SUCH an unnatural state of being, movie stardom - yet the most famous Chinese actress in the world, the lustrous Gong Li herself, insists: ''It's just another job. I've always said so - like you're a journalist, I'm an actress. What's the difference?'' At this point she puts on the same pouty insouciance of her character Songlian at the start of Raise the Red Lantern, when, in a series of tight close-ups, she goes from protesting against being married off to accepting the grim, unromantic fate that is a woman's lot in life. Except Gong is perfectly made up, having emerged from a two-hour make-up session in the dressing room, and looking quite in charge of the situation. Here is the face that makes men weak and women longing - the alert, oval eyes; the dainty, well-formed nose; the pert lips; the smooth complexion of alabaster white; the strong, determined jaw line. Her hair is done up in a bun, held in with bejewelled pins and combs, with a long fall lying to one side. Actually, most of this is fake as Gong wears her hair short. She is wearing a satin lavender-and-white Ming lady's outfit, perched on a folding chair on the set of her latest film, a kung fu comedy being shot in Kowloon, Tang Bo Fu Chooses Qiu Xian, which is based on a Ming period classic. After opening with her provocative statement about the equality of the occupations, Gong stares at you with her dark, brilliant eyes, as if daring you to challenge her self-evident reasoning. But, you say, there is only one Gong Li. Surely, it must be different. She brushes that aside. ''If people like my movies, it's because they like the character I'm playing. There's something about these women they identify with, something about their situation that touches them. The women I play are often strong, self-confident and wilful. They know what they want.'' She is twirling the end of her faux -hair between her fingers. ''People see me playing these strong characters, and they think that's me.'' And is that true? Are you like these women? ''People say I am, but . . .'' she shakes her head and gives a short laugh. ''I really don't know myself. I haven't figured that out yet.'' Then does she use her roles as a means of self-discovery? ''Oh, it's nothing that complicated!'' she said dismissively. Gong is clearly bored with the same old questions about her background, her breaking into films, her early career and she insists she can barely remember the roles she has played. There is a book with all those boring details for reference. She often replies with a sulky equivalent of ''yeah'' or ''that's about right''. Perhaps it was an honour even to be granted this one-on-one interview. Recently, a group of Hongkong journalists invited to interview her were denied even a glimpse when she refused to appear - she was apparently napping in the dressing room. Ever since,articles criticising her and her attitude problem have appeared in one local paper after the next. These days she is hot box office and much sought after by Hongkong producers. Her asking price per film? A hefty $1.8 million, in the league with such Hongkong superstars as Anita Mui Yim-fong and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. It is obvious Gong does not like talking about herself - maybe due to years of relentless gossip-mongering about her relationship with director Zhang Yimou, maybe out of a genuine yearning for privacy. In China, Gong rarely appears in public because she is instantly, uncomfortably, mobbed. In Hongkong, people stare and occasionally ask for autographs, but they do not crowd or grab. Gong is thankful and likes Hongkong for that reason. Reticent, even withdrawn at first, she eventually starts to relax and let down her guard. We come to the sticky issue of her relationship with Zhang - the man who made her a star and fell in love with her. The word is that he has finally divorced his first wife. ''Oh, he's been divorced a long time,'' she says. She is evasive on the issue of marriage. Without mentioning Zhang's name, she says: ''When we have children, then we'll get married. I think one should get married for the sake of children. In the meantime, why should two people get married? There's no need - you can just live together.'' Does she want to have children? ''Sure I want to have children,'' a glimmer of vulnerability shows. ''Women have children. Of course, I want to have children.'' I ask how many, then remember China's one-child policy. ''Well, I do want to have two - one boy, one girl. Really, it's not for my sake I want two kids, certainly not because I think the family name should be carried on and all that. It's just that I think it's so much better for the children. They would havesomeone to play with at home - both of us are so busy all the time, you know. Also, it's not healthy being an only child, an only child gets so weird.'' Suddenly, she catches herself with a laugh and steps back into the party line: ''No, no! I guess we should respect national policy and have only one child. There are really far too many people in China, and the population must be controlled.'' THE couple's liaison has become semi-acceptable and the two recently bought a house in Beijing. It was not always so cosy. When they kindled