Given China's population of 1.2 billion, you'd think there'd be enough aspiring actresses to make it a casting director's paradise. And it probably is unless you're looking for a female lead and Gong Li, 29, happens to be busy. The star of Zhang Yimou's current art-house hit, To Live in which she ages over 30 years as the matriarch of a family torn apart by China's political turmoil has a lock on her country's leading-lady roles. In fact, she's starred in virtually every recent Chinese film to become a U.S. box office hit. The only problem: If China's government had its way, no one would see most of the movies she makes.
Born in the northern city of Shenyang just before the Cultural Revolution, the violent persecution of China's educated elite that lasted from 1966 to 1976, the actress saw her own family scattered. ''My brothers and sisters had a tough time,'' she offers. ''Some were sent to the countryside to work with the peasants.'' Spared such ''reeducation'' because of her youth, Gong Li went on to study at Beijing's Central Academy of Drama, where she met Zhang, 44, and won the lead in his 1988 directorial debut, Red Sorghum. Once forged, their personal and professional union (they've been romantically involved since 1989) kicked off a promising career and a controversial one. Despite raves overseas, Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou were held up by Chinese censors, as was Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine. To Live remains unreleased in China.
Even her international acclaim has a price. In Cannes to promote To Live last May, Gong Li unhappily faced reporters without Zhang, who feared his attendance would anger Chinese officials. She would give only one reason for her discomfort: ''I feel a bit lonely.''
That public reticence has kept her out of trouble and working. (She's also appeared in a number of less politically charged films in Hong Kong, where she's able to boost her asking price to a staggering $130,000 to $200,000 a role.) Her next Zhang film, Shanghai Triad, in which she plays a mobster's concubine, may debut at Cannes this spring, and she'll also star in Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon; Chen shut down production after firing his original choice and will resume filming in March with Gong Li.
After that, she may make her Stateside debut opposite Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann's Heat. For now, Gong Li is keeping her options open she refuses to consider Heat until the script is translated into Mandarin and looking forward to spending more time with family and friends. ''You improve your acting when you're around people. I wouldn't want to stay in a beautiful place ll by myself, devoid of human contact.'' If that sounds like she won't be visiting L.A. anytime soon, don't be too sure. Gong Li just hired an English tutor.