The first lady of Chinese cinema, Gong Li has made 28 movies in 20 years. So it's hardly surprising that she's currently taking a well-earned break from work. Well, after she finishes travelling the world to promote her latest film with Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower...
It's been over a decade since your last film with Zhang Yimou, Shanghai Triad.
Gong Li: We had always hoped to have a chance to work together again. When Zhang Yimou first approached me with the script for Curse of the Golden Flower, it was clear right away why he thought of me. The role was just right for me, and I felt just right for the role.
Was anything different?
It was like being together with family, we felt so at ease with each other, and there was nothing we could not say to each other. Zhang Yimou himself has not changed very much; he is still just as serious about his work as always. So, as in the past, we spent a lot of time initially discussing the story and characters. Besides having a great sense of visual style, he also has a great sense of storytelling, and he is willing to listen to the actors' opinions.
How did you prepare for this role?
We looked at a lot of historical material about the Later Tang dynasty, including paintings and other kinds of materials about the look of the period, the costumes, the styles of beauty, the court rituals and so on. But for the character herself, I also spent a long time reflecting on the Empress and her identity as a woman in a man's world. She is the Empress and therefore is above everyone else in society except the Emperor, who is also her husband, and is also a man. So their relationship has many layers, and this is the paradox for her. In addition to those inner preparations beforehand, things like the costume design were very helpful. For any kind of role, if the costumes are well designed, as soon as you put them on, you really become that character in both mind and body. And that was really true in this film, we were very lucky to have such a good costume designer.
Do you think the story echoes today's Chinese society?
Yes, I think Curse of the Golden Flower really is a distillation of all the best elements of Zhang Yimou's cinema: the beautiful visual images, the strong and moving story, the personal artistic style, the commercial appeal, it is all there. It is a very richly detailed film, not at all just action or just melodrama. The story is driven by the intense relationships among the characters, who are encased in the royal court. It is a very lavish but also stifling environment. Those kinds of interactions, especially among close family members, might happen to anyone, except that in this case they are the royal family, so everything gets blown up-this film is like a magnifying glass on human nature. I hope it is a film that people will want to watch again and again in order to think about it in different ways each time.
What do you think of critics who say Zhang has lost the political impact of his earlier work?
As I said, I don't think Zhang Yimou himself has changed much. Maybe he has become even more stable as a director and a leader. In Curse of the Golden Flower, there were some scenes with all the extras that really were like running a military operation. But he is still very good at paying attention to details. I guess the environment and the conditions in which he makes his films has changed, and is still changing, and so naturally there must be some evolution in his work as well. This is true of anyone, including actresses. There are different possibilities for playing different kinds of characters at different times in your career. That also means that the way that other people watch his films is changing too. Overall, the range of what kinds of films you can make and show in China is broadening. It also means that there are more and more films and more and more filmmakers, so perhaps eventually there will be room for everybody.
Your early films, such as Raise the Red Lantern, To Live and Ju Dou, were controversial upon their initial release, so Zhang often found himself in trouble with the film bureau.
Unfortunately it is true that most or all of my early films with Zhang Yimou were not allowed to be shown in China at the original time that they were made. Since then some of them have been shown publicly, and we are all glad about that. Occasionally it was frustrating or disappointing, but as I said, things are changing. You have to understand the details of how the system works in China in order to appreciate those changes. For example, censorship is not just about saying yes or no to a film, it is a process whereby a film gets reviewed at several stages, including the script-before shooting-and the final cut. Often censorship really means having to make a few changes, not a wholesale yes or no. In fact, nowadays, I am in support of the idea of instituting a ratings system for films, which we don't have currently. So, for example, if you say certain films cannot be seen by people under 18, then you have a clearer idea of what you can and cannot put in those films, and you also have a clearer idea of what to expect when you know that a film has that rating. It would really help clarify and even diversify the process of making and distributing a film in China. Of course another big problem in China is video piracy. You can buy cheap pirate DVDs everywhere, so even if a film is not allowed to be shown in theaters, people can often see it on pirate video. So it is important to find ways to do away with video piracy, and that would also help clarify what the film review system is doing. To look at all of this from another angle, it is also important to improve education. With the big changes in economics and society in China, people's quality of life has improved, but things have changed so quickly that some new social problems are emerging. So it is important for education to keep up with these developments in order to improve the quality of people themselves. Cinema is a good way for people to learn things and to reflect upon our contemporary society. If people learn to appreciate films in different ways, then it might also be possible to make different kinds of films. So I am quite happy that Curse of the Golden Flower has done so well in China, it makes me quite optimistic about the future.
How do you choose your film projects?
I like to find roles that are different from all my previous roles. And I should feel like I am the actress who is best suited for the role, even that I am the only one in whole world who can play the role. I usually begin by reflecting carefully upon the character and her back story. That way I can understand her deep psychology, the deep motivations, desires, needs and so on that every woman, every person, has. So although each character is quite different on the surface, there are sometimes some common points. For example, the Empress in Curse of the Golden Flower and Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha are both women who know what they want, but they are in social situations that prevent them from directly expressing it. So they have to find indirect ways to struggle for what they want. As an actress my goal is then to find ways to dig down inside the character and bring out those hidden things to show the audience. So if it is possible, I often prefer to emphasise things besides the dialogue-you can convey so much through body language, facial expressions, gestures, the eyes. There is a lot in art that doesn't depend on language.
What attracted you to working on Hollywood productions such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice?
In the past, people had approached me to be in Hollywood films, but the roles they offered were not very interesting-like a pretty Chinese woman in a Chinese dress who walks around and says a few lines and then disappears. Nowadays, Hollywood writers are writing more Asian characters who are full and complex, like real people. It is part of a general trend as Asian culture becomes more popular around the world, and as people in Asia have more access to Western culture as well. So overall, during these few years all the conditions seemed to fit together for me, and it was a good opportunity to try something new.
Is there one particular role you're especially proud of or would like your career to be defined by?
Each role came at a different time, so each one represents a different moment in my own life and career. Of course the films I have done in Hollywood look quite different from the earlier ones I did in China, and they are significant because of that move. I am proud that I have played such a wide range of different kinds of characters-like the peasants in those earlier films, all the way through the Empress in Curse of the Golden Flower. One of my personal favorites is The Story of Qiu Ju because it has such a natural, realistic style. Sometimes I didn't even know where the camera was, so I just played the scene in a natural, unselfconscious way.
Could you compare the experience of working with Michael Mann and Wong Kar-wai?
As everyone knows, Wong Kar-wai does not have a script fully prepared in advance. So this puts a lot of pressure on the actors on the set to improvise. Sometimes you don't know what the story is really about, sometimes you don't know exactly where in the story this particular scene falls, sometimes you don't even know who else will be in the scene until you arrive on the set. Of course, this also means that you can learn a lot about flexibility and imagination from working in this style. On the other hand, Michael Mann pays so much attention to details; he is very demanding on his actors. For Miami Vice I spent a long time training in salsa dancing, English, how to handle a gun, riding in the speedboat, how money laundering works, what life is like in the Chinese community in Cuba, and so on. He is very good at seeing how far you can go and then pushing you to go one step further. It is like climbing a mountain of snow: first he piles up a little hill and gives you some equipment, and you think, okay, not so bad, then as you are going up he keeps piling on more and more until it is a whole mountain. You think you will never get to the top. But when you finally do, it is so easy to come down the other side. After that, I felt like I could make any film with any director, anywhere in the world.