If Zhang Yimou's sensuous cinema is a stacked deck of visual tricks, then Gong Li's the queen of hearts every time. APA talks to her highness just days after the premiere of their latest collaboration, Curse of the Golden Flower.
By Brian Hu
Gong Li seems to be everywhere these days-- on film, in newspapers, on television. Wong Kar-wai's 2046 and "The Hand" proved that Gong Li still mattered as an actress, while Memoirs of a Geisha brought her much-belated crossover recognition. Yet, aside from the masterful 2046 (in which she had a relatively small part), the features in which she's recently appeared haven't actually lived up to the star wattage she brought to them. For years now, Gong Li has made criticism of her mediocre films require a coordinating conjunction: Miami Vice was okay, but Gong Li was sensational; Zhou Yu's Train was confusing, but Gong Li was memorable; Memoirs was weak, but Gong Li was explosive even though we couldn't understand a word she was saying.
However, with Zhang Yimou's latest action epic, Curse of the Golden Flower, Gong Li is in a project worthy of her talents. In one sense, the film continues a tradition laid out in Zhang's Hero and House of Flying Daggers in that it's a big-budget wire-fu extravaganza of visual and sensual excess. In another sense though, it picks up the dark themes of incest, betrayal, and decadence from Zhang's earliest directorial works, Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern, which also happen to be some of Gong Li's earliest films.
In that way, Curse of the Golden Flower is a return for Gong as well. The film marks Gong's long-awaited film reunion with director (and ex-flame) Zhang Yimou. (At the film's premiere, when asked about Gong and Zhang's on-set reunion, co-star Chow Yun-fat could only smile and say, "Their chemistry goes without saying.") For Chow and Gong, Curse of the Golden Flower is a return to Chinese-language filmmaking after filming several high-profile pictures in Hollywood.
But Gong Li isn't returning the same actress that left two years ago to try an English-language film. Armed with new life lessons and a language or two, Gong Li re-energizes mainland filmmaking with a hypnotic new performance and reminds her fellow countrymen why Chinese cinema can't do without her.
Interview with Gong Li
November 15, 2006
Interviewed by Brian Hu
Translations by Robert Chi and Brian Hu
APA: How was the screening at the world premiere? Was there anything that surprised you about the audience's reaction?
GL: It wasn't bad. Many people thought it was good, and from the questions afterward, it seemed that they were interested in Chinese culture and actors. They were very responsive, so I'd imagine they liked it.
APA: The reviews are already coming in and everyone's talking about how overwhelming the sets and costumes are in their sensuality. As an actress it is difficult to work under conditions that are so fantastical or surreal?
GL: It doesn't really affect me; if anything, it helps. The costumes helped me become the empress. If I wore a servan's costume, I'd feel like a servant. The clothes and the hairstyle lent a force that certainly helped out the performance. The world the director created helped to cultivate that force required in an empress.
APA: I'm thinking too of The Story of Qiu Ju where costumes added a dimension to your movements and gestures. Did the same thing happen in this film?
GL: I think so. While shooting The Story of Qiu Ju, I wore that costume all the time-- which turned out to be good since the locations we shot in were so cold. I wore it everyday, so the folds and creases on the clothes were real. The pregnancy suit itself was also very warm. After wearing all of it for so long, it became so natural and comfortable to me, even as I started to wear the cotton out. The clothes in Curse of the Golden Flower were a bit different. Since I played an empress, the clothes had to always appear new. So I'd always be wearing new clothes that were just freshly made. So it was a different feeling.
APA: You're in a privileged position in that you're able to go between Hollywood and Asia. I think acting styles in each place are a little bit different. Has your training as an actress in China been helpful in Hollywood or has it presented a challenge?
GL: In terms of performance, it's not that different. Of course in terms of dialogue, there is a language difference, and this does make a difference. When I speak in English, my expressions become different. My attitude too. I'm not sure why, but there really is a difference. My hands move differently when I speak English. But in terms of performance, it's not that different. It won't be that because I'm in a foreign film that my approach is different. My training allowed me to make contact with a number of different possibilities. Four years in college let me work with excellent teachers who gave me a good foundation.
APA: A lot of actors in Hollywood aren't professionally trained. Do you feel that there are any lessons you learned in China that Hollywood actors can learn from?
GL: I think so. You learn to focus on what you do well. Especially if you already have an instinct for acting, training allows you to improve very quickly. It allows you to pinpoint your talents and avoid taking roles as extras or supporting characters that aren't that beneficial to your career. In Hollywood it seems that for women it's appearance and for men it's handsomeness that gives your career a boost, but in China, you don't need to be that good looking. Instead, it's honing one's instinct that's most helpful. So I believe that training is helpful for developing a fuller acting style and a more professional approach. It allows you to be in touch with your emotions and put them in service of acting, for example in crying scenes. Some actors are unable to do this and deliver lines at the same time. These are all basics to professional acting which you learn in school.
