Joan Chen: From China to Hollywood
She's calling shots in indie 'Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl'
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By Andy Culpepper
HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- The time is China's Cultural Revolution, circa 1970. The place is Tibet, where a girl named Xiu Xiu is living a bleak existence far from home. Xiu Xiu, from the Chinese, translates "pretty pretty," and while Xiu Xiu is as good as her name, her story is anything but pretty.
The complete title of the film is "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl." To be "sent down" for a Chinese teen-ager in the days of the Cultural Revolution meant being separated from one's family, undergoing indoctrination, and -- in many cases -- enduring a spartan life filled with manual labor.
Such were the prospects of a generation of children born to China's working class -- a generation which came of age during this period of social upheaval during the rule of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.
Social class had its advantages, even in a communist country, and not everyone was sent down. One teen-age girl who came of age in Shanghai during this turbulent time lived a far different life from that of Xiu Xiu.
Chen Chong, the daughter of prominent physicians, was a spirited student who attracted attention early on for her beauty and acting talent. While millions of other young people around her were relocated to serve in China's regimented youth programs, Chen Chong entered a prestigious acting academy and became an accomplished performer.
Today, Chen Chong is an award-winning actress, the naturalized-American wife of a San Francisco cardiologist and a critically acclaimed, up-and-coming film director.
'Twin Peaks,' 'Last Emperor' star
Chen Chong is better known to American audiences -- indeed, to international audiences -- as Joan Chen, star of director Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning picture "The Last Emperor," of writer/director Oliver Stone's Vietnam-themed film "Heaven and Earth," and of filmmaker David Lynch's controversial television series "Twin Peaks."
"The author wrote the novella based on her friend. So it was a true story," Chen explains during a publicity stop at a Hollywood television studio. "When I was reading the novella -- she wrote it in such a visual, well-textured way, that I saw in it a poignantly beautiful film. And that is how my generation in China came of age."
"Tian Yu," the award-winning 1994 novella by writer Yan Geling, came to Chen's attention at a time when the actress was toying with the idea of directing her first feature. Ironically, Chen and the writer had crossed paths years earlier in China. It was 1979, the year before the young actress would win the equivalent of the Chinese Academy Award for her second film, "Flower Girl."
Three years ago, on her way to join the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, Chen once again met up with author Geling. The writer described her story, and Chen was hooked.
With this as her first directorial effort, Chen hoped to make an artistic statement as well as an homage of sorts to the millions in her generation touched as Xiu Xiu had been by the Cultural Revolution.
The girl on whom the novella was based eventually found her way home and ultimately enrolled in college.
The young girl, Xiu Xiu, embraces a far darker fate in the film adaptation.
No happy endingChen's heroine enters a life on the desolate plains of Tibet where she will work with horses under the watchful eye of a veteran horse herder. Alone in the barren wilderness, they are a strange pair whose only bond is that each, in his or her own way, has been defiled and discarded by society. To describe the plot in further detail would disclose too much. It isn't revealing anything to say the resolution, though emotionally powerful, is hardly a happy one.
While the visually stunning motion picture takes no direct swipes at the Chinese government of the era, there is no mistaking the harsh treatment those in power receive at Chen's hand.
"In a way, I think I made a more aesthetic choice than a political one, but politics was so part of my everyday life when I was growing up," Chen recalls. "I guess that was inevitable, but it was in our upbringing and education that no beauty can be achieved without suffering."
"So, without poignance, there is no true beauty. And the sense of aesthetics agreed with the story, and so that is why I decided to make this film."
Underground filming had consequences
The sense of aesthetics may have agreed with Chen's story, but today's Chinese government apparently holds another view, and the novice director now finds herself at the center of a controversy entirely of her own making.
Chen shot her film on location in Tibet without securing the requisite government permits. "I submitted the script and they gave me a list of changes to make, and I did not agree with the changes."
Chen already had secured the $1 million she had budgeted for the production. Since she was pressed to begin shooting to coincide with the necessary seasons of the year, she simply went underground and shot the picture in remote locations, far from prying eyes.
