Gong Li may lack fluency in English but makes up for this deficiency in classic beauty and stunning elegance. Long the muse of leading Chinese “Fifth Generation” filmmaker Zhang Yimou, Gong Li began her film career when she met the director while in drama school. She and Zhang received considerable international acclaim with their debut, “Red Sorghum” (1987), in which Gong played a meek bride who becomes a powerful woman when she takes over her husband’s winery after his death.
One of China’s leading young stars of the 1980s and 90s, Gong has appeared in films by other directors (“The Empress Dowager” 1988, directed by Li Hanxiang; “The Terra Cotta Warrior”, in which she acted opposite Zhang) but it is in Zhang’s films that she is best known internationally. Slender and demure-looking but possessing a naturalistic verve and strength onscreen, Gong Li embodies a new generation of Chinese women, brought up amid ancient tradition but reaching toward feminist values. In the title role of “Ju Dou” (1990), she played a married woman whose torrid affair with her husband’s nephew brings about tragic consequences, while in “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) her character also causes trouble as the newest addition to a man’s bevy of wives. Gong ventured into comedy with another eponymous heroine in “The Story of Qiu Ju” (1992) as a woman farmer determined to avenge an injustice done to her husband. In 1993, Gong Li starred in a film by another Fifth Generation stalwart, Chen Kaige, “Farewell to My Concubine” which shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes for best picture.
Zhang once again directed Gong Li in the well-received historical epic “To Live” (1994), which followed a married couple over 30 years of modern Chinese history. Uncharacteristically, Gong Li’s role as a devoted wife and mother was overshadowed by that of a strong male lead, actor Ge You, who played her husband. The pair’s next collaboration “Shanghai Triad” (1995) offered Gong Li a tour-de-force role as a nightclub chanteuse and gangster’s moll. She reteamed with Chen Kaige for “Temptress Moon” (1996), in which she essays the role of an isolated, spoiled heiress. Two years later, Gong made her English-language debut in Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box”, staring opposite Jeremy Irons. Gong Li co-stars in Memoirs of a Geisha and will also be seen in Miami Vice and Young Hannibal. She spoke to Garth Franklin.
Question: Do you like being bad?
Gong Li: Sure. I liked being a ‘good’ bad person.
Question: Do you see your character in Memoirs of a Geisha as a ‘good’ bad person?
Gong Li: Yeah, good.
Question: As being good. What was the most fun about playing her then?
Gong Li: This is the first time that I’ve played a character like this. She’s very complex and has many facets, kind of like a diamond, so there are many different ways in which you can express yourself and the inner character.
Question: Was it more challenging playing a Japanese character or playing a geisha?
Gong Li: The most important thing is that she’s a geisha because it’s a very different kind of thing for me. I’m not at all familiar with the life of geishas – whether she’s Japanese or Chinese or French or English it doesn’t really matter. What is important here is that she’s a woman so to me it was a great challenge to play a geisha and to find ways in which I could express the character.
Question: How would you describe Hatsumomo?
Gong Li: The first time I met the director he said there are two important things about Hatsumomo – one is that her character, her personality is like mercury, it moves around a lot; and the second thing is that she has a kind of life force, a sort of vivacity like an animal. So my feeling is that Hatsumomo is sort of like fire, she’s constantly burning, burning and burning, and she’s not so concerned whether one day maybe she’ll burn herself up.
Question: How hard is it to express complex emotions in English?
Gong Li: It’s very important that this film is in English, of course, everybody knows it. It’s very important for the actors in this film, especially us Asian actors, to speak English – so when we started making the film we immediately had some coaching with the lines, and the interesting thing is that the dialogue, the lines in this film are very, very beautiful and so I just hoped that I could get the right kind of rhythm and pronunciation and intonation because, in fact, oftentimes you don’t get to say such beautiful things in everyday life.
Question: Now you have two very important films coming up – Miami Vice and Young Hannibal. Can we discuss what those roles will be, and is it necessary to learn English for those roles or… what’s going on?
Gong Li: So in Miami Vice I play the head of a drug cartel – so just like you were saying before she is sort of a bad girl. So there are a lot of special terms, kind of technical terms related to the drug trade that I had to learn very carefully. But the director also has me playing a Cuban Chinese woman and so in addition to that I had to express the lines with a Cuban accent in English.
