Cannes: 'Coming Home's' Gong Li on How the Chinese Movies Are 'Like Fast Food' (Q&A)

Gong Li

The grande dame of Asian cinema opens up about her long history with Cannes and the power of the Chinese market: "We can make eight figures without lifting a finger."

Even after 25 years and more than a dozen Cannes Film Festivals, Gong Li still feels a thrill when she arrives on the Croisette. “I never get used to it,” says the 48-year-old Chinese actress. “Every time I go, I’m energized by everyone’s respect for filmmakers and artists.”

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Gong will be in Cannes this month with Coming Home, in which she plays a woman who no longer can recognize her husband after he returns from a long exile during the Cultural Revolution. The out of competition selection reunites her with director Zhang Yimou for the first time since 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower; the pair began their careers together with 1987’s wartime drama Red Sorghum and continued their partnership with such acclaimed dramas as JuDou and Raise the Red Lantern. But despite her contributions in elevating Chinese cinema’s international profile, Gong, who became a Singaporean citizen in 2008, believes her native country still can do better.

China, which is poised to become the world’s largest film market within six years, will have a record number of delegates attending the Cannes market this year and is co-hosting its opening-night party. But in order to make a true impact on the global film market, Asian cinema’s grande dame tells THR that Chinese filmmakers need to produce more films of substance, “the kind that make you fall in love with cinema after watching them.”

How do you and Zhang Yimou choose a project together?

There aren’t many directors really making female-centric movies. Director Zhang’s theme from the very beginning, from Red Sorghum to now with Coming Home, has been to use a woman’s perspective to expound upon the story of an era. He chooses the story before he thinks about actors who could play the roles. And if I don’t feel at least 80 percent capable of pulling it off, I don’t take the part. As an actor, I don’t want to repeat myself, and in a single director’s body of work, it’s very easy to repeat what you’ve already performed. But he never wants me to do that.

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How has your working process changed over the years?

We don’t have to say much on set. He says, “You already have this character in you; you don’t need someone else to guide you.” And I say, “Right, I don’t need it. If I’m not portraying her properly, let me know. But if I’m doing it right, just let me keep going.” So it’s this open collaboration. It’s a kind of trust and mutual understanding. I know he believes that I can bring out whatever he wants to show in this woman.

When was your first time at Cannes?

It was ’88, with Red Sorghum. That was Zhang Yimou’s first movie — and mine too. It had already won the Golden Bear at Berlin, although none of us had gone. China had just opened to the world, and at the time, we didn’t really understand film festivals. We didn’t really understand the opportunity, because it had never happened before, winning such a big award.

Cannes was just about the first time I had traveled far from home. We had to wear very formal dress, so I wore a qipao [a traditional Chinese gown]. I suddenly felt like being an actress was a very respectable profession. When people really like your movie, they give you a very sincere, long standing ovation. In China, people revered scientists, teachers and politicians. It was the first time I realized acting could feed others spiritually. From that Cannes forward, I decided to dedicate my life to becoming a good actor. I’ve held that conviction in my heart ever since.

Have you ever considered directing?

A lot of people ask me to produce or direct, but I don’t think I’m qualified. It’s hard enough for a person to do just one thing well in their life. I don’t want to do too much. If I can be an honest, good actor, I’m already very satisfied.

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How have you seen the Chinese film market change over the years?

It’s grown a lot. The old theaters were very uncomfortable — they had hard seats and poor stereo systems. But about 10 years ago China began upgrading all its theaters, and moviegoing has become a part of Chinese people’s lives. The other thing is Chinese people are numerous, and their standard of living is higher than before. The world looks at China as a big place with a lot of people, a good place to make money. And because so many Chinese families send their kids abroad to study, they are familiar with foreign cultures, so Hollywood films are very successful in China.

But the biggest problem in the Chinese market is that it lacks nutrition. A lot of local movies are like fast food. Shallow, nonsensical movies can easily make tens of millions of dollars at home because there are already so many people in China. We think, “As long as we’re entertaining ourselves, that’s enough.” We don’t care about the foreign market, we don’t care about film festivals, we don’t care about Hollywood, we don’t care whether a movie will sell in America or if it will sell in Europe. We can make eight figures without lifting a finger, so we don’t need high standards. This has become a big problem facing local Chinese film. These movies earn a lot of money in China, but they don’t sell outside the country. They have no impact.

I hope some of our good Chinese directors can turn this trend around. It’s OK to have silly movies, but they cannot become the mainstream. We should have some thoughtful pictures, entertaining movies, soul-stirring films — the kind that make you fall in love with cinema after watching them. This kind of movie is rare in China.

Have you seen an increased Chinese presence at international festivals?

There are more Chinese participants at film festivals, but we don’t necessarily have works to show. We don’t have a lot of films that qualify for the major competitions. This is a real pity. We’ve had a few at Berlin and Venice, but at Cannes it’s been a long time since we had many films in major competition. A lot of our actors go and walk the red carpet, but what can they show for it? I’d rather bring my work to participate.

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What was your most memorable Cannes experience?

I went to Cannes for Zhang Yimou’s To Live [in 1994]. The movie was banned in China, but because the producer was [from Hong Kong] and the copyright was his, he could send it to Cannes. The director didn’t go, but I went with [co-star] Ge You. He won best actor, and the film received the second-biggest prize, the Grand Jury Prize. I was to accept on behalf of the director, and earlier that day, I had gotten a phone call saying my father had passed away. But this movie was called To Live.

I don’t know how to describe my mindset at that moment. The director wasn’t there; it was just us two actors. There was no one by our side. You can’t go onstage and cry. So I went up and thanked the jury on behalf of the director, and then I said, “This movie is also dedicated to my father.” I didn’t say my father had just passed away that day, but I said that my father really wanted to see this film because he was from the era it depicted, but he didn’t see it because he was sick. Then I went offstage and cried for a very long time.

Sometimes your work and your personal life conflict. I said, “I want to go home tomorrow,” and I was told, “You can’t go back because you have a lot of interviews to do.” And you can’t be emotional during an interview because this is your job. That was when I learned actors pay a heavy price. Your life and your career must be separated very clearly. In our line of work, we have to face the public, the media, and if any problems emerge in your personal life, you cannot bring that on the film set, because you are embodying a different character. When you do that, you cannot be focused on yourself.

Do you ever get used to the Cannes experience?

Actually, no. I’ve been to Cannes 15 or 16 times, and every time I go, there’s a kind of soul-stirring feeling. That’s why I feel the Cannes Film Festival is done so well, because people never feel like they get used to its solemnity, its respect for artists. If beforehand you felt, “Oh, maybe I don’t want to be an actor anymore. I want to take a break,” once you get there, you feel again like you still want to work. This film festival is very encouraging to actors. When you get here, you feel like your job is still important. There are so many people looking at you expectantly, saying, “Make more movies so we can experience another world in them.” When you get back from Cannes, you say, “I want to keep working.” It has this kind of power. There will be no, “Oh, I’m used to it, going to Cannes is just a part of the process.”

Every time I go to Cannes, I‘m energized by everyone’s respect for artists. I feel this way every time.