Interview with Gong Li...
It's been over a decade since you last collaborated with Zhang Yimou in "Shanghai Triad". What drew you to making "The Curse of the Golden Flower" and working with Zhang once again?
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.
Were there any significant changes to the way you worked together on "Golden Flower" or was it a similar process to your past work?
Going back to work with Zhang Yimou was very easy, it was a very happy experience. 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. So I felt that he supported us all very much, and it made it easy to focus on our common goal, which was simply to make the best film possible.
How did you prepare for this role in "Golden Flower"? Did you do a lot of research into the period?
Yes, 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.
"Golden Flower" relies less on the martial-arts action of "Hero" and "Flying Daggers" and more on the drama surrounding the mechanics of power in the royal family. This is obviously not an ‘action movie', so what kind of messages should the audience take from the film? Do you think the story has a contemporary relevance to today's Chinese society and system of government?
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. Of course this also means that it is possible for each person to see something slightly different in the film. So of course you can find some message about our contemporary society or about your own life in the present, but that would not be the only possible interpretation. That is another way to say that it is a very rich and complex film. 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 kind of preparations and methods do you use when working on a role and what kind of criteria do you use when selecting new projects to work on?
The most important thing for me when I am considering a new project is to have a good director, a good script, and a good character. As for the character, 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 emphasize things besides the dialogue—you can convey so much through body language, facial expressions, gestures, yanshen [lit. "eye-spirit", i.e., the expression in one's eyes]. There is a lot in art that doesn't depend on language.
Can we consider "Golden Flower" as a sign that there will be more collaborations with Zhang in the future?
I do hope that we will have a chance to work together again, I always have. Of course it depends on the particular opportunity, like the timing and the script and so on.
Zhang has recently received criticism that his latest films have lost a lot of the political impact that his earlier work had (the same criticisms have been levelled at Chen Kaige). What are your thoughts on these criticisms and do you think there has been a strong change in Zhang's career since you parted after "Shanghai Triad"?
As I said before, 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.
You appeared in films such as "Raise the Red Lantern", "To Live" and "Ju Dou" which were controversial upon their initial release and Zhang often found himself in trouble with the film bureau. Could you discuss your feelings about what it was like living through that period when there were heavy restrictions placed on your films? How does it feel to work with Zhang on "Golden Flower" now and see the film part of the establishment, widely distributed throughout China?
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 times 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.
What attracted you to working on Hollywood productions such as "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Miami Vice"?
Well, the timing was right, as were the scripts and the whole package. 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.
Could you describe the experience of working with Michael Mann, especially after working for someone like Wong Kar-wai who has a very different approach to directing actors?
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.
You made the move beyond Asian cinematic borders at a time when Chinese cinema seems to be growing stronger and stronger. Do you see your career working on both Hollywood and Chinese productions or do you think you will stick to one region in the future?
Yes, I am happy to make movies anywhere in the world. Certainly I will continue in both China and Hollywood. As for everywhere else, well, the most important thing is the combination of good director, good script, and good character. Those things can come together anywhere.
So far you've played a Japanese geisha and a Cuban-Chinese gangster in American films. There was some controversy in having Chinese actresses play Japanese geishas. How do you feel about the representation of Asians in American cinema?
As I just said, there is a general trend of people in Asia and America getting to know more about each other's cultures, and this is a very good trend. For actresses it means more opportunities, more opportunities to play characters who are like real people. I don't think it matters too much if a Chinese actress plays a Japanese character or vice-versa. In the two roles that you mentioned, the main point for me in understanding and developing the characters was that they were both women constrained by their social situations, not that they were Japanese or Chinese or Cuban. Also, it is still much easier to imagine an Asian actress acting in English in a Hollywood film than it is to imagine an American actress acting in Chinese in a Chinese film.
You're an icon of Chinese cinema and I was interested to find out what your thoughts are on the future of the Chinese film industry and its place in the global film industry? You were an integral part of the Fifth Generation films, what is your opinion on the Sixth Generation (Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhangke) and the rise of digital independent filmmakers in China?
In China we are very optimistic about globalization and Chinese cinema, it means more opportunities not just for films made in China but for Chinese filmmakers and actors to work together with people elsewhere. It also means that the film industry and film market in China are expanding so that there is more and more room for different kinds of films and filmmakers. The younger generation of course has time to grow. At this point it is still more difficult for younger filmmakers to get the investment and the recognition they need to make their films. So sometimes they cannot achieve the results that they imagine. But with the increased opportunities in the global market it is possible that they will find more and more success in the future. Going through that process is good for any artist—it helps you develop more confidence in yourself. With any film, it is important to tell a good story that will move people, entertain them, and also let them have a chance to reflect upon society. Although the Sixth Generation has a very different style, it is possible to achieve those goals in that style too.
What upcoming roles do you have planned?
I am still discussing some possibilities with my agency (ICM). Hopefully we can start working on the next film later this year. At the moment, I am taking a good rest. I made three or four films in a row, so I am happy to recharge my energy so that I can do something fresh and different in the next film.
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.