INTERVIEW: Gong Li

Posted by · 6:39 am · October 3rd, 2005

Chinese actress Gong Li is poised to explode onto the landscape of the American movie scene.

An international star and a staple of contemporary Asian cinema for nearly twenty years, Gong has offered awards-caliber work with performances in Kaige Chen’s Farewell My Concubine and former beau Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, as well as this year’s 2046 from revered auteur Wong Kar-Wai. Her second English language endeavor comes this December in the form of Columbia’s Memoirs of a Geisha from director Rob Marshall.

One of the last big secrets of the season is just how well this film, from the Academy Award-nominated Chicago helmer, may or may not have turned out. Marshall initiated much hullabaloo last year in the form of his perceived controversial casting decisions, and that fallout has continued through to the film’s upcoming release.

For the lead role of Nitta Sayuri, a Japanese geisha circa 1929, the director thumbed Bejing-born wunderkind Ziyi Zhang. This triggered a swell of resentment from many in the international film-going community, shocked at the notion of casting a Chinese woman in the position of a Japanese character, let alone a character so historically resonant where the country’s heritage is concerned. But then Marhsall also sought out Malaysian native Michelle Yeoh for the role of Mameha, Sayuri’s mentor, and, of course, China-bred Gong Li in the showy role of villainess Hatsumomo.

Scandalous? S0me would say so.

Gong’s response to the controversy favors the idea that race does not define character, even, or perhaps especially, in an instance such as this.

“I had read [Arthur Golden’s] book and I liked the story, but most importantly, I liked the role, as it was a very challenging character to play. Despite my being Chinese or Japanese, she’s a woman, first and foremost, with all the characteristics of being a woman. But Mr. Marshall is a very reputable director, and this was an unforgettable experience.”

Memoirs of a Geisha is set for release December 9 from Columbia Pictures, and as awards hopefuls go, it’s the 800 pound gorilla in Sony’s shop this season. It’s one of a select few films that haven’t been shown to the press in these waning days of the year, the height of Oscar season barreling down. Other such question mark scenarios include All the King’s Men, also at Sony, New Line’s The New World from director Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which wrapped filming last Wednesday.

Gong may be part of an international line-up on screen, but one forgets that the film also boasts an international crew, completely free, it seems, of such asinine controversy as the director’s casting decisions.

Wisconsin’s Rob Marshall leads the charge, while Australia’s Dion Beebe sets the pace behind the camera. Long Island native John Williams lends his musical talents and Sicilian Pietro Scalia lords over the film’s editing process. Makeup department head Noriko Watanabe (no relation to Memoirs star Ken Watanabe) hails from Japan and resides in New Zealand. More Americans head up costuming duties (Washington native Colleen Atwood) and the financing of the film (producers Lucy Fisher, Doug Wick and Steven Spielberg), while members of the art and costume departments find themselves from Argentina and England respectively.

And of course, at the end of the day, it all springs from the mind of Tennessee-born author Arthur Golden.

The question becomes – does such diversity lend itself toward or take away from the effect when making a film such as this? For Li’s part, she contends the process to be a well-oiled machine of capability.

“In terms of production, there was perhaps more financial support, being an American venture. In terms of philosophy – with Americans writing about Japanese people – there was more room as far as the artistic aspect is concerned. Had the film been produced by an Asian faction, sure, there may have been more boundaries. And perhaps it would have been more loyal to the culture, but with this international imagining, the story becomes more universal.”

Preparation for the role of Hatsumomo was considerable, and demanding of the international starlet. She recalls one such example:

“I studied dialect and accent training, as well as geisha movements and actions,” she begins. “In one scene I needed to toss a fan in a specific way – it was a very difficult maneuver – and I practiced many times – more than a thousand times a day. Mr. Marshall told me it was a difficult action, but said he believed I could do it. This is something a geisha would have practiced extensively, and from a very early age.”

The film brings with it, truthfully, the potential of breaking out three of the biggest Asian superstars in the world here in the states. Michelle Yeoh has seen success in the form of Ang Lee’s 2000 opus Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while Ziyi Zhang splashed onto the scene in the same film. Zhang was also noticeable in Zhang Yimou’s pair of 2004 endeavors, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. However, to collectively assemble these eastern icons, along with The Last Samurai star Ken Watnabe, it affords the opportunity of conclusively announcing their place in western cinema – not to mention the prospect of sporting a likely international draw without putting Julia Roberts, Renée Zellweger and Kirsten Dunst into kimonos.

Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha looks to be the spark of Gong Li’s western hemisphere fire. Calling from Miami, where she is on location filming director Michael Mann’s upcoming Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, the actress waxes contemplative on where her career’s road is leading.

“If you can work with Michael Mann you can work with any filmmaker. He’s a very strict, very particular filmmaker, but it all opens doors to me. Working on an international movie, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned different concepts through new roles, such as in Miami Vice, where I play the mistress of a drug dealer, with this attitude of ‘business is business,’ and separating the emotion from that. There are many new challenges.”

Gong will also star in Peter Webber’s upcoming Hannibal Lecter prequel Behind the Mask, before re-teaming with Zhang Yimou for the first time in eleven years for the much anticipated Autumn Remembrance.

As for the American stars and filmmakers with whom Gong would like to collaborate, she only allows that there are too many to name just one.

“As a child, I wasn’t very open to international films,” she says. Then, with a laugh, she adds that she “always thought the French actor Alain Delon was quite handsome in Zorro.”

Thus far troughout her illustrious career, Ms. Gong has received her fair share of critical and awards acclaim across the globe, but this year she finds herself in the unfamiliar situation of being considered a potential Oscar frontrunner for her performance in Memoirs of a Geisha. She takes it all in stride.

“Of course I’d hope to be recognized internationally for what I’ve done in the film,” she offers. “But I enjoy the process above all. I enjoy playing in a film and I have no control over the aftermath.

“This is the first international film I’ve worked on. I spent five to six months working with Mr. Marshall and I became very close with the cast. A month after filming, I still felt in character. I had grown so close to all involved, and in the end, after I shot my last scene, I had this feeling of ‘where would I go?’”

Perhaps the answer is to Hollywood Boulevard and the Kodak Theatre.

[Photo: Columbia Pictures]




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