Deep Dives

Lesson in Survival March 16, 2020  


Five films by Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li


hinese director Zhang Yimou and Chinese-born Singaporean actress Gong Li came of artistic age together. Toward the end of the 1980s, Zhang,

who had been working as an actor and a cinematographer, met Gong for the first time while she was studying acting at the Central Academy of Drama. What happened next seems almost too good to be true when taking into account how so many actress-director partnerships form and then evolve. Zhang, who had never directed a film before, hired Gong to star in his first foray into filmmaking, Red Sorghum, which debuted in 1987. She was a student at the time. A romantic relationship formed.


Gong would headline all of Zhang’s projects from then until 1995 (the year their personal involvement dissolved). They would reunite in 2006 with Curse of the Golden Flower, then in 2014 with Coming Home. Though their

Gong Li in 1987's "Red Sorghum."

projects are varied — together they’ve oscillated pretty seamlessly from realism-touting kitchen-sink dramas to gigantic, lavishly decorated martial-arts-inflected soap operas — the throughline remains that these features are typically about women floundering inside of but trying to rise above the patriarchal systems inside which they’re currently living. (Usually things don’t work out, not only bringing to the fore the systematic inequalities Zhang is trying to indict but also how continued, survival-driven complicity can harm others — an idea introduced by the writer Gil Hizi.) 


In a 2014 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the ever-mutable Gong expounded on an almost supernatural-sounding trust between herself and her director, one-time lover. “We don’t have to say much on set,” she said. “He says, ‘You already have this character in you; you don’t need someone else to guide you.’ And I say, ‘Right, I don’t need it. If I’m not portraying her properly, let me know. But if I’m doing it right, just let me keep going.’ So it’s this open collaboration. It’s a kind of trust and mutual understanding. I know he believes I can bring out whatever he wants to show in this woman.” 


In their movies together, one is astounded by how agilely Gong adapts to Zhang’s narratives. She is cogent and powerful whether playing a necessarily ruthless concubine, like in 1991’s lush Raise the Red Lantern, or a struggling middle-class housewife who ages several decades in the course of the movie, like in 1994’s To Live. Whereas myriad directors have their muses riff on established “types” across several collaborations, à la Stéphane Audran and Claude Chabrol or Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, for instance, Gong is so bendable and emotionally lucid that sometimes it doesn’t feel as though this is the same director-actress partnership working on a litany of projects.

Gong Li in 1987's Red Sorghum.


ed Sorghum is a suitably cynical start to what would be a succession of increasingly cynical movies. Ultimately it’s a drama about the evils of imperialism and its ripple effects, complete with a nihilistic ending

to really rub salt in the wound it incurs. The film unfolds in flashback; its story unfurls from the tongue of an unseen and unnamed man who narrates. The movie orbits around the young adult life of the narrator's grandmother, Jiu'er (Gong), who, at the beginning of the feature, is sent to a distillery to marry its middle-aged owner as a teenager.


Red Sorghum, which is set in the Chinese province of Shandong during the second Sino-Japanese War, at first seems a story about unlikely triumph. The distillery owner dies before Jiu'er arrives, and soon she has inherited the business, which becomes even more successful under her tutelage. But the film is bookended by a devastating burst of violence inflicted by imperialists. The development shows us that the aural presence of the narrator was never meant to evoke, as we might have originally thought, the feeling one gets while hearing a sunny, suitably adversity-ridden, passed-down story from an older family member.


