China's Gong Li Supports Film Ratings System
Veteran actress Gong Li was a star from the start. Modern Chinese cinema grew up with her career, from her appearance in Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut Red Sorghum, in 1987, to her performance in the Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern, which put her in the international spotlight. For The Story of Qiu Ju, she won the Best Actress award at the 1992 Venice Film Festival, and the next year, for her role in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, she won a New York Film Critics Circle award.
In each outing, Gong has filled the screen with her strong and presence and striking beauty, landing her parts in Hollywood films Miami Vice, Hannibal Rising and Shanghai. On the occasion of the U.S. release of her latest film -- director Chen Daming’s Chinese remake of What Women Want – Gong, 44, spoke candidly through an interpreter to The Hollywood Reporter’s New York bureau chief Georg Szalai.
THR: The What Women Want remake is a romantic comedy – not one of the genres that you are known for – and a redux of a U.S. film. What challenges did that present for you?
Gong Li: It was a new challenge for me, because first of all it is the first time I play a modern woman in Chinese films. She is not just a modern woman, but a very contemporary woman. I did that in Miami Vice, but that was a Hollywood movie. Also, the role here is that of a businesswoman. That was a challenge to play. And this is a romantic comedy, so she is in a very complicated situation. She is a deep character with a lot of layers.
As far as the fact that this is a remake, I did see the original Hollywood version, and I liked it a lot. But when I watched it, I felt that there could have been more to the woman’s part. There wasn’t enough feeling and chemistry between the male and female leads. So when I was discussing the film with the director, we decided that this was one of the places that we would try to rewrite to increase the depth and complexity of the female character to make her more humane and give her some more emotional depth. It was definitely a big challenge.
Can you describe a scene, in which you tried to add such depth?
Gong Li: You can look at the overall development of her character. She is very serious and a strong woman but has certain vulnerable points at work. She is very dedicated to her work and extremely good at it, but because of that, she is missing something in her life. You can say it is love, but not because nobody wants her. There are many men who would chase her, but she frankly doesn’t have time for that. As far as adding complexity, I remember very clearly there is a scene at the end where she gets fired. In that scene, she sits and is not really clear about why she is fired and it is a very emotional moment with mixed feelings for her. She doesn’t quite understand what has happened. And it is very difficult for her to leave because of the romantic attachment. That is where I think her confusion really comes out. It reveals to us how painful and difficult this is for her.
How does your role in the film reflect the rising status of women in the workplace in China today and what challenges remain for women?
Gong Li: You are right. What we are facing is the situation of young, urban women in China today. It is not that women didn’t have the ability to do all these things before. But because of society and social conditions, they were, I guess you could say, repressed. They didn’t have a chance to express that kind of ability in the workforce or in public ways. Of course, it is more and more possible. This ability Chinese women have long had is finally able to come out and we can really see that in full bloom. So many women now are entering the workforce and also taking up very important positions CEOs, for example. The problem for many such women now is how to balance all the different kind of responsibilities that they take on and that they want to take up. They have to balance family and work and maybe kids. Chinese woman really have a strong desire to do that. They want to grab a hold of all these things. They are willing and able. But there is the challenge of how to keep the balance.
I mentioned those strong female CEOs. I actually went to interview some of them to ask them about this. A few of them said it is actually better being single. Some of the ones I spoke with said that once they have gotten that far, they don't want to give up the fruits of their hard work. So, they must give up something. Another way to look at this is that in order to maintain such a high level, a lot of times they must get so strong that it is nearly an androgynous character. At the office and in meetings, they have to speak in a very straightforward and even a masculine way to speak on even terms. And not a lot of men can handle such a strong woman, right? They may run into some problems at homes.
For those high-ranking women in society unfortunately the thing that goes is family life.
How do you try to balance work and private life?
Gong Li: I have always tried to keep work and family separate. That is an approach you can apply whether you are an actress or a CEO. And I have tried not to take my work home with me.
Do you prefer to act for a Chinese or a Western audience?
Gong Li: By now, I don't really feel much of a sense of difference in localities. It is sort of a borderless world. I appreciate it if I make a Chinese film and Chinese people like it. And if there is an opportunity to make a Hollywood film, I will take it – especially because, as you probably know, in Hollywood, even today, there are not a lot of big roles for Asian performers. So it is a great opportunity. It is possible to make films that people everywhere enjoy. I travel quite a lot. I don't really feel like when I am in China, I am a Chinese person and when I’m here, I’m a foreigner. I don’t feel that kind of difference anymore. In the past I did. Not anymore. I feel quite at home everywhere. The whole world is my home.
What is your next role?
Gong Li: Since there is not a big difference for me anymore, at the moment I am looking at near future plans. I have two Chinese scripts and will probably pick one of them. So, my next film will probably be a Chinese film. And after that, the two other scripts I am considering are Hollywood films; I’ll probably choose one of those as the film after that.
Is one of them is Zhang Yimou's upcoming Nanjing [Massacre] movie?
Gong Li: No. It isn’t. But the Chinese name of this name is something like The 13 Beauties. I would be the number 14. (laughs)
How do you see the Chinese government’s role in the film industry and where is it too involved or not involved enough?
Gong Li: I think the Chinese government doesn't control things so much anymore as far as the film market goes. That loosening up is a good thing, especially for actors and actresses, as well as directors because there are a lot of opportunities for everybody. But at the same time there is one area, in which I think the government should take a stronger stand in regulation, and that is what you have in many places in the world: a film ratings system. You have certain films that are not suitable for certain audiences. In certain foreign films and even in Chinese films, there is a lot of violence. That is not a good thing for children or young people to see. That can be a very negative influence on them. Instituting a film ratings system as soon as possible would be a very good move. It was something that I brought up when I was on the People’s Political Consultative Committee a while back, but it hasn’t been actually instituted. Films are spectacular and stimulating and influence people very deeply. Being exposed to violence is not a good influence on young people.
Why doesn’t China have a ratings system?
Gong Li: The position of the Consultative Conference is that we act as advisors. We are not directly affiliated with the government. The purpose is to submit proposals for policies. But it is not really up to us to institute anything. I was a member of the group representing arts and culture. There were about 20 of us. It was something we thought of collectively. It wasn’t just me. We don't know exactly why it hasn’t been actually instituted. Given the huge size of the Chinese film market, I do think this is something that is very, very important to do as soon as possible.
Would you like to direct or produce a movie?
Gong Li: I have been approached to direct films, but I think everybody has their limits. For me, I want to focus all my energy and efforts on acting and give the best performance possible. For now, I am focusing on that. Who knows, in the future maybe I will change my mind.
How fairly compensated is talent in China and is that changing as the film market grows?
Gong Li: It is true that as he film market in China has grown, actors’ and actresses’ compensation has grown quite a bit. Different actors have different kind of deals. Some take percentages, some sign contracts with a company, some take a simple cash payment. But the growth also means there are many more actors out there. Competition has gotten much stiffer, too. It can sometimes be much harder to get a good-paying role. I can tell you that for the very first film I made in 1987 when I was in college my second year, I got paid 200 yuan ($24 at the exchange rate of the day). But I also want to assure you that we still get very little or less than Hollywood actors. Even now when I appear in a Hollywood film, I still get paid a little bit less.
How good is your English now? How comfortable are you?
Gong Li: (switches into English) I think my English still is…I can understand more, but if a question is very specific, it is sometimes difficult for me to answer.
-- Jonathan Landreth in Beijing contributed to this report.