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Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi under the Western Gaze

Written by Siu Heng Tell a Friend

"The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." - Edward W. Said, Orientalism

The late scholar Edward W. Said (1935-2003), founder of post-colonial criticism, pointed out in his influential work Orientalism (1978) that since the 17th Century, Western literature and academic studies about "the Orient" were founded upon imagination of the East, constructing it as "the Other." In these discourses, which implied the colonizer's power over the colonized, "the Orient" in fact represented certain characteristics (such as decadence, backwardness, sensuality) repudiated by the West, but paradoxically also became a mysterious, exotic, and seductive object of desire.

Despite Said's original focus on the misrepresentation of the Middle East, Orientalism can still be insightful in analyzing the representation of China or the Far East in films. Many of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi's works, from Zhang Yimou films to the current Memoirs of a Geisha, may serve to illustrate this point, or may even demonstrate a more complex situation. By this I do not mean to criticize Gong Li's and Zhang Ziyi's films as worthless. In fact they offer a richness and depth that is worth exploring, and evoke interesting cultural discussions.

Exotic Customs in Raise the Red Lantern

Both Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi started their acting careers with Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou's films. Zhang picked Gong Li among other students from The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing for his directorial debut Red Sorghum (1987). She then starred in his subsequent movies Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Her roles in all three films are victims of arranged marriages, but are also women who get involved in incestuous affairs and wild lovemaking in the most exotic places like a winery, dye house, and secluded compounds. Critics thus say that these films, especially Raise the Red Lantern, twisted Chinese culture to pander to Western tastes.

Raise the Red Lantern, set in Southern China, comes from Su Tong's novel Wives and Concubines. Su Tong writes in another piece that the South is "a kind of decadent and alluring being", which reminds us of "the Orient" in Said's theory. When adapting the novel, Zhang magnified this kind of decadence and allure, visualizing it into a ritual of raising red lanterns that can never be found in the novel or the reality. In the film Gong Li plays Song-lian, a university student who marries a rich man (Ma Jingwu) as his fourth wife, and afterwards vies with other wives (He Caifei, Cao Cuifen) and even her maid (Kong Lin) for the husband's attention. The winner each night will have a red lantern hung outside her compound to denote her success...

Whether or not designed by Zhang, Song-lian's image as a woman who longs for her husband's favor and develops an ambiguous love with his son fits nicely into a lot of Westerner's imagination of an Oriental lady. The film has been criticized for inventing Chinese customs and exaggerating the darker side of Chinese culture to fulfill Westerners' hunt for exoticism. Nonetheless, the film offers a critique of the spawn of feudalism, and some viewers have even uncovered a political subtext underneath. Acclaimed in the Western world, Raise the Red Lantern won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Symbols of the Colonial Hong Kong in Chinese Box

After Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li, Zhang Yimou's partner in both career and love, went on to star in Zhang's The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), To Live (1994), and Shanghai Triad (1995). After that the couple broke up and Gong Li participated in Wayne Wang's Chinese Box (1997), a Hollywood movie shot in Hong Kong co-starring Maggie Cheung and Jeremy Irons.

A Hong Kong-born director who made the well-known Hollywood movies Joy Luck Club (1993) and Smoke (1995), Wayne Wang departed from his earlier works with a film about the change of sovereignty of a city where he spent his childhood days. In the film Gong Li portrays an ex-prostitute named Vivian who now owns a pub. A British journalist John (Jeremy Irons) falls for her, but he soon discovers that he is suffering from a terminal disease. With an uninhibited girl Jean (Maggie Cheung), he begins a record of the disappearing colony and also his fading life. Eventually both vanish on the morning of July 1st, 1997.

The film obviously invites the audience to think of the characters in terms of allegories. From Nancy Kwan's role as Suzie Wong in Richard Quine's The World of Suzie Wong to Vivian's past identity as a prostitute, colonial Hong Kong is once again embodied as the image of a seductive and submissive prostitute. Jean, though seemingly the complete opposite to Vivian, is also under the Western power when we come to her obsession about a British man. While Gong Li and even Maggie Cheung represent an "Orientalized" and distorted Hong Kong, we should probably still credit the film for provoking us to re-think the colonizer-colonized relationship when colonialism came to an end in 1997.

