Gong Li takes on first action role for The Monkey King 2
Who says you need to slow down when you get older? The veteran actress shares about the physical demands of her latest role
Chinese movie star Gong Li hardly strikes one as a battle-ready villain.
After all, in her almost 30-year film career, she is best known for her roles in serious dramas such as Red Sorghum (1987), Raise The Red Lantern (1991), Farewell My Concubine (1993), Breaking The Silence (2000) and Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005).
Most recently in Coming Home (2014), she played a tortured wife during the Chinese Cultural Revolution who develops amnesia after being separated from her husband.
But in the new Hong Kong-Chinese fantasy flick The Monkey King 2, which opens here tomorrow, she makes a sharp departure by playing the shapeshifting Baigujing, also known as White Bone Demoness.
The sequel to the 2014 film features her manipulating Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng) in the absence of his skilled disciple, the Monkey King/Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok).
It's Gong's most physically demanding part to date and her first action role - at the age of 50.
She relished the thrilling wire work stunts and action sequences, including the fight scenes with Hong Kong superstar Kwok's titular character.
"I thought the role of Baigujing was the complete opposite of Wanyu (my character in Coming Home). I thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase a different acting style and reach a new peak in my career," Gong told reporters at The Royal Garden Hotel in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
She was also inspired to become somewhat of a daredevil, doing the stunt work - some of which was done as high as four storeys up - without a stunt double.
"I particularly enjoyed that," she said with a smile.
"When you've put on these costumes and immersed yourself in this character, you'd feel that she is not afraid of anything. What is wire stunt work to her? She can fly! So I really enjoyed it - the higher it was, the better."
Gong's dedication to her craft and hard work on set earned praises and admiration from her The Monkey King 2 co-stars.
"She is very dedicated, there was even a period when she filmed for 26 hours straight," said Chinese actor Feng.
"She was almost too engrossed in her role."
But off-screen, Gong would transform into a sweet older sister to her younger male colleagues, offering to make them soup and writing an encouraging note to Hong Kong actor Him Law, who plays Sand Monk, on the last day of filming.
Said Kwok: "She has a pure heart and is unpretentious. Only someone who is that pure can maintain (her beauty) so well."
Having Gong play the White Bone Demoness was a dream come true for Hong Kong director Soi Cheang, who admitted he was sceptical he would be able to convince her to take the role.
"She's no ordinary actress. I wanted her because Baigujing is attacked three times... She has to be incredible, if not how can she last till the third attack? She would have been finished in one. Her demeanour and strength must be convincing to the audience," Cheang told The New Paper in a separate interview.
"We're very fortunate to have her, she was excellent in the role... Usually antagonists are not well-liked but with Gong, we had a very strange result. People who have watched the previews said they liked her.
"It is the character of Baigujing, plus Gong's natural charm. I don't believe any other actress would have had that result. Baigujing is bad but Gong is able to showcase why she is bad, and viewers can understand."
In order to successfully convey the inner thoughts and feelings of her character, Gong said she threw herself into the role and the demoness' world.
"She's very smart... As I was acting, I fell in love with her," she said.
"I think after the movie is out, she will become a role model for lots of women who will probably like her style and her fearlessness. They might be able to learn something from her."
"When you've put on these costumes and immersed yourself in this character, you'd feel that she is not afraid of anything. What is wire stunt work to her? She can fly!"
- Gong Li, on her character White Bone Demoness' fearlessness