05/03/1993 at 01:00 AM EDT
You can tell that the Chinese are an ancient people from looking at Gong Li. It takes centuries for nature to move features into place like that, to refine the complexion and fashion the lips just so. But it's only her genes that go back that far. The rest of her is 27, a fine age to enjoy her international acclaim as the star of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Both directed by her offscreen male companion, Zhang Yimou, they are the first Chinese-language motion pictures to be Oscar-nominated as Best Foreign Film (and both of them were banned at home). TIME magazine led the critical consensus when it called her face "a map of cool insurrection, her figure proud and voluptuous." Not bad for a kid whose own family in Shantung found her, she says, an ugly duckling. "My parents grew up with Chinese screen beauties who were modeled after Hollywood actresses," she explains. With her new film, The Story of Qiu Ju, now in international release, maturity has given her a new perspective. "As you grow older you have other priorities," she says. "Beauty no longer occupies an important part of my life." Okay, Li, you can forget about your looks. We'll keep an eye on them for you.