During the late '80s and '90s she was the face of the new Chinese cinema. And what a face. But, as with all great stars, it was more than face alone. Ethereal, beautiful beyond poetry, yet possessing a will of iron and spunk of steel, the great Gong Li made moviegoing an extraordinary pleasure.
Her first big film to reach the West came in 1987, with "Red Sorghum," where she played the dynamic widow of a winery owner trying to make it in rural China in the late 1930s until the arrival of the Japanese. It was her first movie -- she was born in a provincial town, the daughter of an economics professor -- and her first collaboration with Zhang Yimou, who would call her his muse. (She was also romantically involved with him for a number of years.)
Two more Zhang projects ensued, notably "Raise the Red Lantern," a sumptuous drama of concubine politics in pre-revolutionary China. Then, in 1993, Gong starred in Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," set against the Peking opera and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Another great movie and a great success: At that moment she was the most famous Asian actress in the world. And yet . . .
Who knows? Perhaps it was the end of her relationship with Zhang in 1995; perhaps it was the failure of her first Western film, "Chinese Box," in 1997. Perhaps it was the failure of her last big Chinese epic, "The Emperor and the Assassin," directed by Chen, which was followed by the success of Zhang's "Hero," then "House of Flying Daggers." Perhaps it was her assimilation into international film culture by way of the Cannes Film Festival, where she became a regular after serving on a jury in 1997; soon she was serving on juries for the Berlin, Tokyo and Venice film festivals as well. Or perhaps it was the emergence of Ziyi Zhang as the new Asian female superstar after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Between 1999 and 2005, she made only two films, and only one, "Zhou Yu's Train," had any impact, and that not much: It was a smallish, personal film of some skill but no great influence.
But now she's back and once again we are fated to enjoy her essential paradox: It's the contrapuntal contrast between the exquisite, delicate beauty -- that pale porcelain skin, the shell-like perfection and symmetry of features, the depthless pools of her eyes -- and the strength of her spirit. She always seems like one tough gal in a way alien to the screen for at least five decades, since the great days of the beautiful dame stars like Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich and Ann Sheridan, who could love you up good or break your spine like a twig.
Yeehaw and hoohaw, she's back: Twice in 2005 with "2046" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," where she's one of a trio of senior Chinese stars who play Japanese geishas in the American production ("Chicago's" Rob Marshall directed) of the best-selling Arthur Golden novel.
Next year, it gets even better: She's in two big Western films, "Miami Vice" and "Young Hannibal." Gong Li and Sonny Crockett? Bet you never thought you'd see those two names in the same sentence. What about Gong Li and Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter? Good Lord, has the world turned upside down or has it simply turned right side up?