Movies: Gong Li

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

Gong Li, mainland China’s first superstar actress, is a toughie. Something in her glance, her posture, her soul knows that passion is pain, to be dished out or endured. It’s an iron will that directors—starting with Zhang Yimou, her mentor and onetime companion—love to see broken.

So in Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, she plays a hardened gambler whose ego and heart get bruised one Christmas Eve. In Wong’s contribution to the three-part film Eros, she is a notorious courtesan who loses her looks and luck over the course of two decades. In Memoirs of a Geisha, her first Hollywood film, she is Hatsumomo, tormentor of the heroine (Ziyi Zhang) and one of the greatest bitch goddesses since Bette Davis in her prime.

Not at all in the China-doll mode of Ziyi Zhang, or of so many American actresses who want to play the eternal teen, Gong Li, 40, is Woman in all her allure, majesty and threat. There is architectural drama in the severe planes of her face, and her slimly voluptuous figure could grace the prow of a China Sea clipper. “We joked that if we just had a dollar for every time somebody said she was beautiful when they walked past her,” says Geisha producer Lucy Fisher, “we could’ve financed the whole movie. She’s magnificent in every way.”

Magnificent and scary. Early in Geisha, when Hatsumomo discovers the young heroine in her room, Gong Li’s glare was so intense that the child extra in the scene started sobbing and had to be replaced. “No one was touching her,” says Fisher. “It was just the power of Gong Li’s look.”

For ages the actress resisted offers to go West. But her reluctance dissolved with Geisha. “I didn’t even know what potential I had before making Geisha,” she says. She is now shooting the Michael Mann film version of Miami Vice (with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell) and will then be in Peter Webber’s Lecter prequel Young Hannibal. “I don’t feel this is a big barrier for me anymore,” she says of acting in English. (Mind you, she says it through a translator.) “I’m very pleased to be working with the best American directors.”

Soon the Gongster will be working again with one of the world’s best directors: Zhang Yimou. The pair who opened the world’s eyes to Chinese cinema, together for the first time in a dozen years! We can already envision the drama on the set: the passion, the intensity … and that molten stare.

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