Question: Oh, my God. How do you manage to do that?
Gong Li: I had a Cuban teacher. And he has a very strong Cuban accent in English.
Question: And Young Hannibal?
Gong Li: I guess I play yet another sort of bad woman. In this case her role is to introduce the young Hannibal to a certain kind of world – a kind of life as it were – and so she has a very strong influence on his later development, as we see him in the other films, grow up to be an adult. And so it’s through this kind of relationship, and maybe a bit of romance even, that she has a very strong impact on the shaping of his personality. in this case, as far as the English goes, I’m speaking English with an English accent so I have a British English teacher.
Question: Now as an actress you take on some remarkable challenges and I know being an actor involves using your entire being as an instrument, but that means using your spirit, your heart, your intelligence, your body, everything about you – is there one of those that you feel is for you the strongest gift that you have in being an actor?
Gong Li: So with respect to Hatsumomo for example, the most important thing was to use my heart to try to understand the character first, and I spent a long time thinking about it and getting into the character. After about four months or so, after this sort of living with Hatsumomo on a daily basis, I really did enter the character and I was able to understand why she was like that, why she had those kinds of relationships, what she loved, relationships with her family and so on; and so many times it takes me a while to get out of the character once I’m finished, but I think for me it’s much more important to do it this way than simply to go and act or to perform a role, what’s most important is to actually use your heart and really get into the character.
Question: So why was Hatsumomo screwed up and neurotic and jealous. Is it an age thing, is it because of professional rivalry, and why is she so cruel?
Gong Li: I think what’s special about Hatsumomo is that she’s like a diamond; she has many, many different faces. What she is, of course is very strong, capable, talented and also a very fierce woman, and she is of course the most beautiful one in this little district so she’s the most famous and most accomplished geisha. What I thought was that probably when she was young she probably faced a lot of hardship, probably not unlike little Chiyo in the film, and she had to go through a process of growing up also, and she was able to attain this kind of status.
Question: Could you identify with your character?
Gong Li: I speak to her a lot. I understand her a lot.
Gong Li: Because I’m a woman too so I have also all of the defects as well as all of the strong points of everybody. I can imagine certainly in order to become this kind of geisha you would probably go through the process just like little Chiyo in the film of being torn away from your parents when you’re a little girl, having to undergo all sorts of challenges and hardships, and in order to achieve this in the end you would, of course, have to go… have to be very competitive and strong and struggle through a lot of things.
Question: Do you have any experiences in your own personal past, not necessarily being torn away from your parents but other experiences that would inform you of how this character might feel or might perceive of the world and her responsibilities?…
Gong Li: Not in the sense of, for example, being torn away from my parents but certainly when I was young I had to rely on myself a lot for everything. My parents were of course very busy when I was young, and even though I was the youngest there weren’t a lot of people to take care of me or to make sure I was doing okay. So this is true for everybody, if you want to be the best at something or the best person that you can be you really have to challenge yourself, and even when you face something that you think “I just can’t do it, it’s impossible” you still have to go and try it anyway and you will have to give it your all – because otherwise, if you think about… for example, if you think about yourself starting at zero and you want to get up to 50 or 60, you still have to go and try it anyway – if you don’t you’ll still be stuck at zero.
Question: Is there that much competition between Chinese actresses that maybe you can relate to this?
Gong Li: Well it’s true that Chinese actresses are very competitive and there’s a lot of competition, but I never really thought of it in those terms. I’m an actress and I choose these kinds of roles because I like doing this and these roles are very interesting and challenging to me individually. So I never thought about it being a matter of competing with other actresses – but it is true that there is a lot of competition, and we are very competitive.
Question: Is it fun being the bad girl…
Gong Li: I don’t really think that… I don’t think she’s such a bad woman. I think maybe you think she’s a bad woman but I don’t think so. Here with Hatsumomo, she’s a very strong woman of course – very strong and fierce – but she is also… she comes to a kind of poor end because, of course, the problem here is that she cannot… she is not free to choose her love, she is not free to express her love, and that’s very, very tragic for her. And you can imagine for anybody in a situation where society or there’s some kind of institution that doesn’t let you express your true love or find your true love, that’s the most tragic thing about the whole thing.