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.
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."
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."