Though Zhang Yimou and Gong Li’s partnership in the last three decades resulted in many memorable films, their affair in the 1990s spurred controversy.
Zhang was married when he became involved with Gong, and did not keep the affair a secret. He told his ex-wife, “I want to be together with [Gong Li]. People can say whatever they want. Let them. They can call me a b******.”
Their first collaboration was 1987’s Red Sorghum <红高梁>, Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut and Gong Li’s acting debut., reports ifeng.
They were mutually attracted to each other, and Zhang and Gong became an official couple during the production of 1990’s A Terra-Cotta Warrior.
At the time, Zhang was still married to ex-wife Xiao Hua (肖华), whom he later divorced in 1990. In Xiao’s book, Remembrance, she said she discovered the illicit affair through Gong’s letter to Zhang.
Gong wrote, “You have left, and you took my heart with you.” Zhang did not hide his relationship from Xiao and told her openly that he wanted to be with Gong. Zhang also told Gong’s boyfriend at the time, “Xiao Hua and I were a mistake.”
In 1993, Gong – then 28 years old – wanted to make things official with Zhang. She had hoped to marry before 35 years old and have children. The filmmaker said, “Marriage? I never thought about that!”
Gong was crushed by Zhang’s lack of commitment, but she continued to collaborate with Zhang. In 1995, after completing the film Shanghai Triad, Gong and Zhang officially ended their romantic relationship and parted ways.
Various claims surfaced in an attempt to explain why Zhang and Gong broke off. The most infamous rumor was the “telephone gate” incident. Zhang and his daughter Zhang Mo often had long phone conversations.
Once, Zhang told Gong to call him one night, but she attempted to call him unsuccessfully for two hours. Gong immediately assumed that Zhang was chatting with his daughter.
Gong was furious at having been discarded by Zhang, and decided that it was time to call their relationship off. Zhang Mo has said that Zhang and Gong’s affair had ruined her childhood.
When Zhang Mo was only 7 years old, her parents divorced and she rarely saw her father in her childhood. She possessed much anger towards Gong for ruining her family.
To salvage his relationship with his only daughter, Zhang started to spend more time with her as she grew older. He brought her to the set of 1997’s Keep Cool, where she developed an interest in filmmaking.
Zhang sent her to study film in the United States, where she earned a prestigious degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in New York. She then returned to China to work as her father’s assistant.
Perhaps having experienced similar problems in life, Zhang Mo has come to terms to her father’s involvement with Gong.
At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival last week, the two women were seen hugging warmly, putting closure behind one of China’s most sensationalized affairs.