Gong Li

The unassuming Chinese actress talks about her films, ex-lover Zhang Yimou and whether she is a beauty.                                                                       

Peninsula Hotel’s Fen Lai suite is the perfect setting to meet Gong Li: Fen Lai is a fairyland in ancient Chinese legend and the mainland star’s ethereal beauty would be right at home there.

As any good screen goddess should, the 36-year-old leads the healthiest of lives. She sleeps 10 hours a day, plays badminton and volleyball with her coach every week, and avoids fried and oily food. She has had plenty of time to look after herself. Since her marriage to wealthy Singaporean businessman Ooi Hoe Seong in 1996, Gong has been based in Hong Kong and hasn’t done much work – The Chinese Box (1997) and The Emperor And The Assassin and Breaking The Silence in 1999 – and once or twice a year, she’ll appear at important film festivals in Europe. The change of lifestyle has allowed Gong to switch direction and become the new face for healthcare brand OSIM. This week, she was promoting the company during an extravagant press conference at the Tsim Sha Tsui hotel, where Gong found herself in a $12,000 suite.

Dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, she is all business when extolling the health benefits of the company’s products. But when Gong emerges later from the suite’s bedroom unadorned and wearing a plain black dress, her other-worldly self takes over, and we are in fairyland.

Contrary to reports about her difficult manner, she is surprisingly unassuming. As long as you don’t ask her ”gossipy stuff”, such as questions about her 50-year-old husband, she is forthcoming.

She smiles faintly but soon succumbs to a bout of coughing because of a sore throat. Still, behind the vulnerability there is an obvious strength to the star of films such as Red Sorghum, in which she played a tough woman combatting Chinese feudalism.

Such qualities are familiar as they have featured prominently in most of her 20-odd films. But, she says, times have changed and she is looking for fresh challenges. ”I’m still asked to play a tough mainland woman facing hardship in life, the kind of woman in Ju Dou and The Story Of Qiu Ju,” she says. ”But I can afford to be selective now and I don’t find it interesting any more to keep doing the same thing. I need something new.”

And she has no shortage of offers. She has just finished Zhou Yu’s Train directed by Sun Zhou, a love story also starring Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Kar-fai. ”It’s a new idea: two lovers who only get to meet on the train,” she says. ”It involves changes of time and space which the audience may find confusing. But it’s artistic and very challenging for me.”

Next year, Gong will work on Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Erotic Story, although her role has yet to be confirmed. ”I have seen most of his films. Happy Together and In The Mood For Love are my favourites,” she says. ”His films allow creativity from the actors and there’s no strict rules to follow. That’s makes it interesting.”

She will also make her first foray into Europe and work on Anglo-French director James Huth’s M, an English-speaking part. Gong says her taste in foreign films has always leaned towards the European flavour.”I don’t like the fighting stuff of Hollywood,” she says. ”It may be exciting to watch those scenes of explosions and car racing, but once you leave the cinema, they are out of your mind and there’s nothing left to touch your heart. That’s horrible and I don’t like it.

”Some Hollywood film-makers have asked me to play an Asian beauty but a good script is all that matters. Does it blend in well with you to create a chemistry? Or are you just a pretty face who runs around in the film, playing a role in which nobody cares if you live or die? If so, it’s meaningless even if it is a box-office success.”

Well, at least Hollywood has added glamour to her career by frequently including her in those ”world’s most beautiful women” lists that magazines favour. ”I don’t know why they choose me,” she says. ”Perhaps it has to do with my work; they saw that I had achievements and they liked what I did.” Gong looks downwards. Does she think she is beautiful? ”Perhaps . . . not particularly,” she says with a timid smile.

Perhaps she means it, or she is just being modest. But it is apparent she’s more than a pretty face when her attention turns to the lack of good films coming from China these days. ”I think it has to do with the economy,” she says. ”Economic development can bring prosperity but it can also be a drag to arts and culture. There was a lot of good literature in the 1980s and early 90s. But now many people in China may be going in the direction where the money is going. They may say, ‘Oh, there’s no big money in films, so let’s switch to TV’. So everybody writes TV scripts. It’s a pity because there is so much talent in China. Perhaps we are just in the phase of rapid change as a developing country. When things fall into place, people may think it’s time to go back to making good films.”

The conversation turns to her former lover, renowned mainland director Zhang Yimou. Not long after their split in 1995, Gong insisted she would work with him again. But so far it has not materialised. And China’s rising star and Gong-lookalike Zhang Ziyi, the rumoured ex girlfriend of Zhang Yimou, seems to have taken Gong’s place to star in most of the director’s films, including the forthcoming Hero.

”He just hasn’t come up with a script that suits me,” Gong insists. ”I have seen many of his films. They are still very Zhang Yimou.” Do she still keep in touch? ”It’s not important for good friends,” she smiles. At the mention of the director, Gong’s tone becomes more matter-of-fact and her voice gets softer as if the issue were not important.

But Zhang had been an important issue in the early years of Gong’s career. Born in the northeast city of Shenyang on December 31, 1965, Gong is the daughter of an economics professor and the youngest child of five. An aspiring singer, she was not accepted into music school and was instead admitted to the prestigious Central Drama Academy in Beijing at 20. At 22, two years before graduation, she was hand-picked by Zhang for Red Sorghum, which became the first mainland film to get a commercial release in the United States. The film received rave reviews abroad and won first prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Gong went on to star in six more of Zhang’s films, including the award-winning Ju Dou (1990) and Raise The Red Lantern (1991). She soon became one of China’s most recognisable faces and even American band Red Hot Chili Peppers penned a song, Gong Li, in her honour.

When Gong and Zhang separated in 1995, it was rumoured the director, who was divorced from his first wife, did not want to get married again. Gong has never revealed why they spilt and she has struggled to avoid the attentions of the Hong Kong media, for which she was branded ”difficult”. Today she seems more relaxed about life in general but she gets defensive when questioned about her personal life. She says only that she is ”very well” and that she has no time for children. And with that’s she leaves in a shroud of mystery. But then, maybe that’s just how life is in fairyland

Published in the South China Morning Post on 12 December 2002