When Gong Li is twinkling at you - or playing the White Bone Demon - resistance is futile

Gong Li plays the White Bone Demon in The Monkey King 2.
Gong Li plays the White Bone Demon in The Monkey King 2.PHOTO: SHAW

Gong Li's face, cold and delicate as a jade carving, lights up with a tiny smile when a reporter describes her latest performance in The Monkey King 2 as "superb".

Minutes later in the interview, she is glowing as she recounts how much she loved being in the skin of her character, the invincible and complicated White Bone Demon, in the first action role of her considerable career.

The villainess is lonely, strong, smart and wise, so much so that "I fell in love with her", the actress declares, her eyes twinkling.

It is difficult not to be mesmerised by Gong, the goddess of Chinese cinema, when she is being this charming.


Gong Li during her interview at The Royal Garden Hotel Hong Kong on Feb 2. PHOTO: SHAW 

She is sitting across from you and three other reporters in a suite in The Royal Garden Hotel Hong Kong, her legs folded in knee-high black velvety boots. In a skin-toned outfit and natural-looking makeup, she seems effortlessly fresh and young, closer to 30 than her actual 50.

Afterwards, when you study the pictures taken at the interview, she looks less beautiful than you remember, however.

Maybe what they cannot quite catch, which you can - and cinema has, even a movie as awful as the 2011 Chinese remake of What Women Want - is that moment her emotional temperature shifts and she starts warming to someone or something.

It is a moment that Him Law, the Hong Kong actor who stars with Gong and Aaron Kwok in The Monkey King 2, might have had too.

By her own admission, Gong did not talk much between takes on the set of the fantasy film, because special effects makeup sittings went on for five to six hours and she needed to conserve her "power" (one of the few words she says in English during the interview) for the camera.

Law, 31, recalls he dared not speak to her at the start of the four-month shoot. "Later, we greeted each other normally but, of course, I wouldn't initiate a chat with her," he says.

He wanted to have a picture taken with her, but it was never the right time to ask her. Then on her last day on the set, she surprised him by having her photograph sent to him, with an encouraging message she had written on the back. "Only I have it," he says with a laugh.

Kwok, 50, sounds more smitten by Gong. "Privately she's a young woman, she has a pure heart," he says. "She's so well-preserved really because she's such a pure person."

On the set, "sparks flew" between her White Bone Demon and his Monkey King, he reveals.

"We've agreed that," he says, sinking dramatically to a whisper, "we'll work together again."

The Monkey King 2 seems an unlikely commercial endeavour for Gong, who rose to stardom with critical favourites including Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990), Raise The Red Lantern (1991), The Story Of Qiu Ju (1992) and Farewell My Concubine (1993), many of them directed by Zhang Yimou.

Most recently, she reunited with Zhang to star in Coming Home (2014), as an amnesiac who is waiting for her political prisoner husband's return but cannot recognise the man who comes home to her.

Hong Kong director Soi Cheang says his eyes lit up when his producers spoke of asking Gong to play the White Bone Demon, but he did not expect her to agree.

Gong says she was readying herself for a next role, after the emotionally exhausting shoot of Coming Home, when the chance to create a "brand-new character" and reach a "new peak" came along.

The Monkey King 2 tells a well-known tale about the title character's three battles with the White Bone Demon, "but I think this story, if it's expanded, will be interesting".

Although an early script she saw was skeletal, she asked to meet Cheang to find out if he and his writers would be willing to rewrite and flesh out the characters.

Cheang, who was directing SPL 2 (2015) in Thailand then, flew to China every week to talk to Gong. It took about 10 meetings for them to agree on the direction her character would take.

In the rewriting, which fills in the blanks of the tale told in the Chinese novel Journey To The West, the White Bone Demon now has a back story, about how she was a mortal once upon a time and how she had been living for 1,000 years.

On the set, Gong liked being a super villainess and "especially enjoyed" performing mid-air wire stunts, she says.

"After you enter the character, you feel the White Bone Demon has nothing to fear. She isn't afraid of anything. What's hanging from wires? She can fly. So I really enjoyed that. The higher, the more comfortable."

Also, she explains, fear in the eyes will show up on camera. So it would not have been right for her, in character, to look like, "Wow, you're afraid of flying", she says, flapping her arms in a demonstration.

The interview ends, but her enthusiasm for the movie does not flag. As she poses beside a poster of her character, which she clearly likes, she asks a film publicist for a copy of her own.