their affair around the time of the shooting of Red Sorghum in 1987, Zhang's outraged wife, Xiao Hua, a screenwriter at Xian Studio, took her revenge by refusing to divorce him. Xiao even published a poison-pen expose entitled Zhang Yimou and Myself - Our Divorce. Rumour has it the original title was ''Zhang Yimou, Gong Li and Myself - Our Love Triangle'', until Zhang talked his estranged spouse out of it. Despite Gong's claims of being a worker, her lifestyle in Hongkong is a stellarly plush affair. She is put up in luxury accommodation, and last year, here for Mary from Beijing, she was royally wined and dined. As Lynn Pan wrote in a feature on Zhang for The New York Times last year: ''In Hongkong . . . Gong Li lived as though on another planet. There, outfitted in designer clothes, she was whisked about in Rolls-Royces, trailed everywhere she went by a swarm of celebrity groupies. Here [in a Shaanxi village during the shooting of The Story of Qiuju ], a pig follows her as she nips into a latrine, a row of holes mounded with frozen excrement.'' Certainly, living on another planet, even if temporarily, has its side-effects. As one person who has previously worked with her says: ''She's already changed a lot from when she came here before. She was a lot more easy-going then.'' Earlier in the interview Gong is what would be described in Hollywood as ''difficult''. When asked what she does off-hours, she responds bluntly: ''I rest, I sleep.'' In fact, Gong plays tennis and enjoys pop Mandarin songs. When she was here in December for the premiere of Farewell to My Concubine, she topped off the evening by singing vigorously, and quite beautifully, to a Sally Yeh song on the karaoke system at a Japanese restaurant. The occasional question captures her attention, and Gong begins talking. ''Of course, I prefer the more serious movies,'' she says, perched on a tall, traditional Chinese chair with a smooth, rounded back. We have moved to make way for another shot, and she has taken off her satin slippers and tucked her stockinged feet around her. ''When you're in a role you can really get into, and you perform it well, you get a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It doesn't matter how the audience receives it - they can love it, they can hate it - but the sense of achievement remains with you.'' For one rare moment, her eyes soften. She actually seems happy, remembering such a state of grace. It is time for the first take. Gong excuses herself and joins the other actors and the crew. The period set is in two, rather spacious parts - the long gravelled courtyard, replete with pagoda to one side and a tree blooming with fake pink blossoms, and the main hall of Qiu Xian's wealthy household, with its rosewood furnishings. In this scene Qiu is coming into the courtyard. Gong asks the director a few questions to clarify what sort of reaction she should have. Whatever her treatment of the press or of those around her, Gong is a professional when she goes before the camera. She strikes the prerequisite willowy poses, puts on the demure expressions, and executes the lithesome movement of her Ming dynasty character, giving almost flawless takes every time. For the still photographer, she repeatedly offers up dazzling smiles. After a brisk two, three takes, it's over, and the crew scurries into the ''house'' to set up the next shot. A studio assistant passes by to ask if she would like any of the soup being prepared in a gigantic kettle outside. The air is actually permeated with the concoction, a smell of boiled cabbages laced with herbs. Gong perks up. ''What's in it?'' Gong says in makeshift Cantonese. ''Oh, lots of good things,'' says the middle-aged woman. ''Vegetables, chicken feet, hair seaweed . . .'' ''Sounds good. Give me a bowl this big,'' Gong says enthusiastically, indicating the jumbo size by forming an imagined bowl rim with cupped hands. ''I want this much.'' Asked if she is trying to learn Cantonese, she gives an offhand shrug, ''I'm not really studying, I just make these sounds that sound like Cantonese.'' In Tang Bo Fu, Gong plays a lady in a noble household who catches the eye of a Ming gentleman played by top comedy actor Stephen Chiau Sing-chi. ''As you see, it's just a little comedy,'' she says between takes. ''Nothing to get too worked up about.'' In fact, Gong rarely shines the way she does in the films of Zhang. She has done a refreshingly delightful comic turn as a ''dumb brunette'' movie actress in the 1930s action-comedy A Terra Cotta Warrior, directed by Hongkong's Ching Siu-tung. Zhang, however, did play the male lead - a warrior returned to life to seek the true love he lost 2,000 years ago. The true love was acted, in a bit of inspired and highly commercial casting, by Gong. Last year Gong did Mary from Beijing, for actress-director Sylvia Chang and this past winter she starred as rebel contemporary artist Pan Yueliang in The Story of Art, directed by Chinese director Huang Xuqin. ''Women directors do make films differently,'' Gong acknowledges. ''They're better able to understand things from a woman's point of view.'' Mary from Beijing - where Gong plays a bored, listless woman kept by a wealthy Hongkong boyfriend in a sterile, luxury