As the radiantly beautiful star of Zhang Yimou's finest films, Gong Li became the darling of the international art house circuit and China's most famous actress. Whether playing a pregnant villager searching for justice or a rich man's concubine struggling to survive, she lends her characters a grace and sensuality that keeps international audiences transfixed.
Born in December 31st,1965 in northeastern Shenyang, Gong was the youngest daughter of an economics professor. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an actress, and at school she excelled at singing and dancing almost to the exclusion of other subjects. In spite of failing her college exam twice, she was eventually accepted to the Beijing Central College of Drama in 1985. At that time, Chinese cinema was experiencing a renaissance after the tumult of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984) had just taken the Hong Kong International Film Festival by storm, heralding the rise of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers. One of these young directors was Zhang, the cinematographer for Yellow Earth, who cast Gong in his debut project, Red Sorghum (1987). Immediately a critical and commercial success both abroad and at home, the film garnered the Golden Bear award at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival and thrust both director and star into the international limelight.
Their professional and well-publicized personal relationship would go on to shape Chinese cinema for the next decade. Yimou's films made Li an international household name, while Li's undeniable presence pulled in audiences. After appearing in the forgettable Codename Cougar (1987) and starring opposite her beau in The Terracotta Warrior (1989), Li grabbed the attention of international audiences again with the Academy Award-nominated Ju Dou (1990). Her performance as the beleaguered bride of a bitter, impotent old man glistened with barely repressed sexuality, and fierce, gleeful vengeance. In her next film, Raise the Red Lantern (1992), widely considered Yimou's masterpiece, Li again brilliantly played a woman whose independence and sensuality are oppressed by a rigidly patriarchal culture. Yet Li's performance in The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) is perhaps her most memorable. Instead of playing the object of obsession, she portrayed an unflagging agent of justice in the guise of a dumpy, pregnant peasant woman. The change in characters paid off, as she won a Best Actress award at the 1992 Venice International Film Festival.
After playing the lead in Sylvia Chang's well-received Mary from Beijing (1992), Li played a prostitute turned opera star's wife turned enemy of the people in Kaige's stunning, Farewell, My Concubine (1993), which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. For the first time, Li received international acclaim in a film not directed by Yimou. Though she would star in two more of Yimou's films, To Live (1994) and Shanghai Triad (1995), her career started to take her in a different direction. After the latter was released, the press reported that Li and Yimou had officially ended both their personal and professional relationships. That same year, she married Singapore tobacco tycoon Ooi Hoe Soeng. Since then, she has appeared in two more Kaige films, Temptress Moon (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999). In 1997, she appeared in her first English language role opposite Jeremy Irons in Chinese Box (1997). Her star continuing to shine brightly in such homegrown efforts as Zhou Yu's Train and Wong Kar Wei's romantic drama 2046, the Chinese actress raised a few eyebrows when cast in the role of a Japanese geisha in director Rob Marshall's 2005 effort Memoirs of a Geisha. A featured role opposite Collin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the eagerly-anticipated big screen action extravaganza Miami Vice would find Li returning stateside to appear before the cameras once again in 2005.