Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 8, May 7 - 13

The Sent Down Girl
by Steven Schwankert

Joan Chen rose to prominence as a child film star during the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution. She went on to star in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-sweeping Last Emperor and has worked with renowned directors Oliver Stone (Heaven and Earth) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks). Her directorial debut Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl swept Taiwan's Golden Horse film awards and is now opening in theaters worldwide.

Despite its bleak storyline, The Sent Down Girl expresses Director Chen's nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. It was the rite of passage of a generation, the same way the Vietnam War is lodged in the minds of America's baby-boomers.

Joan Chen feels both "everywhere and nowhere" at present. When the Shanghai starlet's directorial debut Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (Tian Yu or Heavenly Bath in Chinese) garnered seven Golden Horse awards, Taiwan's version of the Oscars, the movie was classified as a Mainland film. But if Chen applies to have the film distributed in China, it will be categorized as a foreign flick. "I'm a bastard wherever I go," Chen says with a sigh, sitting in a coffeeshop within walking distance of her San Francisco home.

At 38, Chen is as radiant in person as she appears on screen. If she's wearing make-up, it's invisible. Her short hair accentuates her classical almond-shaped Shanghai visage, and the porcelain skin that has been her trademark throughout her career fairly glows.

Stepping behind the camera is the newest career for perhaps China's best-known actress. It has been a long march from a young actress performing for Chairman Mao to award-winning director. After winning China's best actress award in 1977 for her role in the post Gang of Four retrohit Youth, Chen became the first Mainland Chinese actress to succeed in Hollywood. Her Western debut: the film adaptation of James Clavell's Opium War novel Tai Pan, in which she played the lover of a British imperialist (Bryan Brown). That the film received mediocre reviews was inconsequential; the China girl's career was launched, a position she solidified playing the empress in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-sweeping The Last Emperor.

Battling a dearth of substantial roles for Asian-American women, Chen appeared in David Lynch's quirky mega-hit TV series Twin Peaks, as a widow who falls for the local police chief. "I liked Twin Peaks. If there is the right TV part, I might consider doing it," Chen says about a possible return to the small screen.

But right now, the international release of Xiu Xiu is foremost in her mind. Based on a short story written by Chen's close friend and author Yan Geling called Tian Yu, or Heavenly Bath, the story is set during the Cultural Revolution. Xiu Xiu, a 16-year-old girl, is sent to the Tibetan countryside to study herding with Lao Jin, a Tibetan shepherd. Removed from all that is familiar, Xiu Xiu struggles to find her way back to the city, believing the peddlers, soldiers and bureaucrats who periodically visit her tent on the grasslands and promise they will help her return home. The price is high: She trades her intimacy and innocence for increasingly elusive promises; in doing so, Xiu Xiu's name becomes synonymous with sexual pleasure.

"I just really fell in love with the story," says Chen, who calls writer Yan, a fellow Shanghainese, "my one comrade in the Bay Area." "She has the talent to poeticize, and somehow elevates an event into something more spiritual." Xiu Xiu is gorgeously shot by noted cinematographer Lu Yue (To Live and Shanghai Triad).

The story came to Chen just as she was looking for a different kind of film. "I was on the jury of the Berlin film festival three years ago," she says. "A lot of the films had this end-of-the-millennium mood, very spiritually and emotionally corrupt, sort of the end of something. It was really tedious to watch. I wanted to write something else." That's when she called Yan and said she wanted to make her story into a movie. By the time Chen returned to San Francisco, she had completed a draft of the screenplay.

Chen and Yan spent two weeks in the Sichuan-Tibet border area finishing the screenplay and scouting locations. The difficulties were just beginning, raising money chief among them.

"That was 'Are you in it?' 'No.' " says Chen. "They don't want to give me money if I'm not in it." But she stuck to her choice to direct. "I've loved movies all my life, and I figured sooner or later I would participate in a different aspect of filmmaking. I love the story, but I couldn't play anything in it, so it was natural to turn to directing," she explains.

In the summer of 1996, after backing was finally secured, came the next obstacle: obtaining permission to shoot inside China. While the script was approved by China's film authorities, they were not so expedient in granting permission to shoot in western Sichuan. Chen chose to move ahead before the official nod came. "It's not something anyone there would encourage, and it's not something I would encourage. I just had to do it," she explains. As she started filming near the Tibetan border, the wishes of Beijing bureaucrats became a secondary concern. "It was very difficult. We were shooting in some places at 3,400 meters. A lot of people had headaches. There were no modern facilities available. There were two phone lines to Beijing in the whole little town," Chen says. Directing an independent film was a world away from the first-class treatment she receives as a top actress. "You go to Tibet where you don't take a shower for two months, and then you have a backpack of chocolate to supply to the crew, and you have to take care of everybody there. It's more creative, it's more intense, you have more responsibilities, and therefore I think the rewards are more intense," she says. One matter that was not a factor during shooting was the sensitive issue of Tibetan independence, a favorite cause of the Hollywood set. "I'm actually a very loyal person to the People's Republic of China when this issue comes up, and I had a beautiful Tibetan character in it, and the actor came from Tibet and I learned a lot from him. It's a good part of the Tibet-China thing. It's not a bad part of it. I actually made a nice picture of it, so I wasn't that worried," she says with calm assurance.

It was a different experience than when Chen worked with martial arts actor Steven Seagal, an outspoken Dalai Lama supporter, in the Alaskan eco-thriller On Deadly Ground. "I wouldn't talk to him about any issue," Chen says of Seagal. "He's very hypocritical."

Despite its bleak storyline, Xiu Xiu also expresses Chen's nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. She has no illusions that it was anything but a difficult and turbulent time for China. But it was the rite of passage of a generation, the same way the Vietnam War is lodged in the minds of America's baby-boomers.

"It was a horrible time, but it was our youth, and there are always things that are beautiful when you look back. Before it all shattered, we believed in something that we thought was beautiful. I still think today that it was beautiful," Chen says. "Today's kids are very materialistic. But we believed in something more than self-interest."

Should it be approved for distribution, Xiu Xiu will be the first sample of Chen's work to reach Mainland theaters in years. As one of China's most recognizable cultural personalities, Chen was lauded by Mainland newspapers for her success at the Taiwan awards. However, China's conservative media has not always been so kind, criticizing Chen for appearing nude in films such as Temptation of a Monk, in which she plays a woman intent on leading a monk away from his monastic life and vow of celibacy. She is unconcerned that such negative press has tarnished her image with China's movie-goers. "People in China have VCDs. They have seen everything. They probably see more porn than I ever would," she says. "I guess nothing could shock a Chinese audience."

Chen has no immediate plans to direct again, but without revealing details she says she is trying to acquire the rights to material for her next project. And for the moment, Chen is feeling at home in San Francisco - until China calls her back, and she goes from everywhere to nowhere once again.

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