The first movie that actually introduced me to the talents of Gong Li was her role as the beautiful but haughty geisha, Hatsumomo, in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. The film itself was beautiful, if somewhat lacking. But, I was immediately struck with the fiery movie star-presence of Gong Li. The fact that she learned her English lines phonetically and still seemed connected to the material was an impressive feat. I was at once fascinated by her. I delved into her filmography and discovered the significant impact that her body of work (along with director, Zhang Yimou) had in ushering Chinese cinema into the world market. Making China a country that created important, artistic films that changed the movie landscape.
One of the director and muse's first films together, Ju Dou, became the first Chinese film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. But, perhaps the film that had the biggest impact and cemented Gong Li's place in cinema's pantheon was the 1991 film, and the subject of this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience, Raise the Red Lantern.
In my Gong Li movie-marathons, I hadn't actually seen this one yet. So, I was definitely eager to watch it. The story follows Songlian, an university student who drops out of school to be the fourth mistress of a wealthy master. The film is filled with lush cinematography courtesy of the titular lanterns that shine in the house of whichever mistress the master has chosen for the night. It's all very Chinese Big Love. (I guess that would make Gong Li, Ginnifer Goodwin?)
I wasn't expecting to find my favorite shot so early. But within the first frames, I was hooked. A stoic Gong Li in her schoolgirl braids has made a very real decision to marry a rich man. When her mother (a disembodied voice) tells her she will just be his concubine, Songlian unblinkingly states, "Let me be a concubine. Isn't that a woman's fate?"
There is no emotion in her voice or face, but her feelings are betrayed with the single tear that wells up and eventually falls from each eye. Much of the film is told through close-ups of Gong Li's face. The story is told through her eyes. In fact, we never actually see the face of the man she is married to. He only ever appears in wide shots so that the audience feels the same distance that Songlian feels toward him.
The most striking thing about these close-ups is how still they are. The camera captures even the slightest movement. A lesser actor would be afraid to do more, but Gong trusts the camera. People remarked that working on set with Marilyn Monroe was frustrating because she appeared to be doing nothing. Then when you saw her on screen, you realized what control she had of the projection of her image. That's what makes a star. And in this film, Gong Li is a star.
The impact of this moment has even more weight after you've experienced the entire film. Over the course of the film, the teary-eyed innocent that thought she knew the ways of the world becomes corrupted and see what damage the world–and she, herself–are capable of. Gone is any sense of feeling. In the demonic glow of the red lanterns, she begins her descent into madness.