Vice and virtues
It might seem that Gong Li has 'gone Hollywood', but the renowned Chinese actress displays few of the traits of a typical Tinseltown star. Meeting with the press during a frenzied couple of days in Los Angeles recently, she comes into a suite at the Four Seasons hotel with no make-up (or at least none that can be detected) and wearing a simple dove-grey dress with a matching hooded top. Her hair is swept up off her face and her jewellery is limited to a slender diamond band on her ring finger and a delicate heart-shaped diamond pendant around her neck. Folding her arms somewhat defensively in front of her lean frame, she seems almost nervous. Anyone meeting her for the first time could be forgiven for thinking she's never faced the media before.
And in a way, she hasn't. Although Li, 40, is China's most famous actress, and a household name in cities such as Hong Kong and Taipei, her role in the upcoming Miami Vice may be the one that hurls her into the consciousness of mainstream American audiences. She gained significant exposure with her role in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), in which she played the devastatingly cruel Hatsumomo, a role that won her a best supporting actress award from the US National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. But despite its immaculate pedigree - the film was directed by Rob Marshall and produced by Steven Spielberg - and numerous accolades, it was still regarded as an art house movie with limited audience appeal.
Now, with Miami Vice, things are different. Li plays the lover of a reviled and powerful crime lord and develops an ill-fated relationship with undercover detective Sonny Crockett, played by Colin Farrell. The film, which is due for release in Hong Kong on August 17, also stars Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, hot young actress Naomie Harris and was written and directed by visionary director Michael Mann, who has helmed such acclaimed films as The Insider, Collateral and Heat. Mann sought Li for the role and gave her a significant part in a movie that has enough elements to bring in the masses: international intrigue, violence, glamorous locations and sex. If this doesn't make people sit up and notice Li, it's uncertain what will. But for the actress, signing up for the role was much more about the opportunity to work with Mann than any exposure the film would bring.
'He [Mann] approached my agent first, and when I heard about that I was quite excited,' she recalls. 'I didn't know what the role was and what could come of it. But even if it didn't work out, I would be happy to have a chance to meet him.'
The role, as it turns out, is of Isabella, a Chinese-Cuban who thrives on running with the wrong people. She is a powerful and self-possessed woman who travels in private jets, on speedboats and in luxury cars surrounded by convoys, and who salsa dances like a professional. It's a world that exists at the junction of Miami, Colombia and Cuba, a world Mann researched assiduously. He prepared Li for the role by hiring no less than four language teachers (she had only two on Memoirs), who helped her learn not just English, which she speaks haltingly, but Cuban-accented English, as well as Spanish. Her scenes with Farrell are provocative and intense, but Li says she was not apprehensive about working with a noted womaniser.
'He's a very nice guy and we're good friends,' she says matter-of-factly. 'He's a great person to work with. He treats everybody well and takes a great interest in everyone around him - not just me, but the crew as well. As a result, it's easy to feel relaxed around him. He's also a very professional actor.'
Commenting on Farrell's affinity for bars (although he recently completed a stint in rehab), Li smiles and says self-effacingly that while her co-star may have taught her how to drink beer, she 'taught him how to drink mojitos'.
Reports are circulating that the movie might be banned on the mainland - more for its depictions of the drug trade than its steamy sex scenes. Li seems surprised to hear the rumours, but doesn't pay them much heed. 'I'm not sure about that, and if that's true it would be too bad ... but pirated videos are everywhere in China, so it won't make much difference.'
In addition to studying two languages, Mann required Li to become well acquainted with her character and the world she inhabits. 'The director gave us a lot of preparation work for the film - a lot of photographs, for example, of arrested drug dealers and barons. In fact, most of them are men; there
are rarely any women among them. These pictures showed, for example, what their expressions are,
[the way they] stare. We spent two months preparing for this so we could understand more about how these people live.'
Mann also took Li and Farrell to Havana during pre-production, so she could meet members of the Chinese community, many of whom have lived in the country for two or three generations. 'We went
to Cuba to learn how people live there. I feel very much a stranger there - the country carries a mystique for me. I wanted to see how much it has changed - it is a communist country, after all. We went and talked to the Asian community, and when they realised we were film stars they kept asking what we do and what our films are like. I was, like, 'Hey, we're here to talk about your lives and you are asking about us!'
