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Chinese Superstar Gong Li Talks Women, Shanghai, Scripts and Tax

Chinese acting superstar Gong Li was last month the recipient of the Kering Women In Motion award at Cannes. She spoke with Variety at the Shanghai International Film Festival about her upcoming roles, the political context of acting today, and her return to Shanghai.

What was the significance to you of the Kering Award?

I understand it as a tribute to all women, to their status, to their importance in the world.

Did the job offers you receive change after a certain age?

Simple roles don’t need me. After Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” [in Cannes in 2014], which is a very complex role, I got many more interesting roles offered to me. One of the things I always look at when choosing my roles is the interior feelings of the characters, their struggle, and the relationship between this woman and society.

That was certainly true of the upcoming [Lou Ye-directed] film, “Saturday Fiction,” which is currently in post-production, and also of “Mulan” [from Disney’s Niki Caro]. I’m not allowed to say much about “Mulan,” but can say that here too, I play a strong character, Xian Lang.

The Lou Ye film is set in Shanghai in 1939, at the time of the occupation of the British and French Concessions by the Japanese invaders. My role is actually as a French spy. My character appears to be a big-star movie actress. That role enables my character to mix easily with the Japanese. They don’t know my double function, and my character is able to gather intelligence.

This is not Lou Ye’s first period film – though many others are more contemporary – and it is very beautiful. He even wanted to make it black and white. It will be a very multinational film with French, German and Japanese cast. Too bad it was not finished in time for Cannes.

These days is TV or film offering the best roles?

There are very many good U.S. series being produced currently. Filmmakers think that an hour and a half or two hours is too short to tell a good story, and it is too wasteful to cut so much out in order fit the feature film format.

As an actress, my criteria for accepting the role — who is the director, who are fellow cast and, above all, whether there is a good script – are basically the same whether I’m being offered a film or TV role.

My next film role is in Peter Chan Ho-sun’s film about the Chinese women’s volleyball team. I’m not sure how I should stand up as the team coach, with all these incredibly tall characters around me. But I grew up with the glory of this team. They won the world championship three times and were role models of effort and success.

I was one of the people who came up with the idea of “Ana” [a thriller project about a female hacker who goes into hiding after accidentally stealing millions from a crime boss], but it remains at project stage and is not yet confirmed. I admire director Martin Campbell [“The Foreigner,” “Casino Royale”] very much. But a good director without a good script is not an easy match.

In the past year there have been many political intrusions into the Chinese entertainment industry – such as tax policy, a Taiwan-independence speech by an award-winner at the Golden Horse Awards. Is this becoming a difficult place to work?

China is still a good place to work in the cinema industry. Every country has its own political system. China has a huge population of nearly 1.4 billion people and therefore needs good, strong governance.

At the Golden Horse Awards I was the president of the jury, and it was a matter of principle. I did not want this to become a complicated issue.

What is lacking in China today is a film classification system, meaning that even a 5-year-old child can currently go into a cinema and watch violent and bloody scenes. I’m not happy about that. China needs a classification system and warning system to alert people when there are extreme scenes.

The tax issue is a universal one – everybody needs to pay their tax and be responsible for doing so.

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