"Of course I was so possessed with this whole thing," she says, with an almost comical gesture. "I didn't think about the consequences."
The Chinese government thought of them for her. As a result, Chen has been fined 10 percent of the film's budget -- and has been banned from working in the country for a year.
Why couldn't she simply find another location to stand in for Tibet in the same manner, say, as Sony Pictures and Disney did with "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun," respectively, a few years ago?
Chen made the mistake of traveling to Tibet and seeing it for herself. "And it was standing in front of that nature, that Tibetan steppes, that this movie was born," she confesses. "Right there and then between heaven and Earth was that movie."
Yet, nothing compared to Tibet
Still, the budding filmmaker went in search of alternate locations in the American West. But the "Big Sky" country of Northern Nevada and other Western states couldn't make her forget what she'd seen in Tibet. "It should be in Tibet," she stresses, urgency in her voice. "The landscape is an intrinisic part of the drama."
Apparently film juries agree. Chen's picture has picked up some eight awards already in competition at international film festivals, including the Special Jury Award at the 1999 Paris Film Festival. Speaking of the conflict over her breach of protocol, Chen says, "It can be resolved, I'm sure."
Chen is probably right. As a star on the international scene, she is undeniably one of China's most respected cultural exports. But whether the resolution can come in time for a critical juncture where Chen's film is concerned is doubtful.
In spite of winning major awards at festivals in Florida, Germany, and Taiwan, "The Sent Down Girl" may fall short of consideration for the biggest prize of all. The category of best foreign language film at the Oscars is open only to films submitted as official entries from the countries they represent.
As it now stands, Chen isn't certain whether her film will even be released in China.
'A homeless movie'
"I'm basically a homeless movie. It's sad," she says.
Is she being made an example because of her celebrity? More than likely. "I'm not the only one. I was just better known in China that they needed to punish me. And I did something against their regulations." Still, she admits, "I'm not saying I did something that was right."
And if Chen finds herself at the center of controversy, her film enters the American marketplace at a time when Chinese-American relations are at the lowest point in recent memory.
Allegations of improper Chinese government influence in American elections have appeared in print and broadcast stories over the last year. In recent days, those allegations have been replaced by an even more ominous story -- reports suggesting that sensitive American nuclear technology may have fallen into Chinese hands.
But Americans can hardly point too accusing a finger at China in the wake of last month's NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in which three Chinese journalists were killed. This incident causes Chen the most concern -- as it has friends who've communicated with her via e-mail from China.
"I've received e-mails telling me about the protests ... friends who have gone back to work for American firms ... they are very, very worried and a little scared," Chen says. "I am a little scared. Every time tension like that builds up, I feel like I am not trusted by the Americans. I'm not trusted by the Chinese. I'm not trusted by anybody."
The actress recalls her early years as a student in China when she offers, "China has always had a cause, and my generation had a cause, and the cause died," she explains. "And there was instilled in the Chinese people this sense of a mission, and when they find one, it's strong. I hope everybody will be wise enough to make peace. It's scary for me."
Wouldn't do it again
The actress knows only too well how difficult doing business with China can be. Her guerilla filmmaking experience taught her that firsthand.
"I was dying. You can't imagine the amount of pressures that I was under," she remembers with a grimace. "And everyday you'd worry that you'd be found out and everything would be confiscated and every day you'd pray that you'd be able to finish the film."
When she's asked if she'd do it over again, the answer is unequivocal. "No, no," she exclaims. "I had an ulcer for that, and my hair tuned gray for that, and it was just too much of a price."
Still, there was an irreplaceable benefit. "To get this film made, I'm in a way more healed. And I needed to make this film," Chen concludes.
The experience hasn't daunted her, at least for the long run. Chen has already begun work on her next directing effort, a period love story set in San Francisco. And while she won't be dealing with the Chinese authorities on this one, this time out -- you can rest assured, she'll likely secure the necessary permits before cameras start rolling.
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