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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

China's iron beauty

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 9, 2003

Supremely well-behaved and basking in rich Chinese operatic sounds, the children in Gong Li's kindergarten music class would have probably felt ultra-privileged, but maybe also a little weighed down by her high expectations of them.

For the two words to describe Gong are exacting and poised.

Before going to acting school in Beijing where she was discovered by director Zhang Yimou in the late 1980s, and the long path that wound up bringing her to the Toronto International Film Festival to promote her new feature Zhou Yu's Train, Gong originally wanted to go to music school and to teach music to children. Instead she became a kind of international, cinematic dignitary, especially in the eyes of Western audiences. It's a role she prefers to play down in person.

"I don't really know the status I have in people's minds," she said softly -- not demurely, but matter-of-factly, through an interpreter. "What I want to play are good roles and some may influence people's lives. But I really don't know if I'm a cultural ambassador or not." One suspects that the interpreter, an attentive, businesslike man in a buttoned-up suit, may have injected an extra ounce of formality into her answers.

What immediately came across, though, was her deliberate tone and the ease of her answers. Gong is all about control. She has been known to sharply criticize the Chinese press and Communist cadres who cross her the wrong way. And, as she says, she very carefully chooses and methodically prepares for each role, which often requires extensive script rewrites as she develops her characters.

However, as she sat poised in a hotel-room chair in Toronto, angling her back comfortably and changing position with each question, she simply had a quiet, elegant presence. It's hopelessly predictable to note that she is even more stunning in person. Like many film stars, her head looked smaller than on camera and her features more refined. Her handshake was light, barely there, though her voice had its familiar reediness.

Once or twice she flashed an electric glare at a question spoken in English before it was translated. The effect was like being pierced by a stun gun. But more often, she sat with her lips delicately apart, waiting for the translation, her eyes looking hopeful, just as they did on screen in the films that introduced her to Western audiences, such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju.

Her new film, which doesn't yet have a definite release date in Canada, is directed by Sun Zhou, who also directed her in 1999's Breaking the Silence, and portrays quite a different version of Gong.

Instead of headstrong and unwavering as she often is in other roles, she's coy and flirtatious this time as a young woman who makes a train trip twice a week to visit a shy lover who is a librarian and poet and lives in the distant city of Chongyang. On one of the train trips, she meets a swaggering veterinarian who lives a more rustic and commanding life. So begins a love triangle, which eventually takes in a fourth -- another woman played by Gong Li who is infatuated with the poet.

It is a star vehicle for Gong.

The film is beautifully shot in a seemingly uncrowded Chongyang and in a countryside forever in the midst of spring-like perfection. But of course the images that stick are Gong's searching stare or her somewhat pained smile accentuating her cheekbones. She's one of the few who can capture this kind of close attention on screen.

Zhou Yu's Train has the added attraction of Gong in somewhat steamier scenes, yet the film had to go through a number of edits to appease censors in China, which shortened some of the love scenes. China currently doesn't have a rating system, and while Gong fully supports recent moves to introduce ratings there, she sidestepped the question of whether she regrets the toning down of the film or whether she would like to take the kind of roles commonplace in North American R-rated movies.

"A good director, a good actor, are those who have their own opinions and don't blindly imitate explicit movies which you can see in Western countries. They must base it on a good story and base it on what the Chinese people like and how the Chinese express themselves," she said.

In a past interview, she said that "our way of expressing feeling in Chinese film is different. If we [Chinese women] wear sexy and exposed clothing every day, people will think you have no character or personality." Don't expect Gong in a Chinese Basic Instinct any time soon, thankfully.

And as Gong, who is now in her mid-30s, likely takes on more mature roles, her career will also be forever linked with Zhang, with whom she made a number of her most widely acclaimed films until their break professionally and romantically, around the time of the filming of 1995's Shanghai Triad. Zhang once told The Guardian newspaper that he felt he gained a "new freedom" after the split.

Has Gong felt the same way since then? She dodged the question diplomatically. "I don't think I can control his freedom. I don't think I'm that important," she said, adding that all she wants to do is to continue to work with good directors. Gong has since married Singapore businessman Ooi Hoe Seong, who in recent months stepped down from his position as head of the Asia-Pacific operations for British American Tobacco.

Given her obvious clout in Chinese cinema, Gong hinted that she has a high degree of independence in picking her parts. She took months researching her lead role in Zhou Yu's Train and, as the director noted, her lines were rewritten daily as Gong discovered new aspects of her character. It seems to show a fierce determination within the actress, who is also the face of L'Oréal cosmetics in China. It'seasy to imagine Gong never having been much of a follower, but very controlling throughout her career.

"The biggest misconception is that many people think that I am very lucky -- that if they were presented with this same opportunity they would also have similar renown. But although I know I'm lucky, people should also know I have made a lot of effort for this success." She smiled and nodded in affirmation after the translation. ROBTv Workopolis