The envy of a room full of swooning men, Tom Hilditch meets Gong Li, the gorgeous star of some of modern Chinese cinema’s most lauded films – many of them love letters to her from director Zhang Yimou – to talk about l’amour.
Straight off, Gong Li tells a huge lie. She unwraps her housewife camouflage, takes off her shawl, lowers her scarf, fixes WestEast with a casual, 1,000-volt smile and says, “There is no such thing as love at first sight.”
What she means – what she has to mean – is she pretends it doesn’t exist in order to keep sane. Few other actresses in the world, and none in Asia, have her power to melt an audience with a single glance. Already around the hotel lobby where we meet – in Hong Kong’s Island Shangri-la – grown men are falling weakly into sofas; eyes swimming, teacups rattling in their saucers. We are here to talk about love with Gong Li. It’s like Sun Tzu has turned up to discuss war.
“Love in my experience,” says Gong Li, screen siren, sex goddess, ethereal figment of a billion male dreams, “is about commitment. It doesn’t come quickly. It doesn’t happen in an instant. It grows slowly over years.”
But that is not how the rest of the world sees it. If history were written in love, rather than battles and wars, then the day Gong Li met Zhang Yimou would be celebrated as an international holiday. His instant infatuation with her didn’t just change mainland film, it changed the way the world saw Chinese womanhood. It was 1987 and she was just 21, a student at the Central Academy of Drama. Zhang Yimou, older, wiser, already a moderately successful film director, was casting for his new movie Red Sorghum. History does not record what happened when their eyes first met. But for Zhang, at least, it was explosive.
Other lovers, wishing to celebrate their feelings in public, might publish a St Valentine’s Day ditty in the newspaper or send an ostentatious bouquet to her office. Zhang opted for a six-movie homage. Over a series of painstakingly crafted films – including the internationally acclaimed Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Ju Dou, The Story of Qui Ju and Shanghai Triad – every pore on her face, every gesture, every breath and nuance was lingered on, examined and revered. The world has rarely seen such crazy, obsessive love. And the world has rarely enjoyed it so much. The movies won Gong Li award after award. Her name led countless lists of the world’s most beautiful women.
So, of course, she doubts love at first sight. The whole world loved her and it had only seen her picture. “Oh, it’s strange,” she says now. “People see your films and they think they know you, think they are in love with you. But that is not love. That is not love at all.”
For the past few years Gong Li has been something of a recluse. Like a Chinese Greta Garbo, she has eschewed the press and steered clear of the social world. And, despite every rumour to the contrary, her marriage to Singaporean businessman Ooi Wei-ming endures. These days she keeps a low profile and reserves her awesome sex appeal for the screen.
“I prefer to act out love affairs,” she says. “That way you can have more than one and your heart is never broken.” She has just finished a new movie with her current favourite director, Sun Zhou (with whom she made Breaking the Silence – Beautiful mother). The film, set in modern-day China, takes place aboard a train. It stars Gong Li as a vase-painting artist who falls in love with two men. One of her co-stars is Tony Leung Ka-Fai. “The trick to acting that you are in love is to actually be a little tiny bit in love,” she says. “I’m lucky, because it’s not hard to fall a little in love with Tony Leung.”
For Gong Li, pretending to be a modern woman in love was not easy. “It is by far one of my most difficult roles,” she says. “Modern Chinese women have so much more freedom to do what they want, express themselves how they want. In my earlier costume-drama films, my characters are very restrained by their times. Mostly I just had to act shy or reserved, but this role has demanded real care because a modern woman in love is liable to do anything.”
Gong Li’s commitment to her roles is legendary. She often spends months researching them. To play a poor peasant woman in 1992’s The Story of Qui Ju, she spent weeks in a small village learning the local dialect and manners (she won the Venice Film Festival’s best actress prize for her trouble). So how far does she research roles which require her to be in love? “Acting lovestruck is very difficult to get right,” she says. “Love – when it comes – doesn’t just show in the eyes or the mannerisms. It affects the whole person. People who are in love move differently, they talk differently. They shine.”
Text & Interview: Tom Hilditch
Photography: Leslie Kee @ Jed Root Styling: Ting Ting Lin @ Jed Root Hair & Make-up: Lee Tong Tian Computer Graphic: Yau @ Yau Digital Photography Assistant: Andy Chow