In Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), her first major foray into Hollywood, she played the part of a cunning geisha plotting against Zhang Ziyi’s Sayuri. In Miami Vice (2006), she made tough guy Colin Farrell’s knees weak. And in the 2006 epic Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), her first collaboration with Fifth Generation* director Zhang Yimou in 10 years, she took on the role of an empress betrayed by her husband, played by Chow Yun-Fat.
Gong Li became one of the most recognizable Chinese imports to ever grace the Hollywood silver screen. She has come a long way since appearing in her first feature film Red Sorghum in 1987, under the direction of then-greenhorn Zhang, who went on to cast Gong in several more films. The most notable of these are the Oscar-nominated Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), which brought international attention to both actress and director—before they finally parted ways in 1995, presumably because their romance ended.
But even before her newfound fame in Hollywood, the 42-year-old actress has long been both a force and face to reckon with in world cinema.
Born on December 31, 1965 in Shenyang, China, Gong Li showed a passion for the arts at an early age, particularly singing and acting. In 1985, she was admitted to the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing to study acting. (Gong initially applied to the Central Conservatory of Music, China’s top music school, but failed to get in.) While still a drama student, she was cast by Zhang in his directorial debut—a collaboration that went on to be well received by both critics and moviegoers the world over.
Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival. Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern became the first Chinese films to earn Oscar nominations. The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) earned Gong the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival and China’s Golden Rooster, while both To Live (1994) and Shanghai Triad (1995) were internationally acclaimed and won numerous awards in prestigious festival circuits, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA.
In 1993, Gong starred as Juxian in Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine. The performance earned her the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress and, in 2006, was listed in Premiere magazine’s Greatest Performances of All Time. The film also bagged awards worldwide, such as the coveted Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at Cannes.
Her work with Chen was followed by Temptress Moon (1996 ) and The Emperor and the Assassin (2000). Gong won her second Golden Rooster for her role in Sun Zhou’s Breaking the Silence (2000).
Worth Her Time
Her first English-language film was released in 1997. She was cast opposite Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box (1997) as a woman trying to escape her tumultuous past. However, contrary to what many expected, Gong was in no hurry to break into the Hollywood mainstream. In an interview, she said it was simply because “there were just no roles that were worth my time.”
Instead, she starred in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004) , along with Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, as well as in the three-part anthology Eros (2004).
Aside from the acting recognitions she has accumulated over the years, Gong Li was, in 1998, also awarded France’s highest cultural honor, the Ordres des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Literature) for her contribution to world cinema.
print ed: 10/08