It is a glorious face – as expressive as it is exquisitely beautiful.

In our first encounter with her face she is a bride-to-be, undergoing preparations for her wedding. She is pensive and solemn, as someone unseen adorns her with bangles and earrings. Her expression gives us a sense of her thoughts and feelings. And then she is moving towards her destiny, through the red sorghum fields. Tears stain her face. Shot within a tight closed-up frame and within the confines of her transport, we see all her subtle beauty and fierce emotion.

In the opening scenes of Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987), we are reminded of just how much an actor’s face can communicate a film’s power.

Red Sorghum (1987)

The history of cinema is, among many other things, a history of faces. And Gong Li, Yimou’s frequent collaborator and muse of 30 years, has one of cinema’s most memorable visages. From their first collaboration in Red Sorghum to their recent reunion with Coming Home (2014), Yimou’s camera has framed her face tight and close for maximum effect.

The close-up is arguably one of the single greatest cinematic inventions of the twentieth century. When it was first used in the early years of cinema it was part of the inevitable technological evolution that helped to expand a developing visual language (the American film thought to contain the first close-up, but not of a face, was D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator in 1911). The close-up brought with it new ways of telling stories, of seeing and of knowing.

Most importantly, the close-up, when trained on the face of an actor, is the film shot capable of eliciting the most profound emotional response from an audience, building intimacy through identification, empathy and desire.

When used bountifully in service to the wider story being told – as it has been in films as distinct as Carl Thedor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – the close-up literally brings us inside the world of the film. We understand motivations and thoughts by narrowing our gaze on the landscape of the human face – we look closely, we breathe when a character breathes, we feel what they are feeling, their tears become our own. “Movies don’t have soliloquies, but they do have close-ups,” filmmaker Paul Schrader has written. And it is true that the close-up gives us access to a character like no other shot can; it behaves like a direct line into their thoughts.

The films of Zhang Yimou make extraordinary and plentiful use of close-ups. They are as key to his filmmaking arsenal as wide-shots, sweeping landscapes and his sensitive use of colour. From those first images of Li in Red Sorghum he has seamlessly melded epic, historical landscapes with intimate, hushed moments.

Raise the Red Lantern (1990)

At the centre of so many of these quiet moments is Li’s face filling the screen and focusing our attention. Raise the Red Lantern (1990), arguably their best-known partnership, shows that this is no small feat for one actor to achieve within often-extravagant set pieces. As Songlian, a 19-year-old university student in the pre-revolution 1920s, Li is magnificent to watch. We connect with her immediately because Yimou opens the film on her face. He establishes her isolation with these shots; by the time the screen opens up and she enters the wider world, sold off to a rich man as his fourth concubine, all of our sympathies lie firmly with her. This closeness allows us to experience the grand world Yimou constructs as a subjective space, with the complexity of individual human experience at its core regardless of the political or cultural upheaval of the setting.

Through this close framing, Yimou has also cultivated a specific narrative about Li’s power and attraction as an actor. She is both a divine, sensual goddess of unworldly beauty and a woman of great strength, conviction and endurance. Yimou complicates the idea that a woman must be exclusively beautiful or brainy, sexual or saintly and allows Li true complexity. Her beauty is rarely passive and hers is a face adept at expressing a multifarious emotional terrain – of desire and delight, heartbreak and hope – with both intensity and elegant restraint. Li is equally convincing and compelling as a temptress in Shanghai Triad (1995) as she is as a mother in To Live (1994).

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Scratch the surface of all their collaborations and it’s clear that both identities coexist within each character Li plays. These are identities shaped, in no small part by the political context of Yimou’s films and the specificities of Li being a woman in the world Yimou reimagines. Her beauty therefore, while exquisite, is never celebrated as vulnerability. She is not a fragile flower. Rather, Li embodies the perseverance of the Chinese people, and Chinese women in particular, in often-oppressive social structures.

In 1990’s Ju Dou (their third collaboration – the second, Operation Cougar was a little-seen flop) Yimou places Li in a rural setting, away from the sophistications of pre-revolution urban life. Working in a dye factory, the passions Ju Dou experiences when she finds real love (with a man other than her husband) threaten to erupt from the screen. A sensual, deeply physical film, rich with colours and textures (as the best Yimou films always are), Ju Dou simultaneously elevates Li’s beauty while grounding her in a very tangible, tactile space.

Ju Dou (1990)
The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)

There is a similar earthiness in The Story of Qiu Ju (1992). Widely thought to be playing against type here because of her so-called ordinary appearance in the role, Li’s lack of glamour won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival in 1992. As a pregnant peasant on a quest for justice in contemporary times, Yimou unearths the enormity of Li’s strength and compassion. It is a gritty, authentic performance, attuned perfectly to the landscape in which Wang Qiu Ju walks – as she will also do in the post-revolution world represented in To Live, she suffers but remains resolute.

As Zhang Yimou’s enduring muse, Gong Li has played a major role in stimulating his creativity and inspiring his output as an artist. Too often it is easy to be critical, to say that the artist places their muse on a pedestal and leaves them there, holding them within a paradigm from which they are destined to fall.

It would be easy then to see Li, as the 14-year-old boy Shuisheng sees her in Shanghai Triad, as a splendid vision always out of reach. But Li is very much of this earth. Close-ups inevitably capture some truth, even in the fantasy world of cinema. They provide an actor very little, if any, space in which to hide. Yimou asks us to gaze on Li’s face so long that we enter his world through her eyes and we come to understand that something far greater lays beneath the surface of its beauty. We see Li, not only as Yimou imagines, and perhaps idealises her to be, but also as she truly is – a bold and beautiful force to be reckoned with.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in March 2015 for their season of screenings ‘Epic Intimacy: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li’