condo - turned out to be a lacklustre film which was released to lacklustre reviews. She fared better in Chen Kaige's Farewell to My Concubine, an epic tracing 50 years of recent Chinese history through the lens of a love triangle. Released in January, the superbly-shot film was critically acclaimed and will be going to the Cannes Film Festival next month for the main competition. However, her character, a brothel escapee with a heart of gold, seemed to lack depth and direction. Born in the northeast city of Shenyang in 1965, Gong is the youngest in a family of five children. Her parents were university professors of economics. During the Cultural Revolution, she watched her brothers and sister sent to work camps and her mother paraded across the school campus wearing a dunce's hat. However, she has said elsewhere that ''my parents were very lucky''. After high school, Gong tested for, and gained entry into, the prestigious Central Drama Academy in Beijing in 1985. It was in her second year, during a successful audition for the lead role in Red Sorghum, that she met the man who would change her life, Zhang. She, in turn, would change his. Red Sorghum, released in 1987 to successful box offices in China and to rave reviews at festivals and art film houses abroad, launched both their careers. In March 1988 it won first prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the first of many international recognitions Zhang and his films would garner. The story of Red Sorghum was to become a familiar one for followers of Zhang's works: a hapless young woman is married off to a loathsome older man, she rebels against the entrapments of Chinese feudal society, she falls for a younger man. Zhang's first three films - Red Sorghum, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern - all starred Gong and were all set in the safely distant '20s and '30s. Even so, Judou and Raise the Red Lantern, both made with foreign funding, were banned from distribution in China due to their ''unhealthy'' content until last year. Zhang is obviously fascinated by stories about the fate of women, and in his films Gong has become the Everywoman of the Chinese condition. ''Women have a tougher role in Chinese society,'' the director once said. ''And complex characters make good stories.'' In 1991 Judou achieved a landmark: it became the first Chinese film to be nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. A major furore ensued when Chinese authorities tried to withdraw the film from consideration. They cited a technicality, but most believe the reason was political: the film was thought to depict Chinese people in a ''backwards'' manner. Though the film did not win, Zhang's next opus Raise the Red Lantern was also unexpectedly, amazingly nominated for an Academy Award. Zhang and Gong were permitted to attend the august ceremony of cinema. When Zhang lost the second time, he said, in his typically philosophical tone: ''I didn't win this time, but someday soon, a Chinese film will win.'' At year's end, Variety magazine had named it the most successful foreign language film in the US in 1992. In Zhang's latest film, The Story of Qiuju, Gong plays an uncharacteristically plain and pregnant country wife who decides to go through the Chinese judicial bureaucracy to get justice for her husband. Splotchy-faced and waddling, Gong showed she could play a more earth-bound, unglamorous role. In August the film picked up the Changchun Film Festival Gold Cup in China, as well as the top prize of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September. Gong herself brought home the best actress award from the latter. These days Zhang turns out a film a year. He is deeply involved in the time-consuming process of selecting and developing his scripts, as well as in various pre and post-production activities. As an actress who has become internationally recognised through Zhang's films, Gong has gone on to work for other directors. Tang Bo Fu, directed by Lee Lik-chee, is her 12th feature, and this year she is slated for one more Hongkong production before starting on Zhang's next film. Although it has been reported the feature is about the fearsome Tang dynasty empress Wu Zetian, Gong is vague, saying the script and setting are still being worked out. By the end of the interview, Gong has become more relaxed, either because she has signalled the end of the session - ''I've got to go into the dressing room to read the next scenes'' - or because she knows all the tiresome questions are passed. In the end she leaves you with the impression that she purports to be - that she is down-to-earth, an ordinary human - even if she is beautiful, famous and now rich, even if she does have lavish privileges enjoyed by the chosen few. Maybe there is more to Gong. In fact, there must be. One suspects something more is probably not as glamorous or as enigmatic as the silver screen goddess image we have projected on to her. But then again, that is our illusion, not her's. As the most famous Chinese actress says - so plainly, so sensibly: ''Movies are movies; real life is real life.'' Scarlet Cheng, managing editor of Asian Art News Magazine, has written frequently about film, books, and the arts.