in Actors, Models, and Directors

Gong Li: The Garbo of the Far East

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The Asian Greta Garbo. ( Such is the agnomen the press has anointed Chinese actress, Gong Li. This is no minor comparison. Garbo is a legend, a screen deity from an epoch where few stars are remembered, what more on a last name basis. Here are the other two survivors: Chaplin ( and Valentino ( Of course, there’s Swanson, although it was a talkie that earned her immortality. (

Why this honor, you might wonder. Watch “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), the Oscar Best Foreign Film that brought Li to our attention. Director Zhang Yimou does something reminiscent of a Garbo vehicle. He manipulates his camera to make love to his star. This iconoclastic approach to film making is rare. It isn’t always that a movie so feeds off an actress that her beauty is the nexus of the plot. I’ve witnessed it only in one other film made in my life time, and that would be “Tess” (1979). The object of adoration in the Roman Polanski classic: Nastassja Kinski, who herself inspired critics to link her to Garbo. (

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Polanski and Kinski were an item, as were Yimou and Li; hence, the press romanticizing of such pairings as “the artist and the muse.” The collaboration was never more apparent than with the latter couple. Polanski directed Kinski in one film, whereas Yimou directed Li in at least seven. So potent was the chemistry between the Chinese auteur and his actress that it propelled both to artistic and commercial renown with their first film. Their meeting was simple enough. Yimou discovered Li while she was just a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, casting the 23-year-old in “Red Sorghum” (1989), where she plays a poor rural lass in an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Concubine, mistress, courtesan, femme fatale… these are the feminine archetypes Gong Li has often inhabited. Now you see why the Greta Garbo analogy?

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Typecasting, you might scoff.  If you were in Zhang Yimou’s position, I doubt you’d be able to resist modeling such a discovery after Garbo for the posterity of future film viewers. Lips the sweetness of plum blossom, complexion chrysanthemum radiant, a peony’s commanding beauty… Li on screen is a flower soft in demeanor but that withstands winds and storms. In “Red Sorghum,” she survives abduction and war. In “Raise the Red Lantern,” she schemes for liberation from marital enslavement. From “Shanghai Triad” (1995) to “Eros” (2004), from “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) to “Coming Home” (2014) (, Gong Li plays proud and dignified, no matter that tragedy could be her fate. Though not all of her films feature her under the directorship of Yimou, his influence on her is evident. The message her former Svengali has written in her every expression and gesture is readable to all: this is the plight of the Asian woman; it speaks of the chains that have shackled all women since Eve.

My sister could not get herself to see “Raise the Red Lantern,” its subject of misogyny too personal (as it is for many women). Regardless, she could not be immune to Gong Li’s novel stature as an icon either. She even got to stand in the actress’s place. This because of a dress. Fame brought Li to the attention of Shanghai Tang, the premier brand in the Far East of high-end garments and luxury items and from whom my sister would have cheongsams custom tailored. During one fitting, the seamstress had my sister slip on a cheongsam Li had modeled. It was a perfect fit, save for the bosom of which Li is more ample than the average Asian female. What flattery. Shanghai Tang was swathing my sister in the silk that had caressed the woman consistently hailed as one of the most beautiful in the world, a privilege the brand rarely bestowed on its clients, if ever at all.

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That was the 1990s. It’s hard to believe Gong Li is now 50. Such is existence in the real world. Unlike her Hollywood counterparts, however, she need not bewail the dearth of roles for having reached middle-age. Li is revered enough so that she continues to command attention even when stripped of glamor; thus, her turn as a political dissident’s wife in “Coming Home,” dowdy and demented with only the emotionality of those eyes to rivet us viewers. She is arguably the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, in the most modern medium of aesthetic expression.

This brings me to the endurance of art and the mysterious ways in which a masterpiece comes to fruition. Without Gong Li, there would not have been Zhang Yimou as we know him. The same could be said of all the celebrated artists and their muses in eras past from Dante and Beatrice Portinari to Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse. We are born with the capacity for brilliance, yet for that brilliance to explode at full force, its debris glitter in the universe for time immemorial, a missing link is crucial much like a key to a lock. There is truth to the saying that behind every great man is a great woman (or vice versa), and so I wonder what brought Frida Kahlo to her Diego and T.S. Eliot to his Vivienne. Was their pairing serendipitous or preordained?

Whatever the case, they met and fell in love, and their love transcended the commonplace romance to produce art over which the world marvels. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Lolita” of the doomed Humbert Humbert when the child predator authors a manuscript to perpetuate his devotion for the girl vixen: “I am thinking of aurochs and angles, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The only way that love lasts beyond the grave is through our celebration of it in songs and poems, in stories and images. The images at our disposal have multiplied in the span of the millennium, from carvings on a cave wall and oil on canvass to camcorders and mobile filming. Cinema, with its fusion of narrative and visuals, remains the most powerful of all, gripping us viewers at the throat and tugging at our hearts.

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For all the political interpretations critics have applied to Zhang Yimou’s output in collaboration with Gong Li, one message is unmistakable: each one is the director’s shrine to his glorious star.

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