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The Glory That Is Gong Li

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By Christopher Bonet

IFC News

[Photo: “Curse of the Golden Flower,” Sony Pictures Classics]

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard. Carmen Maura and Pedro Almodóvar. Cinema history is filled with famous pairings of directors and their favorite actresses. From silent cinema’s Griffith and Gish to Woody Allen and whoever is his latest muse, the cinema will always home to these working relationships — as Godard once said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.”

This week marks the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film, “Curse of the Golden Flower,” notable not only for being the most expensive film to be shot in mainland China to date, but also for its reteaming of Zhang with one-time love Gong Li for the first time in over a decade. Gong, regal as she’s ever been, plays a Tang-era empress for whom the intrigues of the court are a matter of life and death.

For years, Gong served not only as Zhang Yimou’s favorite actress to film, but also as the central figure of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, working with award-winning directors like Chen Kaige and Wong Jing and establishing herself as the most prolific and best-known Chinese actress in the West, displaying a potent combination of explosive talent and exceptional beauty. In honor of her latest, long-in-coming collaboration with Zhang Yimou, here’s an essential Gong Li film guide telling you pretty much everything you need to know about her film career, from her earliest works on mainland China to her latest foray into Hollywood.

“Ju Dou” (1990)

Gong Li plays the title character, a woman who’s bought by and married to a brutal owner of a dye mill in rural China during the 1920s, and who enters into an affair with her husband’s nephew. Her role as a strong female character rebelling against her abusive husband was the first in a string of similar characters Gong would play in her career. In an iconic scene, Ju Dou, knowing full well of her husband’s nephew’s voyeurism, strips as she begins to bathe, as a slight head turn towards the camera showcases the tears streaming down her face and the bruises against her body.

“Ju Dou” is one of the last films to be shot in original Technicolor, both in China and throughout the world, as increasing costs and decreasing popularity killed off the format. Zhang’s beautiful cinematography and luscious colors don’t translate on the film’s current DVD release, as the lousy print used for the video transfer dilutes the film’s beautiful technical achievements. Somebody start an internet petition for a new DVD transfer!

“Farewell My Concubine” (1993)

Chen Kaige’s Palme d’Or winner (it tied with “The Piano”) is no less than an epic tale of friendship and Chinese opera spanning the Japanese occupation, the Communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution. It seems impossible that anyone could upstage stars Zhang Fengyi (as the hot-headed Xiaolou) and Leslie Cheung (as the bitchy Dieyi), yet Gong Li, as the manipulative prostitute Juxian, somehow manages to do it, scene by scene, until her final frames in the film. Her introduction remains sublimely sweet, with Xiaolou saving her from a group of raving drunks at a brothel, but as she insinuates herself into Xiaolou’s life, Dieyi, who has long harbored a crush on his stage brother, becomes infuriated. Their love triangle continues as a push-and-pull between the three until the Cultural Revolution violently forces the them to betray each other and admit personal secrets to the public. After her husband betrays her and denounces their relationship, Juxian gives Dieyi a haunting half-smile during her last moments before her death, at once telling and subtle, a statement that she simply will not stand for any more bullshit.

Premiere recently included Gong Li’s performance as Juxian as one of the Top 100 Greatest Performances in the history of cinema. The film also earned her the Best Supporting Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1993.

“To Live” (1994)

Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” chronicles the experiences of a husband and wife (Ge You and Gong Li) who struggle to keep their family going through repeated hardships in the mid-20th century. The feisty, proto-feminist characters of Gong’s past are put aside for a less melodramatic and more realistic turn that is powerful not for theatrical histrionics, but its subtle revelations about the burdens of the burgeoning Communist society. Gong’s mother character undergoes physical aging as the poverty and tragedy of her family continues to burden her; her dewy beauty at the beginning of the film gives was to gray hairs and weariness; the ease with which she was able to work as a water carrier earlier becomes more difficult as her aging prevents her from being as productive as she used to be. Though bedridden and still suffering from the loss of her two children by the end of the film, Gong Li’s sublime performance remains one of her most simplistic yet most powerful, showing that she can play realism as well as melodrama.

Though “To Live” won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, it was banned in mainland China for questionable depictions of the nation’s history and its portrayal of the Communist regime. A total of seven Gong Li films were banned at one time or another in her native country, though she still remains one of China’s most beloved actresses.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005)

Though some controversy surrounded the pan-Asian casting of Rob Marshall’s film, it does seem that the role of bitter and jealous head geisha Hatsumomo was custom built for the talents of Gong Li. Though she could’ve played the character as mere camp (Richard Corliss at Time compared her turn to Bette Davis), Gong manages to present Hatsumomo as yet another female who must struggle for her own way against the restrictions of society. Her inability to both marry her long-time lover and become the heir to the geisha house leads her to a jealous rage that causes the breakout of a fire. As Hatsumomo stares at burning flames and realizes that she will no longer be the star geisha, she proceeds to knock over lamps and pour gasoline, fueling the demise of both the geisha house and her own career. Her difficulties with the English language and a lousy screenplay be damned, Gong’s performance is one of the few highlights to this otherwise misfire of a film.

Though “Memoirs of a Geisha” signals the start of Gong’s Hollywood career, it is in fact her second English-speaking film following 1997’s little-seen “Chinese Box,” which co-starred Jeremy Irons and Maggie Cheung and was directed by Wayne Wang. Her recent English-language films include this past summer’s “Miami Vice” and the upcoming “Silence of the Lambs” prequel “Hannibal Rising.”

“2046” (2005)

Though Gong Li’s role in Wong Kar-Wai’s long-awaited “In the Mood for Love” follow-up “2046” is minor in comparison to those of fellow actresses Zhang Ziyi and Faye Wong, it stands out as one of the most mysterious and compelling performances in the film. Gong plays Su Li-Zhen, a professional gambler who reminds Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) of the woman he once loved, but who refuses to reveal anything about her past to him. The enigmatic allure of Gong’s character not only piques the interest of Chow, but also this reviewer; she plays Su as distanced yet nurturing, helping Chow earn enough money to return to Hong Kong while not letting him get any closer emotionally. An intensely passionate kiss between the two, however, showcases Gong’s brilliant talents; the two are framed in a tight close-up, and as Chow’s head moves away from Su’s, her lipstick appears smeared across her face as two tears fall and the previously icy Su melts as another love is lost.

“2046” is Gong’s second collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai — she starred alongside Chang Chen in his short “The Hand,” the best part of the 2004 anthology film “Eros” and a similar story of unrequited love between a beautiful high-end call girl and a young tailor in 1960’s Hong Kong.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” opens December 21st in limited release (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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