APA: Likewise, now that you've come back from Hollywood to China, did you pick up any lessons working with Michael Mann and Rob Marshall that you were able to apply to Curse of the Golden Flower?
GL: I learned a lot. I feel that these are two very good directors whose individual production styles inspire their actors in different ways. Rob Marshall realized that the characters [in Memoirs of a Geisha] were Asian, and since I was Chinese, he realized in discussing the character with me that there were many aspects about my way of thinking that fit the character well. [Miami Vice director] Michael Mann is very American. He may like Asian things, but he's very much an American. As a result, his thinking is a little different. At first, he'd explain the character to me, but I kept insisting that she wasn't that way. But he kept trying to persuade me of his explanation --he's very persuasive-- and in the end I realized that we all have very different styles and ways of thinking as a result of our different cultural backgrounds. So I really learned a lot.
APA: Was there anything specific that was useful for Curse of the Golden Flower?
GL: There aren't any specific examples in terms of acting style; instead there's a larger shift in my thinking. There's a realization that anything I want to achieve, I can achieve, and it's not worth giving up. For instance [on Miami Vice], I had to learn English, and the director added that I had to learn Spanish. I thought, Spanish? That's impossible! Further, he added that not only must I learn Spanish, it'd have to sound like my character had been speaking Spanish all her life. I told him I couldn't do it, but he insisted I could and left it to me. So I figured, okay, I'll try it out. In the end, it really wasn't that big of a problem since I wasn't given that many Spanish lines. But I ultimately told myself that it was possible, and it was Michael Mann who convinced me of this.
Now this ended up being very helpful to me during the shooting of Curse of the Golden Flower. For instance, in the film, I drink poison that takes a few hours to gradually take effect. If I overdid the acting, it would appear ridiculous. The right degree of madness that I needed to put into it became the challenge. But I stepped up to the challenge and tried it out, because I knew that whatever I needed to accomplish, I could. This way of conceptualizing acting is very powerful.
APA: Can you talk about your on-set relationship with Chow Yun-fat, since both of you travel back and forth between Hollywood and China? Was that something that bonded you two together, or was that not really an issue?
GL:He's a great, amiable person. He considers acting as simply one part of his life, so he's not one of those actors who are too strict on themselves when it comes to acting. He's very relaxed when he acts. I feel that this relaxed attitude is a result of his going back and forth [between Hollywood and China] all the time; taking the job too seriously would be way too tiring. He treats acting as a job, but it's something he enjoys and something he can have fun with. This more relaxed approach works well for him. If there's a good role, he'll take it; if not, he won't. Domestic, abroad-- it's all the same to him. He told me he enjoys going to China to shoot. Acting for him is fun, even though he takes it seriously when he's on the set.
APA: I read in an interview where you talked about working with Jay Chou and how he too takes acting seriously on the set. Can you say something about working with him and if you were familiar with his music before?
GL: I'd heard his music before, but I'd never met him. He's a teen idol, and people seem to really like him. I don't know if it's for his songs, or his character, but they do; you can't really split up those two things. You can't tell what he's singing about anyway! [laughs] But that's where his attraction lies and is why he has so many fans. The director [Zhang Yimou] too thinks he works very hard. This is the first time Jay's had to mold a completely new character for a role, and he worked very hard to do it. I think he too grasps the concept that he can do anything he sets his mind to. He's molding a new persona for the role, and even though it's a "cool" character, it's not the kind of "cool" we're used to seeing from him. You can tell he has a knack for acting and that he puts his heart into it. His music is interesting; he wrote the film's theme song, which you can't hear in the American version (1). The film score uses a melody from his song, as well as his vocals, which are good. It's not like the fast songs he often writes, but it's a slower one, and a touching one. The director liked it and decided to use it at the end. I think his style will change, but it will remain his style. He's already a great musician, and he can certainly become a great actor if that's what he chooses to pursue. Actually, he wants to be a director, which would make him a very unusual director -- a cool director. One who doesn't say much. [Does a Jay Chou impression] With those small eyes. [laughs] He's a great guy. He's very interesting.
Click here to listen to Gong Li talking about Jay Chou (in Chinese).
APA: I think with the growing contact between China and America, and the growing number of Chinese Americans, there's going to be a rise in the number of bilingual actors who can go back and forth. What kind of advice do you have to these people who may not want to be limited to just one industry?
GL: Everyone's a little different. I think that if young people want to try it, they should. If a Chinese person has an opportunity in America, however small, they should try it out. Why not? For me, I might not want to because it's tiring, and I have my own style. But it shouldn't matter so much to young people. They should get to know the production style on the other side, and then go back. They're sure to learn something different. It's not important to choose the greatest roles. I realize that there aren't that many great roles for Asians to play in America. There aren't many leading roles for Chinese people in America; those films don't sell. The market becomes a problem. So young people shouldn't wait for the big roles in America. It's worth trying out. Most schools now teach English, which has become such an important language, not just in movies, but in everyday life.