The Lack of Wuxia Spirit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

After Gong Li's departure from Zhang Yimou, Zhang Ziyi started to appear in Zhang Yimou's films, from The Road Home (2000), Hero (2002) to House of Flying Daggers (2004). Unlike Gong Li, she needed only one movie to go international, joining Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) soon after making her debut. The Ang Lee movie won Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction (Timmy Yip), Best Cinematography (Peter Pau), and Best Original Score (Tan Dun) at the Oscars, an unprecedented success for a Chinese language film in the international arena.

Longing for a peaceful life, Li Mubai (Chow Yun Fat) gives up his precious sword and asks Yu Xiulian (Michelle Yeoh), a martial arts expert to whom he dares not confess his love, to escort the sword to a respectable aristocrat. Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a government official who learned martial arts from Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei), is secretly engaged to a bandit Lo (Chang Chen), and decides to escape from her family when she learns that her father tried to arrange her marriage. She steals Li Mubai's sword, and the two finally meet up in a spectacular fight in a bamboo forest. This astounding scene may be regarded as a homage to King Hu's classic Wuxia film A Touch of Zen (1972).

The Wuxia genre, though sometimes vaguely referred to as the martial arts genre, actually emphasizes justice and righteousness as much as spectacular or violent action sequences. Hong Kong's tradition of Wuxia films can be traced back to King Hu's Come Drink with Me (1966), also starring Cheng Pei Pei. Some critics argue that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon only resembles the Wuxia genre in form but beneath the Chinese style action, the film is just another Western romance. Others regard the film as having creatively manifested the aesthetics of Chinese martial arts, and maximizing their potential to the fullest. If Gong Li represents "the Orient" by stressing the character's inner sensuality, then in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Zhang Ziyi's manifestation of "the Orient" through splendid martial arts is purely external.

Japanese Imagination in Memoirs of a Geisha

Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li both appeared in Wong Kar Wai's 2046 (2004), but they have never interacted in the same film until Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), adapted from Arthur Golden's same-titled novel. Geishas are professional female Japanese artists who earn a living by entertaining important guests through singing, dancing, etc. In the film, top Geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) keeps making things difficult for Chiyo, but fate brings Chiyo to become Mameha's (Michelle Yeoh) apprentice and soon the most popular geisha named Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi). Sayuri knows too well that she should not love anyone, but she cannot suppress her feelings for the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), just as the Chairman's good friend (Koji Yakusho) cannot help falling for her...

200 fabulous kimonos (traditional Japanese clothing), a glamorous Geisha district re-constructed near Los Angeles, Japanese dance performances and the use of the shamisen instrument in the film, etc. have gained people's attention even before the release of the film. These entities are, in fact, the most exotic things in Japanese culture, no less alluring to the Western eye than the winery, dye house or the secluded compounds in Zhang Yimou's films. Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi once again become representatives of "the Orient", and their Chinese nationality does not seem a crucial obstacle to their portrayals of Japanese Geishas.

Negative comments thus sprang out on the Internet even before the film's release. Some Chinese, perhaps out of their hatred for Japanese militarism, condemned Zhang Ziyi for being a "traitor", whereas in Japan people in the cyber community regarded traditional Geishas being played by Chinese actresses as an insult to Japanese people. If we apply Edward Said's theory again, the representation of Geishas in the film may as well be just a form of Oriental imagination. Therefore it may not be surprising for the American crew to focus only on details in costumes and setup but neglect the delicate political, economic, and cultural divisions between China and Japan.

I don't mean to repudiate the film's artistic merits, nor do I intend to follow the Chinese netizens to condemn Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi for pleasing Westerners. (Although Zhang Ziyi's change of name to "Ziyi Zhang" according to the Western convention, or her insistence in using English in every interview by Western media may lead people to think that way.) My point here is: to better understand Gong Li's and Zhang Ziyi's roles in films, one cannot help but examine how they are subject to the Western gaze.

(Originally published in a.m. post Issue 21. Reprinted with permission.)

Published April 1, 2006

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