'I just wanted to have a feeling about how they lead their lives. I asked them whether the Chinese in Cuba know how to do salsa and they said yes. We then asked them to dance for us and they did it like everyone there. It's really different to [how people in China] do it; their way of gyrating their hips, for example. They said they'd been doing it since they were small.'
Li says she sees similarities between modern-day Cuba and China in the 1980s. 'The country was like China in a way, yes. But Cubans are always very happy, even if they don't have too much money and their houses are worn down. Still, they are joyous people. In contrast, people in China in the 80s were more repressed emotionally.'
For Mann, that trip to Cuba, and his exposure to its Chinese community, was an eye-opener. 'Some part of Chinese culture is present in their lives, but they're Cuban,' he says. 'The woman are Latinas and they salsa, and if their husbands start looking at a girl the wrong way there's a volatile reaction.'
Li's commitment to learning the intricate inflections of Cuban-accented English deepened Mann's respect for her. 'She's a phenomenon,' he says. 'I just think she's spectacular and she's such a strong actress. I'd wanted to work with her for a long time and when I started thinking about [the role] and who could do Isabella, I thought, 'Gong Li could do this in her sleep'. She's strong and powerful and at the same time vulnerable and sensitive and a brilliant renaissance actress.'
Mann, who is known in the industry for overseeing the most minute aspects of film production, monitored Li's progress with linguistics. 'She has a ferocious work ethic,' he says. 'Cuban-accented English has a different rhythm and emphasis and that's what she had to learn: her facial structure; the muscles in her face that she uses to form words; the way the tongue sits in her mouth when she speaks; its relation to the back of her teeth. She worked for months to be able to do this, and to understand it, and to act, and to salsa.'
The admiration is mutual. 'Michael Mann understands a lot and loves Chinese people,' Li enthuses. 'He admitted in the past he saw China just as a mysterious place, but now he knows a lot. He's a very knowledgeable person; he reads a lot. For example, he could tell you a lot about Hong Kong. He can tell you what the triads are like in Hong Kong or what the gangsters are like elsewhere in Asia. I think he could make good films from that.'
Li concedes that with the plentiful opportunities now being offered to her in Hollywood, she may have to crank up her English lessons. She's poised to be in the upcoming Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask, a prequel to the Hannibal Lecter movies. 'I'm still studying [English], but I hope I can be more systematic about it so it's not just everyday conversation, but learning lots of special words as well.'
Despite a blossoming career in the US, she laughs off any suggestion of moving to Los Angeles, saying she will continue to call Beijing home. But apart from such basic information, she is loath to discuss more intimate details about her life. After a highly publicised affair with Chinese director Zhang Yimou, she married a Singaporean tobacco tycoon. These days, all she will say about her personal life is that she wishes she could devote more time to it.
'I am getting a little bit tired, because in the past couple of years I've been so busy and I always seem to be working,' she says. 'It's hard to maintain a personal life and I feel like I don't have enough of that. I don't get to wear the clothes I like. Or if you buy a new car, you're too busy to drive it so you give it to a friend to take care of, then eventually it becomes your friend's car.'
Those issues aside, Li concedes that working in the US has many advantages, not least of which is the sizeable budgets enjoyed by Hollywood studios. 'The big difference [between Hollywood and Chinese productions] is the money. There's a lot of money involved in the US and you can get anything you need. In a film like Miami Vice, Michael could make the film he imagined because of all the resources he had. We had to prolong shooting from September to December. A situation like that is not possible in China.'
There are also creative benefits in working with American movie-makers, she says. 'Western directors are richer in imagination, whereas those in China still adhere to a certain way of thinking, a system. A lot of things you just couldn't do. People in Hollywood respect the actors more. They will talk to you about how you want to play the part, then I'll ask them what they want me to give, and I'll try to give it something more. Some of the good directors in China also do that. As an actor, you have to have your own thinking - if you don't you're not doing your job. We should always demand more from ourselves than what is expected by directors. We act with the brain, not with the body.'
Hopefully, more of that dedication will soon be on view, in films that go beyond the sweeping epics Li has become known for. 'I have some interest in comedy,' she says. 'There's a part of me that's quite humorous. A lot of my friends ask me why I don't do a comedy. Maybe it would be nice to try out a sweet character.'
Additional reporting by Clarence Tsui.