Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Gong Li is a Hollywood star, finally

Strangely, Asian cinema has often been discovered and lauded in Europe. If Satyajit Ray emerged out of the shadows at Cannes with his “Pather Panchali” in the mid-1950s, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” pushed Japanese cinema into the global limelight at Venice in 1951, when the film won the top Golden Lion there.

We now have another example in Gong Li, the Chinese actress, whose, “Red Sorghum” captivated audiences and critics at Berlin in 1987, when the movie walked away with the prestigious Golden Bear. Both Gong Li and the film director, Zhang Yimou, became art house celebrities overnight.

Gong Li on the set of Miami Vice
Li, who began an intense personal and professional relationship with Yimou, did not quite become a star till “Memoirs of a Geisha” opened to critical acclaim last year (2005). Even now, she is a reluctant star, and in an interview some 10-odd years ago to The New York Times, Li said she did not see herself as a star. But Hollywood does not let you escape that easily.

Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Giesha” gave her, for the first time, a Hollywood tag and a star status, but it is her soon-to-be-released-in-India “Miami Vice” that appears to have given her a firm slot at Los Angeles. The entertainment press and television have been screaming about the arrival of Li in Hollywood.

And, she has arrived as Isabella, a drug kingpin’s wife, who is “sleeping with the enemy”, a municipal employee, in “Miami Vice”. A crime thriller, Michael Mann’s movie has Li as the heroine, whose complex affair with a man on the other side of the fence is fraught with a risky romantic entanglement.

Li has done the third Hollywood film, one after the other, “Young Hannibal”, a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs”, which traces the teen years of the future serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. Critics say her English is heavily accented, but they cannot deny that she is a superb performer.

Li’s early professional life in China – when she and Yimou became renowned albeit in a very specialised kind of cinema – in the late 1980s and the early 1990s held promise: some of her first movies revealed her refreshing intensity and her firm commitment to excel.

Her range of roles fascinated a small but immensely dedicated group of viewers. They saw in Li the triumph of substance over style. As a pregnant villager searching for that elusive justice or as a rich man’s concubine, Li played her part with courage that seemed to defy the then prevailing oppressive political climate, which gave very little space for artistic freedom.

Li gave Yimou’s masterpiece, “Raise the Red Lantern”, a stamp of brilliance with her sensuality and daring sense of independence. Were these a veiled reference to China’s suffocating regime?

Though the late 1980s were considered a period of renaissance after Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the mood in the political bureaucracy was far from easy, and clouds of suspicion lingered – as it still does – on all forms of expression.

It is in such an atmosphere that Li flowered as an artist: her performance in The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) was perhaps her most striking. As a grumpy, enormously pregnant village woman out to scoop justice from a system that believed in denying it to its citizens, Li caught the eye of the 1992 jury at Venice. She was crowned Best Actress.

A year later, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell, My Concubine” saw Li as a prostitute, an opera singer’s wife and an enemy of the people, all neatly rolled into a single great portrayal. The film won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and this was the first time Li was being internationally acclaimed in a work not directed by Yimou. Though she would work in two more of his movies, “To Live” (1994) and “Shanghai Triad” (1995), the split in their relationship was apparent.

Kaige’s 1996 “Temptress Moon” and Wong Kar-wai’s romantic drama, “2046”, clearly marked Li’s separation from her mentor, Yimou. However, after years, they are together again, now working on “ Curse of the Golden Flower”, scheduled for a December opening.

But at 40, when most other actresses have resigned themselves to playing lesser roles, Li seems to have begun an exciting new affair, not with Yimou, but with Hollywood. In November, she will begin shooting for Tim Burton’s new work, “The Yellow M” and the calendar seems to be full after that all the way, perhaps to a swanky bungalow in Beverly Hills.

It is now that one would like to ask her a question: Could she have achieved all this without Yimou? Let me try and answer this with two more questions. Could Smita Patil have gained such greatness without Shyam Benegal? Could Waheeda Rehman have been as glorious as she was without Guru Dutt? Well, who is to say?

(Posted on this website on August 18 2006)