Chinese cinema’s most luminous actress-director collaboration looks set to become history following the announced breakup between Gong Li and Zhang Yimou.
Zhang confirmed to Chinese reporters that the personal relationship was over, describing their parting as “inevitable.”
Gong wrapped her final scenes on “Shanghai Triad” by Feb. 9 and, following a heart-to-heart with Zhang, ankled for Beijing. The pic, already delayed last fall by the Chinese authorities’ anger over the couple’s previous film “To Live” competing at Cannes, was finally due to wrap Feb. 20. Foreign sales agent UGC told Variety it still hoped “Triad” would make the Croisette in May.
In eight years and seven movies together, Gong, 29, and Zhang, 44, etched an on-and offscreen relationship every bit as resonant as actress-director pairings like Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, and Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini.
Since Zhang plucked Gong from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama to co-star in his first feature, “Red Sorghum,” in 1987, the pair have never been far from the headlines. Their subsequent offscreen affair scandalized conservative elements within China, where Zhang was until recently officially married.
Meanwhile, Gong is due to join the cast of Chen Kaige’s much-troubled “Temptress Moon,” set to resume shooting around Shanghai in April after a five-month shutdown.
Biggest question is whether Gong will still take the lead in Zhang’s next contracted production, “Empress Wu.” Aside from the touchy personal question, the pic is for a foreign company, France’s Ciby 2000.
A Ciby source told Variety the movie, originally skedded for a summer ’95 start, is now due to go before the cameras early next year. The source was unable to confirm Gong’s participation.
A further question is how the split will affect the duo’s future careers. Though Zhang has yet to direct a movie sans Gong, and owed his contract for at least one early movie (the Tokuma-financed “Ju Dou”) to Gong’s popularity in Japan, the helmer has established a solid arthouse rep with pix such as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju.”
Observers note Gong has yet to make an international impression with any of her Zhang-less movies, apart from “Farewell My Concubine,” in which she shared top billing with two other actors.
Though she has a lucrative sideline in East Asian commercials and photo modeling, Gong’s command of English is nowhere near the point where she could move stateside to challenge other Chinese thesps like Joan Chen for roles.