Gong Li on Hollywood and hunger

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Image caption, Ms Gong, the youngest of five children, grew up in Jinan in Shandong province

Actress Gong Li is one of the few Chinese stars to have made a successful move into English-speaking roles.

The 44-year-old, who previously appeared in Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice, will next be seen in Hollywood movie Shanghai, in which she stars alongside John Cusack.

Regarded as one of China's most beautiful women, she has another role: As a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Ms Gong is currently promoting the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) drive to highlight the plight of the world's hungry people.

The organisation's 1billionhungry campaign aims to get the world angry about the fact that one in six people do not have enough to eat.

"Securing food is the basic task for all humans," she said in an interview with the BBC in Beijing.

Many of those hungry people live in the country of her birth, China, despite its remarkable economic growth over the past 30 years.

The country has lost much of its agricultural land over recent years because of the government's modernisation drive.

Skyscrapers, office blocks and factories have all been built on land that was once used to grow crops.

This is a problem in need of urgent attention, said Ms Gong.

"The most important problem at the moment is that we have less and less farmland. How are we going to grow food in the future?"

Despite her English-speaking roles, the actress conducts interviews in Chinese, finding it more comfortable to deal with reporters in her native language.

Image caption, Memoirs of a Geisha was nominated for six Academy Awards

Justice and dignity

Born in the city of Shenyang in north-eastern China, Gong Li has been involved with the FAO since 2002.

But she is not primarily known for her campaigning.

After attending drama school in Beijing, she became the leading lady - both on and off set - for the director Zhang Yimou, who orchestrated the spectacular opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The duo's films are very different to the kung fu movies and historical dramas often associated with Chinese cinema.

In Raise the Red Lantern, released in 1991, Ms Gong played the reluctant concubine of a rich Chinese man.

Her isolation and unhappiness highlighted some of the worst aspects of traditional Chinese society.

In The Story of Qiu Ju she was a peasant woman seeking justice for her husband, the victim of an attack by the head of the village. This remains her favourite role.

"This is because the character I played wanted justice and dignity," said the actress, speaking from a swanky hotel in Beijing's business district.

Image caption, Shanghai is a thriller set in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor bombing

"These are very simple things, but these are fundamental requirements that everybody needs."

The film - entitled Qiu Ju Goes to Court in Chinese - was released nearly 20 years ago, but it is story that still resonates today.

Many Chinese people complain about what they see as their unjust society.

I asked Gong Li what she thinks about this. It was an opportunity for her to express her political thoughts, but she decided to keep them to herself.

"China's legal system is in the process of being perfected. I hope there will be fewer and fewer people like Qui Ju who have to go to court," was her comment.

She is equally deft when asked why she became a Singaporean citizen in 2008, to the anger of many Chinese people.

The fact that she is married to a Singaporean - tobacco tycoon Ooi Hoe Soeng - was, for some, no defence.

"I am Chinese - it doesn't matter what other people say," said Ms Gong.

Perhaps she is right. For many, Gong Li will always personify a new wave of Chinese film - regardless of what passport she holds.

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