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Chinese Actress Gong Li Star Shines into Her 40s
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Some call her a goddess, others say she's the empresses, but all acknowledged she's had a long reign as China's top film star. Gong Li, the voluptuous, if not iconic Chinese beauty in a dozen of film classics -- has resurfaced with a vengeance this year.

After a two-year hiatus the 40-year-old film siren is starring in three major US films, and her just-released Chinese epic is ripping up box office records in China.

Without officially announcing her return, Gong Li, has provide a multi-course feast of performances this year. In the US productions she plays a wicked and unwilling mentor in Memoirs of a Geisha, a sexy, wealthy drug dealer in Miami Vice and a Japanese woman who is related by marriage to a serial killer in Young Hanibal.

In the 45-million-dollar Chinese epic Curse of the Gold Flower, released across China on Dec. 15, Gong Li, steps back in history to play the beautiful but embattled Empress whose family's empire is collapsing in a series of bloody clashes.

The actress has not only played in the east and the west, she's won awards at home and aboard. She now knows exactly what she wants from her career.

"A role has to be dramatic. That's the most important factor I look for. My character has to have something to tell the audience, her character has be be built with complexity," she said.

"I have always been looking for different characters, characters that will bring out my potential," Gong Li said in a recent interview.

Born in 1965 in northeast China's Shenyang, Gong was the youngest daughter of an economics professor.

She enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing in 1985 where she was discovered by her long time collaborator director Zhang Yimou.

They first worked together on Red Sorghum in 1987, which won a Golden Bear from the Berlin Film Festival, casting both Zhang and Gong in the international limelight.

Zhang and Gong became China's best-known, most admired and successful film couples during the 1990s. Their films were innovative, introspective and retrospective, often digging deep into Chinese culture while focusing on universal aspects of human nature.

Whether playing a pregnant villager searching for justice in The Story of Qiu Ju or a rich man's concubine struggling to survive in Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li gave her characters a grace and sensuality that transfixed international audiences.

"If you like your job as an actress, you will want to portray different types of characters. It might not be so easy, but if you can do it well, you will feel the joy of being an actress," Gong said.

In 1993 Gong Li moved on to work with Director Chen Kaige in the stunning film Farewell, My Concubine, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Back with director Zhang the couple worked together before their famous split on Shanghai Triad which was released in 1995. As the pair went their separate ways, many were shocked to see Gong marry Singaporean tobacco tycoon Ooi Hoe Soeng.

As Gong's fame matured so did her stature in worldwide cinema. She became the first Chinese person to head juries at the Berlin, Venice and Tokyo international film festivals. She turned from the front of the camera to judging for a simple reason -- the respect of her craft.

"There were just no roles that were worth my time," Gong explained. "I felt they were average and anyone could do them, it didn't need to be me. I look for roles that not everyone can play."

After a decade working pursuing their separate careers, Zhang and Gong have connected again in, Curse of the Golden Flower, which has set a new opening-weekend box office record in China.

"Working again with the director after so long, I discovered from our conversations we still have a lot in common. It's not that different than from 10 years ago. We're very relaxed with each other. We both know what we need to do," Gong said.

"I know how to give my best performances for the director. I hope he's satisfied," she said.

While Gong was laying low a number of younger, equally beautiful actresses moved to fill the void. Many movie-goers must have seen Gong Li's star fade as Zhang Ziyi shot to fame after starring in Ang Lee's Oscar winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Zhang Ziyi became Zhang Yimou's next mainstay. They collaborated on The Road Home, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

After working with Gong and Zhang so closely Director Zhang is in a unique position to judge their work. The man many believe has the best job in the world says both actresses were born to perform.

The her year of comeback, Gong Li is not about to be eclipsed by the younger Zhang Ziyi.

A recent Internet poll has seen Gong voted the "most outstanding actress in 2006." Zhang Ziyi was second.

(Xinhua News Agency December 23, 2006)

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