Born in Shenyang, China, in 1965, GONG Li has so far appeared in every film directed by ZHANG Yimou. For seven years she was his regular leading actress and constant companion. Since the completion of SHANGHAI TRIAD, their personal relationship has come to an end. Each has benefited enormously from the association in the past, in professional as well as personal terms.
GONG Li grew up in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, and showed an early aptitude for acting. She enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama to study acting in 1985, graduating four years later. Despite her subsequent success as a film star, she remains on the staff to this day.
She was still a student there when ZHANG Yimou discovered her in 1987, choosing her for the lead role in his first film as a director, RED SORGHUM, which went on to win the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Since then she has been in six more films for ZHANG Yimou, including SHANGHAI TRIAD and eight for other directors, not counting the still-to-be released TEMPTRESS MOON, the latest film by Chen Kaige.
Of the films she has made for ZHANG Yimou, she has starred in all but one. The exception was his second feature, OPERATION COUGAR, the story of an airline hijack, in which she played only a supporting role as an air hostess. Her most powerful performances were as a wronged wife in the two historical productions, JU DOU and RAISE THE RED LANTERN. In the first of these, in which she plays an adulteress, she was able to express physical passion in a way that had not been possible in RED SORGHUM, where her fresh and winning personality had nevertheless reflected some of the androgynous charm of an Asian Audrey Hepburn.
Her greatest personal triumph, however, was in none of these films. In his fifth film, ZHANG Yimou cast her completely against type as a heavily pregnant peasant woman in THE STORY OF QIU JU. For this role she carried out extensive research deep in rural China, altering her natural voice to capture peasant tones and skillfully imitating the way Chinese country women waddle rather than walk. The scale of her achievement was not lost outside China. When the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1992, it was not only ZHANG Yimou who was lionized. GONG Li also came away with the award for Best Actress. For ZHANG Yimou she has since appeared in TO LIVE, which was honored at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and SHANGHAI TRIAD.
Though much of her best work has been done for ZHANG Yimou. GONG Li has also been a prolific actress in quite different films, made either in Hong Kong or as Chinese co-productions. The best known is FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, which shared the Palme d'Or as Best Film at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and which won GONG Li an award as Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle. This was the most lauded film of CHEN Kaige, ZHANG Yimou's contemporary at the Beijing Film Academy in the late Seventies. When CHEN Kaige's most recent film (originally known as SHADOW OF A FLOWER, but now renamed TEMPTRESS MOON) ran into difficulties with its leading actress, Chen Kaige took the unusual step of suspending production, scrapping much of what had already been shot, and resuming principal photography with GONG Li recast in the role.
GONG Li's other films made independently of ZHANG Yimou have mostly been in the field of historical and martial arts drama. THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (in which she did not play the title role) and A TERRA COTTA WARRIOR are both costume dramas directed by the veteran LI Hanhsiang and CHING Siutung.
In the latter, which has a contemporary parallel story, ZHANG Yimou appears as an actor. CHING Siutung has admitted that the film was conceived from the beginning as a vehicle for these two famous lovers. THE FLIRTING SCHOLAR is another historical picture, this time a comedy with the popular Hong Kong actor Stephen Chow, while in THE GREAT CONQUEROR'S CONCUBINE, GONG Li eagerly seized the chance to play a villain. DEMI-GODS AND SEMI-DEVILS, made last year, is a more conventional Hong Kong action picture, with elaborate special effects and elements of supernatural.
GONG Li has twice appeared in films directed by women: a contemporary drama by Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang, MARY FROM BEIJING, and THE PAINTER, directed by Huang Shuqin, in which she portrays the woman painter PAO Yuliang who won notoriety for her portraits of nudes.
RED SORGHUM ( 1988)
THE EMPRESS DOWAGER ( 1989)
OPERATION COUGAR (1989)
A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR (1989)
JU DOU (1990)
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991)
BACK TO SHANGHAI (1991)
MARY FROM BEIJING (1992)
THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992)
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993)
THE PAINTER (1993)
THE FLIRTING SCHOLAR (1993)
TO LIVE (1994)
THE GREAT CONQUEROR'S CONCUBINE (1994)
DEMI-GODS AND SEMI-DEVILS (1993)
SHANGHAI TRIAD (1995)
TEMPTRESS MOON (1995)
Last modified 1-December-1995.
We'd love to have feedback from you!