Nation's most recognizable showbiz face on the world stage shares with Liu Wei her acting philosophy and relationship with acclaimed director Zhang Yimou
Stunning is the word often used to describe Gong Li - be it her beauty, performance or charisma - but the most stunning thing about her is, actually, her friendly, frank and down-to-earth manner.
Dressed in a black silk shirt and blue satin harem pants, the 45-year-old diva, wearing her trademark smile, looks gorgeously fit.
Unlike most other actresses, who are acutely aware of the photographer when doing interviews, Gong seems hardly aware of the camera.
She is a good listener, devoting her full attention to the questions; she is also a good speaker, who looks you straight in the eye while giving her answers.
One word she mentions often in the one-hour interview with the press is "stubborn". She calls herself a "stubborn actress" and attributes her success to being stubborn.
"I only take roles that I think are right," she says. "Nobody can change my mind. I don't fear mistakes; if they happen, it's okay. Let's do it again and right."
And the roles she deems right are complex. The star of Raise the Red Lantern and Miami Vice just hates flat characters. And the last thing she wants to do is repeat roles.
Her latest role is that of a spy in Shanghai whose cover is that she is a head gangster's wife. The story is set in 1941, when Japanese troops are invading China. Caught between love and her mission, her character is faced with difficult choices. An oriental take on Casablanca, Gong acts opposite John Cusack and Chow Yun-fat.
"This role is very new to me," Gong says. "(The character) is smart, mysterious and courageous. I have never played a patriot, someone who will die for her country."
As always, Gong discussed her role at length with the director, on this occasion, Mikael Hfstrm. She also turned to documentaries and photographs about World War II, besides taking dancing classes three times a week, to ensure an accurate portrayal of the character.
"I will not start acting if I am not fully prepared," she says. "It may sound old-fashioned, but that's the way I am."
The film, titled Shanghai, will premiere in China on June 17 and in the United States, three months later. The Sino-US co-production is Gong's fourth film with a Hollywood crew. She admits that in Memoirs of a Geisha, her first Hollywood film, she felt a bit out of place, but that is no longer the case.
"I do not feel like I am a foreigner. Shanghai is a story about China, so maybe they (the Hollywood crew) are the real foreigners," she jokes. "But seriously, one thing I like about Hollywood is that it has so many professional writers, so most of their scripts are very solid."
However, she points out, there are few good roles for Asian actors.
A scene with American actor John Cusack from movie Shanghai, an oriental version of Casablanca. [China Daily]
"It is unrealistic for Hollywood to offer many important roles to Asian actors; after all, we are not part of its culture," she says. "But I would still encourage young actors to meet different people and cultures. Do not focus too much on where you work, care more for the story, director and partners."
Gong's next Hollywood production is a film about Genghis Khan, in which she plays a Mongolian woman, opposite Mickey Rourke.
Gong says she never planned her overseas career. She attributes her popularity worldwide to China's better links with the outside world. But she is inarguably the most internationally acclaimed actress from China.
"I feel pretty proud about that," she says with obvious confidence. "It proves that my stubbornness has paid off. As an actor you have to be very confident and stick to your choices."
Picky as she is, Gong has also chosen some roles that she now regrets. With an impish smile, she calls her roles in several Hong Kong slapstick comedies in the early 1990s as "false steps".
"They just told me I would play twins -'both pretty girls', " she says imitating the Hong Kong dialect, and cannot not help laughing. "I thought it would be a challenge to play two roles in a film, so I went there, very happily. Later I found that even if you play eight roles in a film, if they are meaningless, it does not matter."
The film was God of Gamblers II: Back to Shanghai, shot in 1991. In it Gong plays two sisters who support Stephen Chow in the lead.
But it was in the same year that Gong also starred in Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, which was nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
Gong is quite open talking about Zhang, and her time as his most important muse and lover. It was their films such as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Story of Qiuju, that brought modern Chinese cinema to the world's notice.
Off screen the two fell in love while Zhang was still married, but their much-talked about relationship ended in 1995, after their seventh collaboration as director and lead actress.
The two did not join hands again until 2006 when Zhang fulfilled an old promise to make Gong a queen on screen in the Curse of the Golden Flower.
"I am very lucky to have met him," she says calmly, as if talking about an old friend. "Among all the directors he understands me the best. In one word, our cooperation is unique. I remember all the takes and music of the films we made together.
"As a cinematographer-turned-director, he knows the importance of capturing the subtle changes of an actor's facial expressions, from the look in one's eye to the slightest movement of one's eyebrows... He always lets the actors tell the story through their expressions, rather than by speaking the lines."
She has not seen Zhang's latest film A Simple Noodle Story, the slapstick version of Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, but is aware of the criticism.
"Maybe he just wants to make something fun and easy at this stage of his life," she says. "I have noticed the changes in his works in recent years, although I would rather see him maintain his good old style...I think those (old) works will be remembered forever in people's heart."
Gong says she would love to work with Zhang again, because "he is such a good director". But she denies she will join Zhang's next film, a war epic titled 13 Girls of Nanjing.
"13 girls! Think about it!" she laughs. "I do not like to share the spotlight, I need enough space to display my acting skills."
Gong says she has never thought about writing a script or directing a film herself. She just wants to be an actress.
"That's the only thing I can do," she says. "I don't want everything. That will distract me from acting."
But someday, she does see herself teaching acting in college, or becoming an animal photographer.
"Taking a good camera and shooting photographs of animals in Africa, that's one of my dreams."