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China’s greatest actress.
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About ten years ago, I was riding upwards on the escalator in
Pacific Place mall. To my surprise, I noticed Gong Li, like a goddess descending from the heavens, on the opposite side. Our paths crossed, for that moment, and I went away believing that was as close as I’d ever get to this legendary Chinese movie star.
As a die-hard
Hong Kong action cinema fan, I initially had only a passing interest in the films shot north of the border. Yes, ‘
Temple’ have given us Jet Li, and the later ‘Martial Arts of Shaolin’ (helmed by Shaw Bros veteran Lau Kar-leung) was pretty damn awesome, but the mainland had never really determined its own style of action cinema. I only really became aware of Chinese films when they started winning awards, and playing on
London’s arthouse cinemas circuit. In that era, to know of mainland directors was to know of directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige and their shared muse, the luminous diva that is Gong Li…
I may have been more of a martial arts than an art house guy, but you didn’t need a degree in Film Studies to appreciate that the star of Red Sorghum, Judou and Raise The Red Lantern was a major new talent. To my surprise, Gong Li also started turning up in such Hong Kong productions as God of Gamblers 2 and Flirting Scholar (both opposite Stephen Chiau) and the delirious
actioner ‘Semi-Dogs And Demi-Devils’. If nothing else, these films indicated that Gong, so strait-laced in her mainland movies, actually had a sense of humour (something borne out when I finally met her.)
The Chinese film that Gong Li is still best known for internationally is Farewell My Concubine, which should have won Best Foreign Film at that year’s Oscars. (The award went to a Spanish film, Belle Epoque, and who remembers
that movie now?) Incidentally, Jackie Chan was offered the role played by Zhang Feng-yi, and it’s a shame these two great legends didn’t work together then, and have not since.
Gong dominated Chinese cinema to such an extent that, when she proved unavailable for the project, Chen Kaige begrudgingly began his film Temptress Moon with another actress, Iron Monkey’s Jean Wang, before summarily dismissing her when Gong Li did become available (and then, rather unkindly, criticizing Wang in the press.)
I was already in
Hong Kong when Gong Li made her official English language premiere, Chinese Box. Its director, Wayne Wang, was working with Francis Coppola and various others to set up an Asian production company, Chrome Dragon. Donnie Yen and I were developing a film for them, but the new entity never really took off. I got to meet Maggie Cheung on the Chinese Box location, but not Gong. I later acted (if that’s not too strong a word) in Wong Kar-wai’s ‘2046’, as did Gong Li, but, again, our paths never crossed.
Like everyone, I was blown away by Gong Li’s performance in Memoirs of a Geisha, in which she made an incredibly auspicious
Hollywood debut. She was also used to good effect in several other international films before getting cast in our TWC production ‘
Shanghai’. It was my pleasure to work with her on this film, and, in terms of diva-esque behaviour, it quickly became apparent that Gong Li does not come as advertised. She has a wry sense of humour (in all her languages), is committed to every aspect of her work and, judging from her boxing training with Benny Urquidez, packs a mean left hook…
I just flew to
Beijing to do some ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) with her. We met at the giant new China Film Group studios just outside the capital. Gong’s aide, the redoubtable Christophe, had called ahead to ask if we had any coffee. When I informed him that the only stuff available seemed to be a coconut flavoured powder, Gong Li wisely decided to bring her own.
Through the wonders of technology, we were connected to my colleagues at a studio in
New York, so they could hear the relevant lines as they were being recorded. As expected, Gong Li was totally focused on the job at hand, standing in a sterile studio environment to recreate the emotions expressed on the soundstage, months earlier.
We took a break, and she headed for the canteen area, coffee powder in hand. How good is that stuff?, I ask her. “It’s good…” Very good? “It’s okay…” Is it, like, gourmet or regular? She looked up at me, raising an elegant eyebrow. “It tastes like coffee. Shall I make you some…?” Well, if you insist… Caffeine from the fair hand of Gong Li: it gets no better.
After the ADR session, I catch a ride back to the city in Li’s limo. We chat about the movie, other films and actors, life… She has fond memories of making Miami Vice for Michael Mann, and can’t wait to see Public Enemy. (“I’m jealous!” she says, of the actors working with Mann on that film.) When I drop her off, she kisses me on each cheek then, as she walks away from the car, ducks down to give me a goofy smile and wave. As her character in Miami Vice says to Colin Farrell, “Time is luck”, and I know I’m very lucky to spend time with a real life legend…
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