As the radiantly beautiful star of Zhang Yimou's finest films, Gong Li became the darling of the international art house circuit and China's most famous actress. Whether playing a pregnant villager searching for justice or a rich man's concubine struggling to survive, she lends her characters a grace and sensuality that keeps international audiences transfixed.
Born in 1965 in northeastern Shenyang, Gong was the youngest daughter of an economics professor. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an actress, and at school she excelled at singing and dancing almost to the exclusion of other subjects. In spite of failing her college exam twice, she was eventually accepted to the Beijing Central College of Drama in 1985. At that time, Chinese cinema was experiencing a renaissance after the tumult of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth (1984) had just taken the Hong Kong International Film Festival by storm, heralding the rise of the Fifth Generation of filmmakers. One of these young directors was Zhang, the cinematographer for Yellow Earth, who cast Gong in his debut project, Red Sorghum (1987). Immediately a critical and commercial success both abroad and at home, the film garnered the Golden Bear award at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival and thrust both director and star into the international limelight.