Joan Chen : Richard Gere, Beijing and me

Tired of playing Hollywood's favourite China doll, Joan Chen decided to try directing. Which is when her problems really began.
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The Independent Online

Joan Chen ­ best known as the star of Twin Peaks, The Last Emperor and Judge Dredd ­ has directed two films. One is very good, one very bad. Next week, the bad one, Autumn in New York, will galumph into the multiplexes of Britain, and almost everybody in the country will have the opportunity to sit through a lachrymose romance about an andropausal playboy (Richard Gere) going hopelessly gooey over a Bambi-eyed twentysomething (Winona Ryder), who ­ get this ­ turns out to be suffering from a terminal disease. The good one, however, will be nowhere to be seen.

Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl should have appeared on more artsy UK screens last August. Then it was postponed until September. Then March 2001 was offered as a possible release date. Now it's slipped from the schedules altogether. According to its British distributor Downtown Pictures, "Xiu Xiu proved very difficult to book into cinemas. In the current climate, it's extremely hard to place foreign films."

This may or may not be the whole story (in many ways, post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the timing couldn't be better). Either way, it's a great pity, not least because Chen took risks to make Xiu Xiu ­ she shot it in secret on the Chinese-Tibetan border, and found herself the subject of an official investigation by the Beijing government.

"Making the film in such isolation was also very hard," she recalls. "The place had nothing. Well, it had Yaks, but that was it. Not even enough air to breathe. In the beginning we all brought oxygen bags, but after a week or two we got used to it. We had no communication with the outside world; no outside support ­ whether material, social or emotional ­ could reach us. The dailies we'd shot would have to be sent to the lab by jeep, boat and plane, and would never come back. And if anything broke down you had to wait a week or two for a replacement. And, of course, not having a bath or any real toilet didn't help."

My meeting with Joan Chen takes place in a post-production studio that occupies the carcass of a Victorian church in north London. She's here putting the finishing touches to the soundtrack of Autumn in New York. Somewhere behind her, Winona Ryder's face fizzes and wobbles on a video monitor. But Chen, who was born in Shanghai in 1961, still has a head full of Xiu Xiu, the story of a Cultural Revolution-era schoolgirl (played by Lu Lu), banished to the sticks as part of a project designed to squish her incipient bourgeois tendencies. The project had many personal resonances for the director: this form of internal exile was a fate that befell many of her school friends. "I knew that Xiu Xiu was a martyr of my generation. As a teenager, being sent down to the countryside was all we talked about. We had fantasies about remote areas, about running away from home. And horror was part of the fantasy, too. I could have easily been her, if I hadn't been chosen to go into acting at the age of 14."

Ironically, her salvation was effected by one of the architects of the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Ching, the wife of Chairman Mao. Madame Mao spotted her on the school rifle range, and determined to cast her in a trilogy of historical epics that would illustrate ­ with suitable air-brushings ­ the development of the People's Republic of China. "I was one out of a billion. Nobody else had my luck. They wanted someone sun-tanned and outdoorsy and physically tough-looking. I fitted the part of a guerrilla in a movie, who had to handle a rifle with great familiarity. So they just picked me."

After her starring role in Qingchun (1977), Chen was being hailed as "the young Elizabeth Taylor of China". Three years later, she picked up the Hundred Flowers Award, China's equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar. In 1981, at the age of 20, she moved to New York, where she reeled with culture shock, pursued a film-making course, and spent four years failing auditions because she "didn't look Chinese enough". Then she met the Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis in a car park. He cast her in Tai-Pan, an expensive TV mini-series that proved a wretched flop, but brought its star to the attention of Bernardo Bertolucci and David Lynch. For the next decade, Joan Chen was Hollywood's favourite China doll, and found herself wading in scripts that required her to play wounded oriental beauties, orchidaceous vampires and exotic sci-fi karate queens. She even made one or two of them. But it soon stopped being fun. "I felt it wasn't going anywhere; that my passion towards this medium was much bigger than the parts I was getting. It wasn't satisfying, but it was a good living: the salary was excellent. They pay very well, and it's easy to concentrate on that when you're involved in a shabby project."

There are plenty to choose from on Chen's CV. On Deadly Ground, perhaps, a ludicrous Steven Seagal actioner which sees her as an Inuit environmentalist into whose lands Michael Caine wants to sink oil rigs. Or Wild Side, Donald Cammell's last project, which put her in a long, dopey sex scene with Anne Heche. So, in 1997, she decided on a spot of role-reversal. "I'm incredibly restless. I was just doing films because the alternative was sitting around the house going crazy. Then a girlfriend of mine, a wonderful writer called Yan Geling, told me about her story of Xiu Xiu, and I went round literally begging for money so that I could make it."

Realising that she would never get permission to make the film in China, she went ahead without the necessary documents, guessing correctly that the remoteness of the locations would prevent the authorities from closing down the shoot. The recriminations began once the film was screened on the international festival circuit.

"She used abominable means to deceive the government," raged Zhou Jiandong of the Chinese Film Bureau. "The film traces the dark side of life, does not conform with history and has a negative effect on the socialist system and the reputation of the nation."

After the shouting was over, the authorities banned Chen from further film or television work in her country of origin, and demanded that she pay over 10 per cent of Xiu Xiu's budget. This issue has yet to be resolved. "I come from China," reflects Chen. "I have a history with China. I really wouldn't want my relationship with China to be a bad one, so I won't do this again. But I'm not the first person to make a film there without a permit. They wanted to make an example of me. I wish it didn't have to be that way. It's by no means a glory."

Her next act, however, was hardly conciliatory. "I guess getting involved with a project that had Richard Gere attached to it wasn't the best way to make things easy for myself." Gere ­ an actor who regularly shares butter tea with the Dalai Lama, and whose distaste for the Chinese authorities has propelled him into participating in xenophobic schlock such as Red Corner (1997) ­ must have been ecstatic when the former-Maoist poster girl, fresh from a bout of fisticuffs with Beijing, agreed to sign up for his picture. And despite being put in such an awkward position, Chen insists that making Autumn in New York has been good for her soul.

"After I'd done Xiu Xiu, I felt for the first time that I could participate and live and work in America, almost as if I was born in there. I left China when I was 20, and my life always bore a kind of fracture because of that. But to be able to get it out of my system, to bring closure to it, has been tremendously rewarding. I feel as if I've finally got rid of some kind of umbilical cord that needed to dry and fall. Now I can make Autumn in New York and reconnect myself to a different history. To the history of the USA."

If Downtown Pictures ever manage to get her first film into British cinemas, you may wonder whether this reorientation has robbed the world of an exciting Chinese director. Unfortunately, I suspect, as Autumn in New York makes its dreary progress around suburban cinemas, you're more likely to remain none the wiser.