AT HER SCREEN TEST TO STAR opposite Richard Gere in Red Corner, Chinese actress Bai Ling fell out of her chair—and not because she got the part. "The whole chair collapsed," she recalls, and director Jon Avnet had to fetch ice to soothe her injured neck. Now that the movie is made, Bai Ling's neck is really on the line. "I don't know how [Chinese authorities] are going to respond," she says. "They could take my passport and not let me go back." In the film, which is highly critical of the Chinese judicial system, an American (Gere) on business in China is framed for murder; Bai Ling plays his defense lawyer. Says Gere, who calls her "the Asian Julia Roberts" because of her talent and beauty: "I can't imagine anyone more perfect for the role."

For Bai Ling, 27, who emigrated to America six years ago and makes regular visits home, exile from China would be painful indeed. Now living in Los Angeles, she came to the U.S. as a visiting scholar at New York University film school after witnessing the military crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Born to the arts—her father is a professor of music; her mother is a former actress and dancer who now teaches literature in Japan—-Bai Ling served in the entertainment division of the People's Liberation Army at age 14. Of Gere she says, "He welcomed me, and I felt relieved." Bai Ling—single and now inundated with film offers—hopes she has a permanent home in America. "Hollywood was a dreamland, and now I'm here," she says. "I feel I'm dreaming every day."