Family & Companions
China's most internationally famous actress and a significant creative force in the new era of Chinese film in the 1980s, Gong Li began her film career in Zhang Yimou's "Red Sorghum" (1987), for which she received considerable international acclaim. A frequent collaborator with Yimou throughout her career, Li came to embody a new generation of Chinese woman - one brought up amid ancient tradition but reaching toward feminist values - with empowered roles in films like "Ju Dou" (1990), "Farewell My Concubine" (1993), and "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005). Li's compelling, naturalistic performances as women struggling to overcome feudalism and patriarchy contributed to the international success of her films, and Li herself was credited with helping attract American audiences to Chinese film for the first time. Li continued holding their interest into the next millennium with lead roles in a variety of Academy Award-nominated films exploring Chinese culture, history, politics and passion.
Gong Li was born Dec. 31, 1965, and raised in Shenyang as the youngest child of college professors in Beijing, China. With her early passion for singing, dancing and acting, Li was uninterested in following in her family's academic footsteps, and she went against their wishes by enrolling in Beijing's Central Academy of Drama after high school. It was there that she met budding young actor and director Zhang Yimou, who would launch both their careers with his 1987 film "Red Sorghum," which starred Li as a meek bride who becomes a powerful woman when she takes over her husband's winery after his death. The role set the tone for actress' future endeavors playing strong lead characters who often go against tradition, including her follow-ups "The Empress Dowager" (1988), directed by Li Hanxiang, and "The Terra Cotta Warrior" (1989), for which Li was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress. "Ju Dou" (1990), in which Li played the "purchased" wife of an abusive man who finds solace and tragic consequences in the company of another family member, marked Li (and director Yimou's) international breakout with a Palm D'Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film - the first Chinese film ever bestowed with that honor.
The following year, Li starred as the newest addition to a man's bevy of competitive wives in the visually lush "Raise the Red Lantern" (1991), a universally praised effort that topped Film Critic Society's lists and took home Best Film nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards. The high profile film cemented Li's reputation as China's best-known actress, and with this solid reputation she was allowed the freedom to explore new material and earned a Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actress for her starring role in "The Story of Qiu Ju" (1992), a dark comedy about a pregnant farmer determined to avenge an injustice done to her husband. Chen Kaige's "Farewell to My Concubine" (1993) was another international hit which swept awards season with Golden Globe and BAFTA wins and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. For her co-starring role, Li was awarded a New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress. Zhang Yimou tapped Li for the well-received historical epic "To Live" (1994), which followed a married couple through 30 years of modern Chinese history. Uncharacteristically, Gong Li's role as a devoted wife and mother was overshadowed by that of a strong male lead, actor Ge You, who played her husband. The pair's next collaboration "Shanghai Triad" (1995) offered Gong Li a tour-de-force role as a nightclub chanteuse and gangster's moll.
Li reunited with Chen Kaige to play an isolated, spoiled heiress in the director's "Temptress Moon" (1996), making her English-language debut the following year in Wayne Wang's "Chinese Box" (1997) opposite Jeremy Irons. She returned to her native land for "Breaking the Silence" (1999), playing a hard-working single mom in the Academy Award -nominated Best Foreign Language Film and winning Best Actress at the 2000 Montreal World Film Festival for her performance. She followed up with a starring role in what was reported to be the most expensive Asian film to date, "The Emperor and the Assassin" (1999), a sweeping historical epic about the first emperor of a unified China (Li Xuejian), the man sworn to kill him (Zhang Fengyi) and the woman loved by both (Gong Li). Li played a painter at a ceramic factory torn between her love for a reticent poet (Tony Leung) and a cynical traveling veterinarian (Sun Honglei) in "Zhou Yu's Train" (2003) before appearing in the short film anthology "Eros" (2004), starring in Wong Kar Wai's "The Hand" as a refined Hong Kong prostitute who seduces a young virginal tailor (Chang Chen). She worked with Wong Kar Wai again on his magnificently flawed epic "2046" (2005), a loosely related continuation of the director's lyrical love story, "In the Mood for Love" (2001).
Li was back in American theaters with a supporting role in the high profile "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), playing an aging Japanese geisha jealous of a young newcomer's (Ziyi Zhang) ability to captivate the most powerful men in the world. After having earned the title of Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for "Geisha," Gong Li made a brief foray into Hollywood films with a role as a drug trafficker's business-savvy wife who falls for a law enforcement agent in the adaptation of the 1980s TV show "Miami Vice" (2006), a box office hit thanks to stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. She was back in the good graces of the film critic world with Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006), a Tang dynasty-set melodrama starring Chow Yun Fat that earned Li a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress. Li made her second Hollywood outing with the poorly received "Silence of the Lambs" (1991) prequel "Hannibal Rising" (2007), but fared better in Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom's "Shanghai" (2009), a World War II period thriller starring John Cusack as an American investigating the murder of a friend in Shanghai who unwittingly discovers U.S. government secrets.
Cast (Feature Film)
Entered the Central Academy of Drama against the wishes of her parents
Film debut, "Red Sorghum"
Played opposite director Zhang Yimou in the adventure comedy, "The Terra Cotta Warrior"
Starred in Zhang Yimou's "Ju Dou"
Reunited with Zhang Yimou to star in "Raise the Red Lantern"
Had title role in "The Story of Qiu Ju", directed by Zhang Yimou
Initial collaboration with Chen Kaige, "Farewell My Concubine"
Reunited with Zhang Yimou for "To Live"
Had co-starring role in "Shanghai Triad"; last film collaboration with Zhang Yimou
Second film with Chen Kaige "Temptress Moon"
Appeared in first English-language role in "Chinese Box", opposite Jeremy Irons
Reunited with Chen Kaige to star in "The Emperor and the Assassin"
Headlined "Breaking the Silence", directed by Sun Zhou
Starred with Maggie Cheung and Ziyi Zhang in "2046" directed by Wong Kar Wai
Cast as Geisha Hatsumomo in Rob Marshall's adaptation of the best selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha"
Cast as a drug baroness in the feature adaptation of the 80's series "Miami Vice" directed by Michael Mann
Once again worked with director Zhang in "Curse of the Golden Flower," which co-stars Chow Yun-Fat
Starred in "Hannibal Rising" a prequel to "Silence of the Lambs"