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China’s finest exports

Times Staff Writer

GONG LI, one of the most delectable Chinese imports since the noodle, is sitting in the hallway of the Mann Village Theatre in Westwood. The environs are a little slummy for the ravishing superstar -- best known for her moving array of peasants, concubines, adulteresses and gangster molls in the works of Chinese auteurs Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. But tonight she’s going Hollywood, having come to America specifically for this: the premiere of her first English-language popcorn film, “Miami Vice.”

The actress is poured into a black-and-gold floor-length Roberto Cavalli gown. At 40, she still sits like a schoolgirl, the dress riding up her legs, and a mane of black hair tumbling down her back. Emotions flicker across her face the way they do across Meryl Streep’s -- they fleet. She makes Chinese -- not the most sonorous language to Western ears -- sound mellifluous. Her quiet intensity intoxicates.

I just wish I knew what she was saying.

Her translator, a young college professor from New York, relays her words with the fire and panache of a snail, summarizing torrents of Chinese into brief, bland American soundbites.

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Ever since Bruce Lee, Asian superstars have attempted to tackle the American market. Most -- from Jackie Chan to Jet Li to the stunning Zhang Ziyi, the young female star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” -- have martial arts backgrounds or have worked in martial arts films. Now comes Gong Li, the most acclaimed dramatic actress of her generation but one who doesn’t rely on physical pyrotechnics to dazzle. In her own country, mainland China, she’s seen as a bold and iconic heroine who’s fought abuse and corrosive tradition in such films as “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern,” both of which were nominated for a foreign language film Oscar but were initially banned in China because of their implied critiques of the government.

“As Chinese movies have morphed out of being just kung fu and detective stories into more serious dramas, there have been more opportunities for female actresses to develop into major stars,” says Hollywood producer-manager Andre Morgan, who works here and in Asia, and speaks Chinese fluently.

“Also you’re starting to hit a generation that are bilingual. That has always been one of the important stumbling blocks. You had a lot of superstars in Asia that didn’t speak English.”

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The time is right

FOLLOWING the remarkable worldwide success of the Ang Lee’s Chinese-language “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000, Hollywood has been anxiously trying to cultivate the Asian talent pool and market. A variety of American talent agencies and studios have recently set up outposts in China. Hollywood hopes that casting the likes of a Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi -- actors who are A-listers across Asia on par with Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts but not immediately known to U.S. audiences -- will help generate blockbuster dollars in the all-important overseas market, which now accounts for more than 50% of the theatrical box office. Yet turning Asian movie stars into American ones can be easier said than done.

Gong, for example, used an eight-person entourage of translators, assistants and dialogue coaches to make her English ready for her starring role in the $140-million big screen incarnation of the ‘80s television show. She plays Isabella, a Cuban-Chinese money-laundering drug lieutenant who is living with her boss, a ruthless drug lord, when she begins to fall for Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell), who’s trying to bring down her lover and her cartel.

When asked, the actress seems to gloss over the months of two to three hours of daily language work required to perfect the requisite Cuban-accented English and Spanish, but writer-director-taskmaster Michael Mann won’t. “The difficulty is: In Mandarin, the muscles in your mouth aren’t used to make Rs and Ls. She never developed those muscles. It’s not just making a different sound. Her tongue is not conditioned to be behind her teeth and to breathe in the same way. She had to do facial exercises just to be able to make these sounds. The degree of difficulty is high.”

Still, from Mann’s perspective, “she has no problem communicating. She and Colin would have drinks and sit there and talk,” he remembers. “They’d go back and forth between pidgin English and sign language.”

From the knowledgeable look on her face, it’s clear that Gong understands a good deal more English than she’s willing to speak on the record, though sometimes Mann, a well-known perfectionist, baffled her.

“Because he’s also a scriptwriter at heart, even when he’s talking, sometimes the words he uses are very literary,” she says. “When he’s speaking, it’s hard to understand what he’s saying. He uses a lot of special terminology.”

Mann first became fascinated by Gong when he saw her as a fierce winery owner defending her property from Japanese invaders in her debut, “Red Sorghum” (1987), and as a young woman forced by her family to marry a man with three other wives in “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991). He even offered her the part of Robert De Niro’s wife in “Heat,” but she declined, citing the language difficulty.

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“She wasn’t secure enough in her ability to speak English to do it,” says Mann. “Think about it. Imagine the intimidation. Someone asks you to act in an English film with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine De Niro mastering Mandarin well enough to appear in a Chinese costume drama.

Given his stature in the industry, Mann could cast whomever he wanted as Isabella, and although he considered American actresses, he finally chose Gong, whom he considers one of the five best actresses in the world, with a rare ability to combine both strength and vulnerability. And her work appears to have paid off, as she provides practically the only emotional hooks in the film, otherwise an exercise in flashy speedboats and gritty Michael Mann style.

Although Gong starred in the 1997 English-language film “Chinese Box,” it was really last year’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” that opened the professional door in America, she says. She’d been offered English parts over the years, but most were “window dressing” roles, she says, dismissively. “A pretty Chinese girl in a pretty Chinese dress. And you just kind of walk around, and that’s it.”

