Gong Li is a spectacular actress, though you may not have heard of her or recognize her right away. But for me and many others she is a marvelous talent, and I have followed her work for many years.
One of my first jobs was at a movie rental store during the latter half of the transition from VHS (yes, I am that old) to DVD. It was a spectacular job for a half baked slacker such as myself. I could eat microwave popcorn and watch David Bowie dance in tights with muppets from afternoon to midnight while getting paid to joke around with customers and fellow employees. It was like the cinephile’s version of Empire Records.
As a big fan of surly sarcasm and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, my favorite reply to customers looking for film recommendations was, “I don’t watch movies.” Most were annoyed with this deadpan response. Others got the reference or at least appreciated the irony, but whenever they pressed for a more validating answer they were all equally disappointed with my honest judgement, “I can see from your rental choices that I don’t watch the kind of movies you want me to recommend.”
At the time, I was obsessed with foreign language films and working my way though the subtitled section at the rate of three free rentals per week. I was particularly fond of Chinese cinema, and some of the best dramas commonly featured an actress who was quickly becoming a favorite, Gong Li. Notedly, Gong is the family name, and Li, her given name.
A Chinese film actress, Gong Li first came to international prominence through her close collaborations with director Zhang Yimou. Li and Yimou’s powerful body of work together helped bring Chinese cinema to notoriety in Europe and the United States, all the way to my little video store.
Yimou found Li in the midst of her training at the Central Academy for Drama in Beijing in 1987, and he asked her to play the lead role in his directorial debut, Red Sorghum. In the years that followed they continued to work together and each film attracted international acclaim. Gong Li gained a global spotlight in Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern and was named Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in The Story of Qiu Ju.
Early roles and the global attention she received established a reputation she would continue to cultivate throughout her career as one of Asia’s most glamorous movie stars. Simultaneously, her and Yimou’s relationship suffered under extreme scrutiny in Asian press. The pair worked together on six films between 1987 and 1995, before ending their personal and professional relationship for more than ten years.
The split of their artistic collaboration did not deter Gong Li from rising to further worldwide recognition for her talent, however. Her first major role with a director other than Zhang Yimou was in Chen Kaige’s turbulent 1993 film, Farewell My Concubine, and was actually the first picture I saw her in as I was making my way through the foreign section alphabetically.
Her character portrayal in Farewell My Concubine was the subject of much international acclaim but the film was initially banned in China. The sympathetic portrait it painted of a homosexual man caught between his ancient artistic profession and modern politics was a thinly-veiled critique of the Chinese government. Gong Li was awarded with the Berlinale Camera at the German international film festival and Premiere magazine ranked her portrayal of the dishonored and yet magnanimous Juxian, as one of The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.
More performances of Gong Li’s, including Ju Dou, The Story of Qui Jou, and Temptress Moon, were all banned in China. Chinese censorship saw The Story of Qui Jou as more political critique, and the sexual content in Ju Dou and Temptress Moon were thought to be a corrupting influence on young people. Westerners looking for a cheap thrill should be advised, however, that the conventional sensual boundaries of Chinese cinema at the time was heavily restricted to passionate fully clothed embraces.
Gong Li received France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998, and was invited by the Berlin Film Festival to be the president of its international jury for their 50th anniversary in 2001. Gong won her second international Best Actress trophy for her performance in Sun Zhou’s, Breaking the Silence, at the Montreal Film Festival. She was invited to head the Venice Film Festival in 2002, and at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 she was awarded the Festival Trophy for her contributions to film.
These are just a fraction of her praises in the west, and her many awards and honors received in the eastern hemisphere throughout her her long and bold career are far to numerous to detail.
Aware of her own influence and agency, Gong Li used her limited immunity from political repercussions to speak openly against the censorship policy in China, and the film world and I continued to hold her in high esteem. Gong Li married a Singaporean tobacco tycoon in 1996, gaining greater protection from a government that could easily sabotage her career or imprison her for speaking her mind. She eventually earned her own Singapore citizenship status in 2008.
In spite of her popularity, Li long avoided Hollywood, as she lacked confidence in her ability to speak or emote in English. But in 2005 I was delighted to discover that she would play the treacherous Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha. I had read the book and was in awe of the character. I was confident that no better choice could have been made to play the story’s villain. Incredibly, in Memoirs of a Geisha and in her other English-language roles, Gong Li learned her lines phonetically, without loosing an ounce of her ability to set fire to the silver screen.
She professionally reunited with Zhang Yimou in 2006 to play opposite Chow Yun Fat in the historical epic, Curse of the Golden Flower. Her portrayal of the Empress in the film was declared by Time media to be the 7th greatest performance of that year. In 2014, she reunited with Zhang Yimou once again for the film Coming Home, set during the pinnacle of China’s Cultural Revolution. Both performances are knockout examples of why I initially came to adore Gong Li and still continue to follow her career.
While savoring my young life with young artists, musicians, and thespian friends I felt passionately that I did not have the inclination or patience for flicks without soul or wit. At the very least I required a dry vein of comedy to tempt my interest, but literary adaptations, beautiful foreign settings, brash social commentary, and engaging female leads are what really make me pick up a viewing selection. Gong Li takes care that thee majority of her chosen roles feature two or more of my criteria.
For me, Gong Li made movies reminiscent of classic literature; her performances never failed to transport me to other places, cultures, and moments in time. I’ve always felt that cinema was meant to be like novels in that it could teach empathy and how to see through another persons eyes into the unknown. Gong Li imparted to me a view into dozens of breathtaking, bizzare, and yet strangely familiar worlds, and her truly excellent portrayals made a lasting impression that became part my own well of experience.
Image credits: Beijing New Picture Film Company, Edko Films, Xi’an Film Studio, Beijing Film Studio, China Film Co-Production Corporation, Columbia Pictures Corporation, DreamWorks, Spyglass Entertainment