Joan Chen: Guerrilla director

The actress talks about the filming of her directorial debut, "Xiu Xiu," under a shadow of Chinese governmental disapproval.


Michael Sragow
May 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

No actress ever looked better in a slinky gray dress than Joan Chen
did in "The Last Emperor."
As the last empress, she had a quicksilver allure and a molten personality --
politically knowing yet romantic -- and she made you mourn her character's
life as it slipped into an opiate haze. Now, at age 38, Chen has
invested her intelligence and empathy, and her sensuality, too, in her first
outing as a director. She shot "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl," which she co-wrote
but doesn't star in, on location -- illegally -- in the highlands of Tibet. The
movie has reaped acclaim at Western festivals and in its premiere engagement in
New York. It has also brought a rebuke from Beijing's Film Bureau, which vows to
bar Chen from further work in China.

In this ambitious debut, the title character, Xiu Xiu, succumbs to the moral chaos of China's Cultural Revolution. She gets "sent
down" from her city to the Tibetan steppes, supposedly to glean wisdom from the masses while mastering the honest trade of horse herding and heading up a girls' cavalry squad. But such units had been disbanded long before she gets
there. Xiu Xiu becomes the sexual
prey of con men dangling promises of a speedy return home. The one man who truly loves her is Lao Jin, her tentmate and instructor (who, in a horrifying irony, was castrated 20 years before). He watches in despair as, in a matter of
months, Xiu Xiu turns from wide-eyed innocent to cynic. She doesn't fully value his devotion until her life is nearly over.

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Chen and her co-writer, Geling Yan (who wrote the short story the film is based
on), waited two months to have the screenplay approved. When the Film Bureau
proposed changes that would have undermined the script, Chen decided to film
without an official permit. With a crew of 60 she headed west, to remote parts
of the Sichuan province and the Tibetan borderland. There, she told local
officials that she'd made proper arrangements -- and as a precaution had each
day's footage smuggled out of the area.

"All the way I was nervous like crazy, prepared to be kicked out of China," Chen said during an interview in San Francisco, her adopted
hometown. (Chen came to America in 1981 to study filmmaking, and graduated from Cal State University-Northridge.) San Jose Sharks owner George Gund -- a film philanthropist and producer -- opened up his Nevada ranch so she could finish
there if she had to. "I'm now two years older," she mused, "and I think I'd be unable to do it today -- it took that two years younger to make it
possible."

When the completed picture became a hit both in American and European
festivals and in Taiwan, where it swept the Golden Horses (the Taipei equivalent of the Oscars), the Film Bureau banned Chen from acting or making
films in China, where she had been groomed as a movie actor from the age of 14.

Yet Chen is reticent about divulging the details of her undercover moviemaking. She doesn't want the Chinese to think she's gloating. She isn't. Chen feels she is "being made an example," and
hopes for a rapprochement. She and Yan (who participated in the interview and also lives in the San Francisco Bay Area) see their work as a love story -- indeed, a fairy tale --
rooted not just in China's recent history but in the country's spiritual and artistic heritage.

Even during the Cold War, artists in capitalist countries sometimes voiced a surprising envy of oppressed counterparts in communist regimes,
where art was seen to have life-or-death importance. Chen understands that
jealousy: "I was brought up in Shanghai feeling I was serving a higher purpose, that's for sure -- something much larger than the pursuit of
self-interest, and not just entertainment, something holier than that. We esteemed writing, filmmaking, making an opera, because the power of it is incredible: It is through catharsis and purgation, both intellectual and
emotional, that we are better placed to attain virtue. And that should not be forgotten."

Chen's fascination with the figure of Xiu Xiu dates back to her and Yan's youth, during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Chen
escaped the fate of a sent-down girl when she was selected for film work during her first year of high school. Yan also lived in Shanghai until she
entered the People's Liberation Army at age 12; she was stationed in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, but as a dancer in a traveling military troupe spent most of her time elsewhere, including 18 months in Tibet. "The army was
a desirable place to be," says Chen. "It offered a more disciplined life than the countryside." For Yan's family her enlistment was strategic: It provided her with relative safety while enabling her older brother to stay behind (government policy permitted one child to remain at home).

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A sent-down friend provided Yan with the kernel of the tale: She told the writer "how she traded her sexuality for a pass back to the city. What
she said stuck in my mind clearly -- 'a woman who has no fear for rape has no
fear for anything.' She had changed into somebody else -- damaged, very cynical."

Yan first came to the United States in 1988; she returned the next year to enroll in a master's degree program at Columbia College in Chicago. It took years for her to turn her friend's adolescence into fiction. Yan had to envision
two changes. First was placing the tale in Tibet -- "because I don't know any other rural area." (Chen adds, "When I went there, I realized why she did
that, because we were so up high that we were really close to heaven, and
that does render greater meaning to life.") Second was creating the Tibetan
herdsman Lao Jin, who dedicates himself to the girl and ultimately acts as her redeeming angel.

Yan's lucid metaphors came from her own time in Tibet: "When I stayed with a bunch of herding girls -- young intellectuals sent down to herd
military horses -- they taught me how to take warm baths." They used their black military raincoats as lining for a ditch, "because black will take the
sun and absorb the heat." Lao Jin creates the same kind of outdoor tub for Xiu Xiu. (In June,
Yan's "Celestial Bath" will appear in English in a collection called "White Snake," from Aunt
Lute Press.) At the tale's climax, the ditch bath becomes a grave and, as Yan puts it, "a love bed."

