NEW YORK — The white makeup is long gone. The exquisite, brightly colored kimonos undoubtedly have been relegated to a costume archive. But even in a plush, cozy sweater and furry snow boots, Chinese actress Gong Li, who plays the fiery, at times villainous Hatsumomo in Rob Marshall’s new epic, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” still emits traces of her on-screen ferocity.

It’s not that Li is clenching her jaw or whispering promised threats, as she does in the film based on Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel of the same name. In person, the actress is lovely and subdued, her face all angles with smooth, unlined skin that belies her 39 years. But it is this very calm, combined with an unblinking gaze, that suggests her potential for a passionate outburst.

While a tantrum never comes (at least not during the interview), Li is clearly poised for another kind of breakout, as she prepares to seduce American audiences in a slew of big-budget Western films, starting with “Memoirs” on Dec. 9.

Arguably one of China’s most internationally recognized film stars, Li was born in Shenyang province, the youngest of five children, to two economics professors. Upon entering the Central College of Drama in Beijing, she was snapped up by famed director Zhang Yimou to star in his 1987 “Red Sorghum,” beginning a professional and romantic relationship that had Li acting in six more films, including “Raise the Red Lantern.” She has made relatively few movies since their breakup (and is married to a tobacco executive).

But this summer alone, she collaborated with director Wong Kar Wai on his short piece in “Eros” and played a Cambodian gambler in his critically acclaimed “2046.” However, it is “Memoirs of a Geisha” that seems poised to launch Li’s mainstream screen presence.

In it she plays Hatsumomo, the bitter, passionate geisha who feels threatened when the young Sayuri (played by Zhang Ziyi) is brought to her okiya, ostensibly to be turned into a geisha who can supplant her. Also starring Michelle Yeoh and Ken Watanabe, the film offered a role Li could not turn down.

“I thought that this was a very good opportunity,” she explains through a translator of her first foray into American cinema. “In the past, I didn’t want to waste my time playing those kind of just pretty faces for the stereotypical characters. So when this one came around, it was just perfect. Rob Marshall’s a great director and it is an Asian story with an Asian background.”

This story first appeared in the December 1, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Indeed, much has been made of Marshall’s choice to cast Chinese and Malaysian actresses as the film’s three female leads, despite the novel’s Japanese setting. But Li dismisses such arguments.

“I don’t think that’s really much of a problem. It doesn’t matter if the actors are Chinese or Japanese or Korean. What matters is that they’re geishas and in fact the whole world and culture of a geisha still has some mystery about it even for Japanese people,” she says.

Certainly her next few projects see her playing an assortment of pan-Asian roles. Li is currently filming Michael Mann’s big-screen version of “Miami Vice” with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell, in which she stars as a Chinese-Cuban member of a drug-trafficking ring. Next, she’ll portray the character of Lady Murasaki, Hannibal Lecter’s Japanese aunt responsible for many of his proclivities, in Peter Webber’s “Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask,” to shoot in Prague. Perhaps most intriguingly, Li finally will begin shooting a Zhang Yimou film, tentatively titled “Autumn Remembrance,” marking the pair’s first collaboration in more than a decade, an endeavor about which she is coyly succinct.

But even with this slew of high-profile projects ahead of her, separation anxiety ensued after completing “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“This is probably among all of my films, the experience of shooting a film I treasured the most,” says Li. “And so, when it was finished, it was very hard to give it up and go away. I almost cried.”

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