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” Sony’s big-screen translation of the bestselling novel by the same name, did twice the business abroad as in the States and was a watershed of Asian casting in a Hollywood film. It featured not only Gong as the villainous Hatsumomo but Zhang, who’s been nicknamed “Little Gong Li” in Asia, and Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, a former Bond girl. It was a little like putting Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts and Jodie Foster in one movie -- although some critics took the filmmakers to task for casting Chinese women as Japanese geishas.

The women’s commercial appeal across Asia -- a market critical to the U.S. film industry’s bottom line -- was certainly a factor in their hiring, says “Geisha” producer Lucy Fisher.

“They’re just big stars.... [Zhang Ziyi] can’t walk out the door in Asia. Every move she makes, she’s followed” by the media, she says.

Needless to say, the film was a linguistic nightmare because of all the cast members who needed help with their English and the varying Asian voices that needed to be molded into a uniform Japanese-accented English.

Fisher says many of “Geisha’s” stars took pay cuts to appear in a major Hollywood film: “They were all very anxious to play the parts and they’re not stars in this country.”

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Speaking from his home in Shanghai, action star Jet Li can sympathize. He gets millions to star in Chinese-language films but slashed his rate to make his Hollywood debut in 1998’s “Lethal Weapon 4.” Indeed, he was surprised by Hollywood’s negotiating style. Producer Joel Silver initially offered him a million dollars. When he asked for more, “they said $750,000. They then lowered their offer to $500,000. That’s Joel,” says Li, laughing. “Then I asked, ‘Can I do the movie for free? I don’t need the money. I just want to play the character.’ ”

Li spoke barely any English at the time, though now he’s fluent, as is Chan, and Zhang for that matter.

“When I started, I only knew how to say ‘good morning,’ ‘thank you,’ and a few single words,” says Li. “Warner Bros. hired a teacher, and he taught me enough. If you want to make Hollywood movies, you need to study [English].” His upcoming Chinese-language martial arts drama, “Fearless,” opens in the U.S. on Sept. 22.

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An educational divide

OF course, Hollywood has long imported foreign glamour -- from Dietrich to Bergman to Loren, to name just a few. And while Americans tend to myopically see Asian actors as a monolithic bunch, stars like Gong and Zhang, who both trained at Beijing’s prestigious Central Drama Academy, come from a more formal theatrical tradition than the martial artists like Chan who created themselves in the freewheeling Hong Kong film business.

Actors from People’s Republic of China “have more formal training,” says director Ronny Yu, a bilingual Hong Kong-born film director who’s worked in Hong Kong, China and America (“Freddy vs. Jason,” “The 51st State”). “They’re more serious about their profession. In Hong Kong, movie stars didn’t even have time to think about their roles. They have 10 movies shooting at the same time.”

Gong was born shortly before the onset of the repressive Cultural Revolution to a pair of economics professors who were later forced to work in a factory and send all their children, with the exception of Gong, their youngest, to work in the fields as part of “reeducation.” While at drama school, the 22-year-old Gong met the much older Zhang Yimou, perhaps that country’s most famous director, who cast her in “Red Sorghum” and a variety of films that span Chinese history, from “The Story of Qiu Ju,” in which she played a headstrong, frumpy farmer’s wife, to “Shanghai Triad,” set in the ‘30s, in which she played a criminal kingpin’s mistress, this time a vamp in sequins. The actress and director also became romantically involved.

Given her array of experiences, Gong does not seem unnerved by “Miami Vice’s” precarious filming in some of the most dangerous ghettoes in South America (a gun battle erupted on the perimeter of their set). In fact, she seems downright nonchalant, and her wry sense of humor suddenly emerges through the fog of translation.

“Overall we got used to that, that’s the world you’re in, and it’s actually the same as the world in the movie. People just carry guns around habitually. You get drunk, you pull out your gun and start waving it around. If you can imagine, if your director makes you angry -- you can take your gun and start waving it around.”

As the night wears on, it’s time for Gong to go to the premiere party, a typically lavish Hollywood extravaganza featuring huge pastel-like photographs of Colin Farrell and co-star Jamie Foxx, ribs and macaroni and cheese, and mojitos.

But before she goes, she points out that since making “Vice,” she has played young Hannibal Lecter’s mentor-lover in the English-language “Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask” for the Weinstein Co. and returned to her homeland of China to work again with Zhang Yimou.

Together, the king and queen of Chinese cinema made “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” a Shakespearan-style tragedy set in Tang dynasty China about an empress (Gong) who falls in love with the emperor’s son from a different marriage and plots to kill her husband (Chow Yun-Fat)

It’s not the kind of part they generally manufacture in Hollywood.

She giggles slightly when discussing the project, which is not only newsworthy artistically but also salaciously, at least for those in the Chinese market who care about the lives of their icons. It marks the first time in more than 10 years that the actress and the director have worked together.

But there were no problems communicating.

“I could speak straightforwardly and directly in Chinese rather than in English. So we were able to discuss things very deeply,” says Gong. “The whole thing went really well.”

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