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A Comic Twist in China : Movies: Before becoming the first Asian to win Cannes' best performance honors for the drama 'To Live,' Ge You was known as the country's premier satirical actor.

August 31, 1994|SCOTT SAVITT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — China's New Wave cinema continued its remarkable run of international success at this spring's Cannes Film Festival. Celebrated young director Zhang Yimou's "To Live," a Revolutionary-era epic under threat of ban by Communist Party censors, was awarded the Special Jury prize, adding to acclaim earned by last year's Golden Palm winner, "Farewell My Concubine."

But more surprising than Zhang's achievement was the capture of best performance honors by "To Live" lead actor Ge You, the first Chinese--indeed Asian--to win best actor accolades at an international festival.

When word of the voting trickled back through China's grapevine (publicity for "To Live" is banned), the film community here assumed the distinction was bestowed on Gong Li, Chinese film's vivacious, internationally renowned leading lady. It was with astonishment and then elation that fans greeted the news that the film's male lead, the unheard-of-outside-of-China Ge You, had taken the prize.

On the set of his new film, a drama depicting a police officer frustrated by increasing violence in society, Ge (pronounced Guh) talked about his recent trip to France and his work.

"I always assumed that Oscar and Cannes prize winners knew ahead of time, and just acted surprised," the tall, animated Ge said with his trademark impish grin. "I was sure they'd made some mistake."

His loyal Chinese followers have no doubt about the 40-year-old Ge's acting ability. The son of a stage and film star father and scriptwriter mother, his thespian credentials are impeccable.

Ge has been a fixture on Chinese film and television screens for years. Ge's triumph in the dramatic lead role in "To Live" came as a surprise because he is known and loved as China's premier comic actor.

"To be quite honest," he confided with a conspiratorial wink, "I think my co-star may have been a little jealous."

This humor with an edge has been a distinguishing trademark throughout Ge's career.

A core member of China's pioneering "Fifth Generation" of actors and filmmakers, Ge's politically charged, satire-laden performances have tested the boundaries of the acceptable in China's dangerously capricious cultural climate throughout the last decade.

Ge first gained prominence in 1986 for his lead role in the feature film "The Operators." Based on a novel by China's best-selling brat-pack writer Wang Shuo, the film chronicles the exploits of Ge and two partners as they manipulate discrepancies between China's communist veneer and corrupt reality for kicks and profit.

Whether disguised as cops and extorting large sums from Hong Kong businessmen "caught" in the act of patronizing prostitutes, or peddling influence to business professionals who believe they are dealing with the offspring of high-ranking party officials, Ge and his wisecracking, street-smart comrades exposed the often sordid reality of Deng Xiaoping's "reforms," and "The Operators" achieved cult status among urban youths.

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Several films in a similar vein, including the critically acclaimed "Spring Festival" and Ge's first collaboration with Zhang Yimou, "Operation Cougar," increased his reputation as a rebel with a sense of humor, but his leap from antihero to superstar status came in 1990 when he captured the imagination of 600 million viewers as a crusading investigative reporter in the hit TV series "Stories From the Newsroom."

China's first Western-style sitcom, the Wang Shuo/Ge You combination again proved successful with a nationally televised, tongue-in-cheek sendup of everything China's leaders revere as sacred.

In the show, Mao Tse-tung was frequently misquoted to humorous effect. The favored target of barbs is a matronly Communist Party busybody who epitomizes hypocrisy. And the episode that garnered the highest ratings depicted a newsroom power struggle following the editor in chief's retirement, which precipitated so much back-stabbing and double-dealing that the old man was obliged to stay on. This post-Tian An Men allusion to the leadership's inability to agree on a successor to Deng Xiaoping was the transparent reason behind "Stories' " national audience.

Newfound prominence as a result of "Stories' " success translated into Ge's first "serious" film role, as the homosexual opera patron in "Farewell My Concubine."

"I went to see the film in a Chinese theater and was embarrassed when my appearance on screen was greeted with laughter," Ge said.

"But I think the subject matter--political persecution and social intolerance--is very serious, and the audience ultimately accepted and sympathized with my dramatic portrayal of a tragic character."

Ge's moving performance in "Farewell" led Zhang Yimou to cast him opposite Gong Li in "To Live." The film portrays one family's saga spanning the years from China's 1930s civil war through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Due to currently tense political circumstances, it is doubtful Chinese audiences will be permitted to see the film.

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