Nationality: Chinese. Born: Shenyang, China, 1965. Family: Formerly the constant companion of Zhang Yimou. Education: Studied acting at the Central Academy of Drama. Career: 1988—discovered by Zhang Yimou while an acting student, and cast in her screen debut, Red Sorghum ; 1989—remained at the Central Academy of Drama as a teacher after graduation. Awards: Best Actress Award, Venice Festival, for The Story of Qiu Ju, 1992; Best Supporting Actress, New York Film Critics Circle, for Farewell, My Concubine, 1993.
Films as Actress:
Hong gaoliang (Red Sorghum) (Zhang Yimou) (as Nine, the Grandmother)
The Empress Dowager (Li Hanhsiang); Daihao Meizhoubao (Operation Cougar) (Zhang Yimou); Qin Yong (A Terra-Cotta Warrior) (Ching Siutung) (as Hon Tong)
Ju Dou (Zhang Yimou) (title role)
Dahong Denglong Gaogao Guo (Raise the Red Lantern) (Zhang Yimou) (as Songlian); Back to Shanghai; Haomen Yeyan (The Banquet) (Clifton Ko and Hark Tsui)
Mungding sifan (Mary from Beijing) (Sylvia Chang) (as Ma Li); Qiu Ju Da Guansi (The Story of Qiu Ju) (Zhang Yimou) (as Wan Qiu Ju)
Ba Wang Bie Ji (Farewell My Concubine) (Chen Kaige) (as Juxian); The Flirting Scholar (Richard Lee); Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils
To Live (Zhang Yimou) (as Jiazhen); Xi chu bawang (The Great Conqueror's Concubine) (Stephen Shin) (as Lu Zhi); La Peintre (Hua Hun; Soul of a Painter) (Huang Shuquin) (as Pan Yuliang)
Yao ayao yao dao waipo qiao (Shanghai Triad) (Zhang Yimou) (as Ziao Jingbao); Temptress Moon (Shadow of a Flower) (Chen Kaige)
Feng yue (Temptress Moon) (Kaige Chen) (as Pang Ruyi)
Chinese Box (Wang) (as Vivian)
Jing ke ci quin wang (The Assassin) (Chen) (as Lady Zhao); Piao liang ma ma (Breaking the Silence) (Zhou Sun) (as Sun Liying)
By GONG LI: articles—
"One in a Billion," interview with Philip Lopate, in Interview (New York), March 1991.
"Un travail comme un autre," interview with L. Codelli, in Positif (Paris), December 1992.
"Gong Li: une star chinoise," interview with Li Jin, in Mensuel du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1993.
"Mao's Trap," interview with Tony Rayns, in Time Out (London), 5 October 1994.
On GONG LI: articles—
Feinstein, Howard, "A Chinese Actress Blossoms on the Screen," in New York Times, 11 April 1993.
Reynaud, B., "Gong Li and the Glamour of the Chinese Star," in Sight and Sound (London), 15 August 1993.
"China's Screen Siren," in New Yorker, 28 November 1994.
Murat, Pierre & Piazzo, Philippe, "Vivre! En tout simplicité: Gong Li, une star chinoise," in Télérama (Paris), 18 May 1994.
Hooper, Joseph, "Raise the Red Curtain," in Esquire (New York), December 1994.
Feldvoss, Marli, "Weltstar aus China," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), June 1997.
* * *
By any standard, Chinese fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou—whose credits include Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live, and Shanghai Triad—is a world-class filmmaker. And by any standard, Gong Li, his favorite star and leading lady, is a world-class actress. Whether playing simple rural peasants or sophisticated urban temptresses, Gong remains an eminently watchable screen presence. When she is cast in stories set in precommunist China, her roles most often reflect the manner in which women have been treated within traditional Chinese society. When her films are set during or after the 1949 revolution, she plays a woman who suffers, along with her loved ones, at the whims of a callous political state.
Raise the Red Lantern, set in the 1920s, is arguably the best of the actress's "prerevolution" films made with her mentor. Gong plays Songlian, a pretty 19-year-old university student whose father has just died and who is pressured by her stepmother into marrying a rich man. She thus becomes a concubine, the "fourth mistress" in the house of a wealthy feudal nobleman who is addressed by servants and wives alike as "Master." Zhang's primary interest is not this character, but rather Songlian—how she is affected by this marriage, and her relationships with the other mistresses. Gong offers a subtly revealing performance. From the film's opening shot, the various emotions that register on her face speak volumes about her character.
Gong plays a similar role in Ju Dou—a young peasant woman coerced into marrying an aged, embittered, and abusive dye mill owner during the 1920s. In Red Sorghum, her screen debut, she also is a peasant who is supposed to wed a much older man, this one a winemaker, but ends up as the partner of a man who is closer to her in age.
Shanghai Triad, the most recent Zhang-Gong collaboration, is quite a departure for the pair. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who is "fresh from the country," and who is a distant relative of the most powerful gang boss in Shanghai. The teen is brought to the city to work as servant to Ziao Jingbao (Gong), the mobster's glamorous but crass and ill-fated nightclub singer-mistress. Shanghai Triad is not Zhang's best film, as it lacks the urgency of his better earlier works. Nevertheless, Gong is ever-resplendent as Ziao Jingbao, a woman who despite her surface toughness is revealed to be a sex object and a victim.
Gong's two "postrevolution" films with Zhang are equally potent. To Live is a forceful drama about the fortunes of one Chinese family and how its members become swept up in the events of recent history. Gong plays Jiazhen, wife of the son of a prominent family in a small village. The lives of Jiazhen, her husband, and children undergo much turmoil after the revolution, with the scenario mirroring Zhang's clear and sobering censure of the hypocrisy of life under Mao. Gong is especially fine as she responds with raw emotion to the crises in Jiazhen's life, and in the lives of her children. In The Story of Qiu Ju, Gong plays Wang Qiu Ju, an unsophisticated but resolute Chinese farm woman who goes to all lengths to obtain an apology after her husband is brutalized by her village's stubborn leader. This story of a woman's quest for fairness is an adroit examination of government hypocrisy, with Gong a tower of strength.
The sole Zhang-Gong collaboration little known in the West is Operation Cougar, the saga of an airline hijacking in which the actress has a supporting role as a stewardess. Her one major role in a film not directed by Zhang is Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine, an epic that emphasizes the same political concerns found in Zhang's work. Farewell, My Concubine features a trio of main characters who share a complex bond. The first two are Chinese opera stars, "stage brothers" who were students at the same acting school and who have become famous for playing the king and his concubine in the title opera. The third is the feisty yet vulnerable prostitute (Gong) who marries one of them.
Farewell, My Concubine was released a scant five years after Gong had made her screen debut in Red Sorghum. Yet she had already developed into one of the international cinema's premier actresses.