Instead, Red Sorghum is a disconcerting tale of generational trauma. It’s sublimely acted by Gong, who is persuasive as a young woman forced to prematurely come into her own, and wrenchingly directed by Zhang, who ekes out every drop of fiery-looking, pastoral beauty enhanced by Gu Changwei’s photography while also amplifying the horrors, and highs, of Chen Jianyu and Zhu Wei’s screenplay.


aise the Red Lantern is perhaps the best known of Gong and Zhang’s collaborations, and for good reason. Aside from being so visually sumptuous that it verges on being too sumptuous — like a moving

painting where all the colors have the richness of melted candle wax, edged in an ostentatious gold frame — it’s also the finest distillation of the overriding theme of their movies. Based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, the 1920s-, Warlord Era-set film stars Gong as Songlian, a 19-year-old who is forced to marry a wealthy older gentleman, Master Chen, after her family’s bankruptcy leaves her unable to complete her education. Chen lives in a sprawling, endless-seeming manor. It’s so big, it’s more hamlet than house. 


Chen has three other wives. All are generationally disparate, with varied backgrounds (one, played by a prissy He Saifei, used to be an opera star). They range from passive aggressive to outright aggressive, understandably treating Songlian more like an adversary than a sister. Songlian soon has to adjust to relations between her fellow concubines (all of whom live in separate micro-homes), which involves a lot of rivalry-inflected, catty Dynasty (1981-89) speak.


She also must assimilate to the systems in place on the grounds. Among the most prominent is Chen’s nightly habit of staying over at just one of the women’s homes, creating a quasi-Bachelor-esque, unpredictable competition in which it is not entirely clear which kinds of behavior will result in ephemeral favoritism and which will not.


At face value Raise the Red Lantern is a particularly opulent soap opera — melodrama at its most tasteful. But the more it unravels, the more microcosmic it feels. Most commonly it’s regarded as an allegory for the social trappings of post-cultural revolution China. More widely it functions as a dramatization of a woman’s place within a capitalist patriarchy, where conforming and feeding into the oppressive system can in many ways prove outwardly more rewarding to the individual but for others beneath that individual detrimental. The finale pulls no punches; it drills in the quandary and its nightmarishness. That Raise the Red Lantern is gorgeous-looking is a testament to the way there is always a rot underneath the gleaming surfaces enjoyed by those who have the most control over these systems.


ans context, the final words which appear on the screen during To Live (1994), maybe the most narratively ambitious of Gong and Zhang’s collaborations, might make the movie sound maudlin.

“And life will get better and better,” it reads. But the statement, once we’ve watched the film, is pointed. Thus far, the lower-middle-class family at the center of the story, the Xus, have seen two familial deaths — both premature, and a result of the recklessness of others — and almost marathonic displacement. The statement is finally not misguided optimism — though by then the Xus have to practice it as a survival mechanism — but more so a jab at the falsehoods of meritocracy, and the way some people can be left behind amid social change. (The film spans decades, beginning in the 1940s, and concurrently looks at the hardships of the Xus and the cultural evolution of China.)


To Live, as a title, seems a concise tribute to the determination of the Xus to keep on living, enduring the unthinkable while having little to their name. The movie also features a breathtakingly good performance from Gong, who ages several decades over its course and who really, by the film’s end, has convinced us that in front of us is a middle-aged woman who has lost pretty much everything. (Gong was 28 when production began.)


Upon release, To Live was banned from distribution in mainland China because of the way it critically looked at governmental relations. For Zhang and Gong, denial of distribution had by then come to be blasé. Their Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) faced similar pushback. But it was so severe for To Live that Zhang was barred by Chinese authorities from making any movies that received overseas funding. Gong and Zhang’s next project, Shanghai Triad (1995), was able to move forward as a “local” production. A rather innocuous gangster movie, it was also cognizant that it had to appease. 


Around the same time, Gong and Zhang’s romantic relationship fizzled, and with its disintegration came the decay of their professional partnership. They wouldn’t make another movie together for about a decade. In the interim, Gong explored opportunities in English-language cinema. Zhang delved into even-more unvarnished social dramas, then suddenly shifted into luxe wuxia features — notably Hero (2002), one of the best movies of the decade, and House of Flying Daggers (2004), a nearly-as-good epic.


hen Gong and Zhang reunited for 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, there was no question, in the former’s mind, about who would take on the leading role of Qi Dynasty-era empress Phoenix, whom

Gong plays in the movie. “When I decided to cast this film and thought about the role of the empress, there was just one person that came to mind, and that was Gong Li,” Zhang told Collider in 2006. “I thought she was the perfect choice. I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather have play that role. There was no other choice. She was it.” A wise move, on Zhang’s part: By the time the feature was released, Gong was definitively a titan — at a moment in her career where playing empresses was arguably more natural a fit than a lot of the roles she took on with Zhang in the 1980s and ‘90s.


