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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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