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Few Chinese actresses have had as much worldwide success as Gong Li, who has captivated art house audiences worldwide with starring roles in films such as Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju and Farewell My Concubine. Those led to turns in Hollywood with Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice, among others.
Gong has been out of the spotlight for a while, making just five films this decade, none of which had the commercial, or critical, resonance of her earlier work. But her upcoming slate shows that she’s primed for a comeback, as she stars in two high-profile films that play to both sides of her global fanbase, both art house and Hollywood.
First up is Lou Ye’s multi-language Saturday Fiction, which had its North American premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival and will also play at the New York Film Fest. In the black-and-white period drama, which is set in 1941 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Gong plays Jin Yu, a famous actress who returns to the city. Her motives, however, are unclear. Is she a spy for the Allied forces, a woman trying to free her ex-husband from the Japanese or simply a lover trying to escape the city? When she uncovers plans of the imminent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she must make a split-second decision on what to do with that information.
Next spring, Gong will make a bid for multiplexes worldwide playing the villainous sorceress Xian Lang in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. The film, adapted from Disney’s 1998 animated hit, is based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan who, disguised as a man, took her father’s place in the army during the Six Dynasties period. The story is well-known in China, where the ancient legend has inspired numerous plays, books, poems, TV series and films.
THR spoke with Gong following the world premiere of Saturday Fiction at the Venice International Film Festival about the significance of Disney retelling the Mulan story, what films need to cross over for Chinese and U.S. audiences and what she thinks of that Red Hot Chilli Peppers song named after her.
Your character in Saturday Fiction carries both the dramatic and emotional weight of this story. Why was it important for this story to be seen through the eyes of a woman?
This film indeed demonstrates very well the condition of women who lived through war times in the 1940s before the occupation. They represent the power and the image of modern women in China today.
Actually, there were many Chinese heroines during that time that’s similar to the one in this film, such as Liu Hulan, who was a war hero. So I think this film does a very good job in representing the strong women from that time period and offers a unique perspective on war and humanity.
Xiangli Huang plays superfan/spy Bai Mei, who chases after you in the streets. How do you react to celebrity culture in your own life?
(Laughs.) I’ve never been in a situation quite like that. At that time, being an actor was a very admirable profession. But unlike today, there weren’t many modern publicity tools or social media, only newspapers. The audience, the fans, had to go to the theater to see her in person. It was impossible to see them on the internet. Back then, the actors or actresses were very powerful. I think the film really captures the feeling of being a star during that time.
There seems to be real love between these two women. What was important to you about showing this relationship?
I think this is just the emotional connection between them. In the beginning, maybe it’s a relationship where they’re taking advantage of each other, but it becomes a relationship of mutual support later in the film.
This is what’s powerful about female relationships, especially during that time period. I read a lot of biographies of women figures of that time period. During war, the relationships between people are very complicated, and at the same time, there is also genuine help and support. I think this kind of sincerity and genuine support is actually very central in the film. And I especially liked this subplot between the two women. The shift from exploitation to later support between them makes this film special.
So you’ve never been chased down the street?
Yes, I have had fans chasing me, but not like in the film. In the film, she was attracted to this girl after she tells her some information. In real life, I would just say, “Thank you,” or take a picture and say, “I have to go.” (Laughs.)
Does the attention ever bother you?
It’s not a bother. It’s just that an actor should have his or her private life and space. The importance of having a private life is that you can observe the world with your own eyes, instead of letting people constantly observe you. If there are many people looking at you all the time, you might not be able to see real life. I think maybe what bothers me is this. In my real life, I like to observe people’s behaviors and manners. If you’re always being watched, then you can see nothing. I don’t want my private life like this.
Your character is very mysterious, with unclear intentions. But she justifies her actions by saying, “I did what I thought I should do.” Was it clear for you the type of character you were portraying, and her motivations?
At the beginning, it’s a mission to get information. But after doing so, when she hears the information, it shows how strong she is in wartime. When she realizes that her father did not hear the correct information, she decides to rebel and withhold the real information from him. She sees a chance to finish the war, so she goes against her responsibility, her role, and goes against her father. She gives him the wrong information hoping to get the U.S. to join World War II to help finish the war.
Were you aware of Disney’s Mulan when it came out? Do you think this film will be important for Chinese culture?
We’ve already finished shooting this film. I am a fan of Mulan. China had this animation and later on Disney had its own version. In this film, I act as a wizard who can become a hundred thousand eagles. So Disney making this film from this foreign point of view of this ancient Chinese female hero — I think it’s a really good thing.
What kind of film do you think would crossover to both American and Chinese audiences?
I think, for example, if it’s some American story that has some Chinese part in it, or if it’s about Western people that live in China. This would be easier to get the investment, to get people involved in a film, if it’s a story about both countries.
Music seems to have always played a big role in your life. You got married to a musician earlier this year: French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. What contemporary musicians do you like?
I’ve always liked to sing. When I was young, before I went to college, Jean-Michel Jarre came to China to perform in the Forbidden City and I remembered listening to him on the radio. We did not have many TVs back then. I enjoyed music and singing because at that time I didn’t know what else I could do. So later on I decided to try to be an actress. Now I really like to listen to Michael Jackson because that’s what I listened to when I was younger.
What do you think about the Red Hot Chili Peppers song named after you?
Ah yes, yes, I know it. I like all their music, but before I didn’t really notice it. I heard the song when it first came out. I thought, ‘Wow! I have my own song, for me!’ I feel very honored. I’ve listened to it again and again.
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