China’s most celebrated actress, Gong Li, crops up playing the leading role in this Taiwanese-Chinese co-production, which opened recently in Hong Kong and is making the rounds of Chinatown cinema circuits internationally. Biography of a real-life, controversial Chinese woman painter, who rose from life as a bordello prostitute to celebrity on the Paris art scene, is fascinating but low-key. Based on Gong’s rep, however, it could crop up at fests and segue to wider exposure.
Pan Yuliang (1899-1977) is first seen at age 12, working in a brothel in a small provincial town. When the establishment’s most celebrated prostie tries to retire, she’s promptly murdered and Yuliang is in the running to take her place.
But on her first night, she meets local official Zanhua. They fall in love and marry, despite the fact that he has a wife already.
The couple move to the big city, and at the Shanghai Arts Institute Yuliang quickly becomes an accomplished painter. But the institute becomes the focus of demonstrations against foreign influences on Chinese art, particularly regarding the use of nude models, and the place is closed down.
Yuliang, however, wants to continue with her nude portraits and is forced to use herself as a model, sitting naked by a mirror to do so. One self-portrait, “Bathing Woman,” brings her international attention when it wins a prestigious French prize.
Now separated from Zanhua, who has returned to his other wife, Yuliang moves to Paris and spends most of her life there. Back home, she’s accused of “depravity” and her work is never recognized.
Pic looks like a modest production, and pretty much stands or falls on Gong’s central performance. Fortunately, she makes the most of a flatly written role, and ages surprisingly convincingly from a young girl to an elderly woman.
The early scenes are reminiscent of many other Chinese films, but once the heroine establishes herself in Paris an altogether different, more mellow, tone is prevalent. This is one Chinese film to cover a 60-year time span without even mentioning the Cultural Revolution.
Gong’slongtime collaborator Zhang Yimou gets a slightly mysterious credit, which translates as either “directorial planning” or “supervising director.”
Though Zhang was reportedly on the set during filming, pic is the work of femme helmer Huang Shuqin, best known for “Woman, Demon, Human.”
While “La Peintre” is the only title for the film outside Chinese territories , the original title translates as “Soul of a Painter,” and pic is also known as “Pan Yuliang, a Woman Painter.”