On the other hand, foreigners coming to act in China could be a larger problem. The way they speak English...[she does an impersonation of English-accented Mandarin]. It's impossible. [laughs] Don't even think about it! You can definitely play English-language films, but to act as a foreigner who has spent many years speaking Chinese in China is going to be tough.
APA: So do you mean that the Chinese are less tolerant of bad accents than Americans are? I know that Chow Yun-fat got criticized for his Mandarin accent in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, yet you're able to make films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice without that much of a problem.
GL: It's a little different because Chow Yun-fat has a Chinese face, which makes you wonder why he sounds like that, so it could be harder to accept. But if you're an Asian speaking English, they'll know you're an Asian so an accent is understandable. If you look like a Spanish-speaker, and you roll your tongue like one, it makes sense too. I think that maybe it's because in America, there are so many races so it matters less. In Asia, audiences know that Chow Yun-fat is Chinese. On the other hand, audiences wouldn't be so hard on a Japanese actor. They'll figure, "oh it's good enough." But not with Chow Yun-fat; audiences immediately notice that he's speaking "northern sounds with a southern accent" (nanqiang beidiao). But I think he's improved a lot. He did all of the dialogue himself. His pronunciation isn't like it was in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon anymore; it's much better now. And the dialogue here isn't easy either. [gives a sample of the classical-sounding Chinese that Chow speaks in the film] He even does the ancient language well. He had a dialogue coach on set.
APA: Do you feel that films by Wong Kar-wai like 2046 that are so linguistically heterogeneous are the exceptions in Chinese cinema, or are they becoming more and more normal?
GL: It's been tried, but it hasn't been that successful. There have been a few directors who have tried to use famous Korean or Japanese actors, for box office reasons or otherwise. In their home countries, they're considered great actors, but when they come to China, they put so much pressure on themselves to speak Chinese and their acting seems a little off. You don't get the right effect. It seems a waste. But they're still experimenting. Ultimately, we'll see much more use of Hong Kong and Taiwanese actors; communication is easier with them, so that's not really a problem. But I think Korean and Japanese actors will be a bit more cautious before acting in China. They might as well bring their films or TV dramas to China in their original form. Acting in Chinese only exposes their weaknesses. I don't think it's the best kind of collaboration.
APA: Years ago, you made films in Hong Kong with Stephen Chow and Wong Jing. Was it difficult back then, or do you think it's easier now for a Mandarin speaker working in Hong Kong?
GL: Mandarin was less prevalent in Hong Kong back then so I didn't understand what anybody said; it's kind of like working in English now. Even now, if you're filming a local film there, you need to speak Cantonese, which isn't easy to learn. If it's a Mandarin film made there, it's not that bad, because the acting style is the same. Those old Wong Jing films used to seem awkward, but they're surprisingly fun now. [laughs] China still can't figure out how to film comedies like those. They're really special films. I like Stephen Chow's films very much. They have such a bizarre creativity. I'd love very much to collaborate with them more and really immerse myself in the Hong Kong film world, and not just the China-Hong Kong world, which I don't find as meaningful.
APA: What about Taiwan then? Are there opportunities for mainland actors to work in Taiwan?
GL: There aren't that many opportunities in Taiwan. Or that many films. That's the reality. I'm not really sure what's going on there, with the recent political clamor and all. Maybe they feel that taking down [Taiwanese president] Chen Shui-bian ("dao Bian") is more important than making films. (laughs) So I know very little about what Taiwanese directors are doing. It seems that many of Taiwan's actors are coming to the mainland to film TV dramas and movies. But mainland actors rarely go there. In the end, the market there is so small that the actors there come to the mainland where they actually are very prominent in the industry. The directors don't come over, but the actors do. Many of them are very good-looking and act very well. Plus they already speak good Mandarin. There simply aren't too many opportunities in Taiwan, and they're well-accepted in the mainland. They look-good and the girls speak more tenderly than mainland girls. They've become very prominent in the TV drama industry, and a few of them have become big stars.
(1) Editor's update (12/25/06): The print screened for Los Angeles critics prior to the AFI Fest -- presumably the same print Gong Li watched at the world premiere in Hollywood days later -- did not include the Jay Chou theme song. However, the print screened in San Gabriel, California on December 25, 2006 (the day of the film's U.S. theatrical opening), did include Chou's theme song, "Ju Hua Tai," over the closing credits with an English translation awkwardly inserted by blacking out the bottom 1/4 of the screen to make room for subtitles.
More of APA's Curse of the Golden Flower coverage:
Video footage from the film's world premiere at the AFI fest: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/061222/article.asp?parentID=59577
An interview with director Zhang Yimou: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/061222/article.asp?parentID=59977
A review of the film: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/061222/article.asp?parentID=59580
A capsule review of Curse of the Golden Flower from the AFI Fest: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/061208/article.asp?parentid=57791