Chen thinks "Celestial Bath" sounds so "porno," but now wishes she'd called her film "Sky Bath": "It's something people would have a question mark
about; it would make them wonder, 'What's that?'" It would also link up with the rest of the water imagery in the movie. Every time Lao Jin fetches
fresh water for Xiu Xiu, it registers as a baptismal rite, which is exactly what Chen wanted: "In China we use the word baptism a lot, it's a very revolutionary word -- 'baptism of blood,' 'baptism by storm.'"

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Yan's lyrical transformation of those rituals in her story helped Chen conceive of it as a movie: "She wrote in a visual way," says Chen, "and it
struck me as absolutely beautiful. After the girl was used by men, there was
a description of her under the silver moonlight, with her boyish face and her
body and hair all wet; Lao Jin comes and tries to give her some water and she
seems almost like 'a newborn lamb.' I saw that she was a sacrificial lamb, the female sacrificial lamb of my generation."

To Chen, "The beauty in the story is at one with suffering. That is also part of our upbringing -- we don't think there could be beauty
otherwise. Beauty is the result of having been through an experience all the way through to the end -- therefore it has a poignancy. Beauty that is
singular always comes from following an experience to the point where you can go no further."

Chen took Yan's work with her when she served as a juror at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival. What made her give into "a bout of insanity" and decide
to turn it into a movie was her reaction to the films she saw in Germany: "There
were too many urban-despair, end-of-the-millennium, doom films. They
offered doom without any elevation -- and doom that is not transfigured into spirituality is what I cannot accept. They were so urban and dark that I
wanted to go out there to the Tibetan steppes and make a film that transfigures tragedy into something spiritual and transcendent."

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Chen also felt the need to renew her own career: "I was frustrated. I was doing some bad movies, movies that I knew going in were not going to be
great." She had gone from working with the likes of Bertolucci on "The Last Emperor" and David Lynch on "Twin Peaks" (1989) to co-starring with Steven
Seagal in his directorial debut, "On Deadly Ground" (1994) and appearing with Sylvester Stallone in "Judge Dredd" (1995). Of course she understood
actors: "Since age 14, I know what actors fear, what they like; I know how to get things out of them and I listen to them better, since I've been there." If she cast her film correctly, she was sure it would still be "captivating" -- even "if all else failed."

Chen roamed China on a talent hunt, but found her lead actress, Lu Lu, right in San Francisco. "By coincidence she had just moved here; her mother
was an acquaintance of Geling's, and she goes to the English-language school
for newcomers right on Broadway, near where I lived," Chen says. "We took her out of school
and she seemed perfect. But I was totally scared of making a wrong decision there -- I knew how crucial she was for the film. Geling and I wrote scenes
just for rehearsal, for her and Lopsang, the Tibetan actor, because we didn't want to lose all spontaneity on the set. And she delivered. Certain things she was able to grasp and understand by instinct, like falling in love; this
is something a 15-year-old girl would understand. But she didn't want to do the sex scenes. The whole crew was in love with her and just hated me for
making her do them, like I was the evil stepmother."

Yan says her "literary foundation" rests on Russian masters like Maxim Gorky ("He's cold and realistic but very romantic"); Chen says her acting
foundation rests on Stanislavski. But she doesn't urge a single method on any
of her actors. "I pick them because they are intelligent; I don't interrupt them to tell them what I think would work. Acting is actually private. Lu Lu's grandmother passed away during shooting, and she couldn't go to the funeral. During certain sad scenes, she wasn't thinking of what was in the script -- she was thinking of Grandmother, far, far away. As a director, I
didn't tell her to think about that. But I allowed her the space to get at
this most private feeling and deliver it."

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Yet Chen says she also gave Lu Lu "some specific directions, because
she was so young. I'd say, 'You can throw yourself on your bed, because you
don't care, and rub the sole of your foot against your calf,' and the detail
of the physical movement, expressing her complete callousness in front of
another man, brought things out of her. You want actors to give you the
essence of drama -- not only the gift of their instincts and knowledge but the greater gift of themselves. When that happens, it's gold -- and when you want to catch that, you don't go through all sorts of fancy camera movements to play director."

What marks Chen as a filmmaker to follow is more than her love for
actors; it's also her ability to see them as part of an aesthetic whole. Even
one of the movie's jarring flourishes -- its use of a city boy who had a crush on Xiu Xiu as a narrator, though he leaves the film after the opening sequence and couldn't possibly observe the actions he describes -- derives from her desire "to make the film visually more like a fairy tale, not in a school of Italian neorealism, or the grim
realism of China. He'd always remember her by the day she said goodbye to him in the city. Time and distance have crystallized his memory of these events, and I thought that as he tries to re-create her story and piece it together,
the night sky would loom bigger and be a deep luminous blue instead of a
total pitch black, the flowers would be brighter, the grass greener. A conventional screenwriting class would say that this is a definite no-no: You
have a storyteller who wasn't present during the story. But somehow Geling and I liked it as a different way of telling the story."

Despite her passion for moviemaking, Chen hasn't given up on performing. "Acting for me is not a bad habit like smoking that I must make an effort to quit. I love acting; I love directing." Did she consider taking a part and directing herself? "I was so stressed out I was glad there was no
part for me in the script. In Tibet it would have been impossible to direct
myself. I had one assistant director who was only with me for two-thirds of the movie, and the sun was so strong I looked like a Hiroshima victim. Every aspect of making this film has been exceedingly difficult, which is really
wonderful. Because now I think I have done the hardest film of my life: Nothing can deter me, nothing can scare me anymore."


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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