the film was applauded by critics across the world, and became the first film from Mainland China to win the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, along with a slew of other awards. Gong is superb, convincingly bringing her complex character to life through a wide range of emotions with a performance that was ranked in 2006 by influential film magazine Premiere as being the 89th greatest of all time.


In 1993 she also returned to comedy in Flirting Scholar, again with Stephen Chow, this time in a wacky tale of mistaken identity and complex scheming. The entertaining film is certainly a step up for the actress compared to her last genre outing, though as expected she is largely relegated to the background, with Chow's usual antics dominating the proceedings. Still, it helped to further her box office appeal and allowed audiences to see a decidedly less serious side to the actress. 1994 was a busy year, with the actress not only starring in the drama The Great Conqueror's Concubine and fantasy wuxia nonsense Dragon Chronicles: the Maidens of Heavenly Mountain along with Brigitte Lin, but also re-teaming with Zhang Yimou for historical epic To Live. Based on a novel, the film follows the fortunes of a family, headed by Gong and actor Ge You, as they experience the communist uprising and the ensuing Cultural Revolution, facing heartbreak, tragedy, and ultimately acceptance. This time around, she took somewhat of a backseat to the male lead, perhaps unsurprisingly as the film was less of a character piece and more of a document of social history. Inevitably, it proved controversial in China, and saw the director and stars censured by the government, though it went on to win a variety of awards at the Cannes Festival amongst others.


1995 saw the last collaboration between Gong and Zhang for many years with the crime drama Shanghai Triad, which gave the actress a more glamorous role than usual as a nightclub singer and gangster's mistress. Although the film was technically well constructed with some stunning visuals, it lacked the depth of the pair's previous outings and despite winning a number of award nominations, is a comparatively minor effort. Despite the fact that it is apparently not remembered too fondly by the actress herself, it did at least give Gong a chance to show off her vocal talents during musical numbers, perhaps giving her a taste of her childhood dreams of being a singer. In the same year, she essayed the real life role of Pan Yuliang, the first Chinese woman artist to be recognized in Europe, for female director Huang Shuqin in A Soul Haunted by Painting, which also featured a brief appearance from rising star Zhao Wei. Unfortunately, although handsome and featuring a solid performance from Gong, the film is rather stilted and dull, and does not do justice to the fascinating subject matter. The same could be said about the 1996 film Temptress Moon, in which Gong again starred for director Chen Kaige with co-star Leslie Cheung, this time as a spoiled heiress who does little but smoke opium as her family goes to ruins. Whilst atmospheric and not without interest, the film is never substantial enough to ever truly grip, and inevitably suffers by comparison to the far superior Concubine.


Gong Li made her English language debut in 1997 in director Wayne Wang's Chinese Box, in which she co-starred with Jeremy Irons. Sadly, the film, which follows the handover of Hong Kong to China, never lives up to its potential, skimming over the surface of the complex situation and not giving any of its cast much to work with, a fact recognised by the actress herself who later said as much in interviews. Perhaps more memorable for Gong in the same year was being chosen as a member of the jury at the 50th Cannes Film Festival and serving alongside jury president Isabelle Adjani. This reflected her growing stature as a respected figure of world cinema, especially in Europe and France in particular, where in 1998 she was awarded the French government's "Officer des Arts et Lettres" for contributions to film.


The actress returned to China for her next two features, the first of which was Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin, which was the most expensive Chinese film to date. The historical epic follows two men, the emperor trying to unify feudal China and the man sworn to kill him, with Gong playing the woman whom both fall in love with. This was followed by the drama Breaking the Silence in 2000, which saw her take on the role of a struggling single mother who tries to earn enough money to buy a new hearing aid for her son. Although sad, the film has a light touch similar to that of The Story of Qiu Ju, with Gong giving another excellent performance which won her the Best Actress prize at both the Golden Rooster Awards and the Montreal World Film Festival. Over the next few years, Gong Li continued her role as an ambassador of Chinese cinema by appearing at a number of festivals, heading the juries of the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000, the Venice Film Festival in 2002, and the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2003. Despite all of this globetrotting, she managed to squeeze in the film Zhou Yu's Train with Tony Leung Ka Fai, although the film itself turned out to be rather lackluster.


In 2004 she worked twice with Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, starring in his segment of the international anthology Eros, and then in 2046, the spiritual follow up to his acclaimed 2001 hit In the Mood for Love. The latter saw the actress join an all-star cast which also included the likes of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Faye Wong, and Maggie Cheung, in a lavish production which boasted gorgeous cinematography from Christopher Doyle. Despite the fact that no one could actually seem to work out what the film was about, most critics happily labelled it as another example of the director's trademark visual lyricism, and it went on to garner a wealth of awards at festivals around the world.


After a false start with the disappointing Chinese Box, Gong Li finally made her presence felt in Hollywood with Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, Chicago director Rob Marshall's adaptation of the rather obsessive book by Arthur Golden. Although the film didn't enjoy either commercial or critical success, being a typically overblown production with scant regard to historical reality or the ethnicity of its cast, it served well enough as a calling card for the actress in the West, and her performance was regarded by many as one of the film's few good points. The popularity and respect enjoyed by the actress back in China was again underlined, as she managed to avoid the same kind of hostility directed at starlet Zhang Ziyi for taking on the role of a Japanese prostitute. Despite being decidedly underwhelming, the film led to her next Hollywood role, the Chinese-Cuban mistress of a drug baron in director Michael Mann's remake of his own 1980s television series Miami Vice. Featured alongside A-list actors Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, the role certainly proved to be challenging for the actress, not least since it involved her having to speak English with a Cuban accent, but she was able to more than hold her own.


With her latest film, Curse of the Golden Flower, which marks her first with Zhang Yimou in ten years, already earning her a Best Actress award from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, the future looks bright for Gong Li. Her Hollywood career continues to blossom with a role in Hannibal Rising, the latest installment in the Silence of the Lambs series, with plenty of other offers on the table. As one of the few actresses who is versatile, talented, and indeed respected enough to work in almost any country in the world, audiences everywhere can expect to see even more of Gong Li in the years to come.


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Published February 12, 2007


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