Gong is terrific in the movie, which, in contrast to her and Zhang’s other features, which are for the most part down to Earth, is gigantic. It’s confined to palatial settings and features plenty of shots of warriors running at each other, hints of the martial arts stuff Zhang was spotlighting in his earlier wuxia movies of the decade. The costuming is almost cartoonishly opulent — all shimmering rainbow colors and big billows and long trains. Up until that point it was the most expensive movie ever made in Chinese-film history. It looks it. 


Curse of the Golden Flower is a lot sillier a movie than most of what Zhang and Gong had done together at that point, to be sure: the film is mostly a standard-fare melodrama about ultimately lethal family drama within a kingdom. It isn’t a bodice ripper but has the same breathy gusto. It’s pretty inconsequential, but it’s involving and nice to look at. And of course it’s a pleasure to see Zhang and Gong in a previously unexplored mode and coming out the other side convincing us that they’re not only comfortable inside of it but better at pulling it off than a lot of their peers.


ollowing the release of Curse of the Golden Flower

Zhang and Gong took another long hiatus. At the end of it came Coming Home (2014), a 180 from its predecessor and certainly more in touch with the films


for which the partners became well known. Still, it’s much more melodramatic a film than the bulk of their collaborations. It reminded me not so much of their shared past but of movies like Random Harvest, the 1942 Greer Garson vehicle in which the husband of the character Garson plays is struck with amnesia, forcing them to rebuild their life together. (The ending, of course, is euphorically happy.)


Amnesia is a key part of the narrative of Coming Home, too. But while it’s undoubtedly also been plotted like a soap opera, it doesn’t have the same optimistic catharsis at the end. It prefers a conclusion meant to be described as bittersweet but more so strikes us as perhaps unnecessarily depressing.


The movie, set in the aftermath of the Chinese Social Revolution, concerns the trials of Feng (Gong), the wife of Lu (Chen Daoming). A defecting professor at the height of the revolution, Lu was sent to a labor camp a few years into Feng’s and his marriage, which produced a daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). After a brief, frantic escape that led Feng to a head injury, which is depicted early in the movie, the spouses, years later, reunite once the revolution concludes.


But Feng not only cannot remember Lu but also is experiencing short-term memory loss in nearly all facets of her life. The majority of the movie sees Feng attempting to jog his wife’s memory by trying on several guises, all while trying to mend his relationship with his daughter, who, still in thrall to the state, was the one to report him to authorities. All will not end happily.


Coming Home is almost an effective weepie, but it’s too limited to really move us. There aren’t any scenes depicting what Feng and Lu’s marriage was like before it was interrupted by social turmoil; we know little about their inner lives. Everything is in service to the narrative, which, without full context or a look into personal anxieties and motivations, flattens it. The probing of the social climate is limited, too — far more limited than it was in To Live, which was more comprehensive, or even Red Sorghum, which was more meant to be a simulacrum than a fuller look.


Gong and Chen are better than the movie, bringing depth and palpable anguish to characters who don’t extend beyond the page. The movie is not a very satisfactory temporary denouement to Gong and Zhang’s shared oeuvre. But considering all that was achieved before it — high drama, cultural daring, visual innovation of the highest caliber — this lower-stakes, understated (for now) last chapter only makes us hungrier for more.


Red SorghumB

Raise the Red LanternA

To LiveA-

Curse of the Golden Flower: B

Coming HomeC+