BAI LING'S FRIENDS IN CHINA TELL her that the Chinese government hates her new movie, Red Corner. In it Richard Gere plays an American lawyer framed for murder in Beijing, and Bai Ling--a Chinese movie star tackling her first major Hollywood role--is the attorney who guides him through China's corrupt and sinister judicial system. Gere has already been banned from entering China for his pro-Tibet activities. Bai Ling, who now divides her time between China, New York and Los Angeles, could be banned, too. Or the government could let her back in and prevent her from leaving, forbid her from acting--and throw her in jail. Her friends warn her not to talk to the press. But when she sits down with a reporter, she talks, nonstop, for 2i hours. ""Should I say, "Oh, I'm just an actress; I'm an idiot?' '' she says. ""I cannot. This is not an anti-China movie. We're criticizing the judicial system because we want to make things better. Whatever happens, I'll live with it.''
Her problems have already begun. She says a Chinese director who had planned to cast her in a movie has decided against it, telling her, ""I don't want to get into trouble.'' Under pressure from his friends, a Chinese journalist has killed a story he was going to write about her. A visiting friend called the Chinese Embassy here to get her number and was warned not to contact her. Bai Ling defends her decisions but sometimes wavers. She hasn't told her family about ""Red Corner''--most of them still live in China--because she doesn't want them to worry. ""I hope that nothing happens to them,'' she says. ""I don't want to think about that . . . I don't know what to do.''
Bai Ling, 27, was brought up by her grandparents in Sichuan province. Her parents, both university professors, chose opposing sides in the Cultural Revolution and separated. When she was 14, Bai Ling joined the People's Liberation Army in Tibet as an entertainer. She was mostly ignorant of politics and was told only that the Tibetans carried knives and were very dangerous. One day an army leader confiscated her diary, saying, ""Bai Ling, you're young, and we want to promote you. But if you don't let us see what you're thinking, how can we help you?'' Bai Ling left the army after three years and began acting. She soon became one of China's biggest movie stars.
In 1989 Bai Ling joined the Tiananmen Square protests. ""I saw a lot of people die,'' she says. ""You know, we did not believe they were going to shoot. When the army came, we lay on the ground. When the gunshots stopped, we got up--but a lot of people next to me could not. Afterwards, it rained for a whole month. The sky was mourning.'' In 1992 she left stardom in China for waitressing in New York. She learned English by osmosis and eventually landed a role as a Chinese mafia moll in ""The Crow.'' Now she's fielding offers from Hollywood and sending money back to her family.
Bai Ling usually spends half the year in China and hopes to continue visiting. While shooting ""Red Corner'' in L.A., she would linger on the sets after hours because they reminded her of home. ""Here I'm more free, but isolated and lonely,'' she says. ""But there's a lot of anger in China. People hide themselves; they hold back the truth and become twisted. China needs to open up and not be afraid.''