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Joan Chen plays a middle-aged doctor in Beijing TV station's new TV series Newcomers to the Middle-Aged.

Joan Chen plays a middle-aged doctor in Beijing TV station's new TV series Newcomers to the Middle-Aged. [File photo] 

Thirty years ago, Joan Chen was making Chinese moviegoers sigh with her effortless beauty and innocent smile. Now, midway through middle age, she is promoting a new TV series in Beijing whose central point is that she looks like hell.

The TV series, Chen's first Chinese TV role, which opened on Beijing TV station last weekend and received a 6.37 percent TV watching rate, means 6.37 million viewers, is a family drama called Newcomers to the Middle-Aged (Xin Rendao Zhongnian).

Chen plays a doctor Tian Wenjie who is in her early 40s. She has the dubious pleasure of moving into a new house with her husband after spending almost their entire savings, while taking care of both her mother-in-law and her mother. Tian is that woman of a certain age, who has a good-tempered but plain husband, works hard as a surgeon, is often at war with her teenage daughter, is ambivalent about her aging looks, and is caught between family relationships. She is, in fact, a woman not unlike Chen.

"Certainly it is true that the family relationships and working pressures portrayed in the TV series are very much like the ones in real life," says Chen, 48. "I can hear my middle-aged friends complain about their anxieties. And I am one of them."

Tian fluctuates wildly between harmonizing family relationships, working hard for a promotion and taking care of her daughter's education.

So how much of that emotional roller coaster has Chen herself ridden over the years?

"Absolutely all of it," she says. "I think that is the so-called middle age crisis."

Unlike her usual screen images, often beautiful, mysterious, and sexy, Chen presents an ordinary middle-aged woman living in Beijing. Chen spent months in the capital, getting to know her husband-in-drama, played by actor Feng Yuanzheng, and tasting the local life.

In the TV series, she dons heavy winter coats and rides her bicycle across Beijing's hutong alleys. She wears a loose pajama, peeling apples while complaining about family's trivial matters. And she bargains loudly at a local fruit market. To break the ice with her mother-in-law, she wears a greasy apron and cooks a rich dinner, only to make things worse owing to misunderstandings. Also, she gazes into the mirror counting how many new wrinkles have appeared and how much weight she has gained.

"The doctor (of the series) trying to balance her career and her family, and trying to be both a good mother and a good daughter definitely defines my situation. My husband, luckily, is supportive and considerate," she says.

Living in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters, Chen says that she flies frequently to Shanghai, her hometown, to visit her mother. "My daughters are going to apply to college and I am faced with the usual adolescent issues. My parents have various health problems. And I still want to make movies. Those are my responsibilities as a mother, daughter, wife and a filmmaker," she says.

She jokingly described herself as "a warrior" battling middle age. But the actress-cum-director has, "warrior-like", taken on many a challenge in her 30 years in the film industry.

In her prime, Chen was as well known in Hollywood as in the Chinese mainland. Born into a family of doctors in 1961, she made her name at 14 in late director Xie Jin's Youth in 1976 (Qing Chun). Her role in The Little Flower (Xiao Hua) in 1979 won her a Best Actress Award at the Full Blossom Awards, the Chinese equivalent of the Oscars, and made Chen the most famous actress in China prompting Time magazine to call her the "Elizabeth Taylor of China". At 20, she moved to the United States and studied filmmaking in California.

"My classmates didn't know I was a famous actress back in China. And my early days in the US were the same as those faced by other Chinese students, doing part-time jobs such as washing dishes to make money," she recalls.

Her first role in a Hollywood movie was a supporting one that involved no dialogue. In 1986, she finally got her first leading role in the Hollywood movie Tai-Pan which then led to Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning The Last Emperor in 1987.

Chen plays a spoiled empress, whose love and life are tragically destroyed. Later, she attracted attention as Josie Packard in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks and in 1993, she played a Vietnamese mother who suffers the lifelong effects of war in Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth.

She says she is grateful for her early days of struggle in the US, for it helped build her character and resolve. "I always have a sense of insecurity which drives me to work all the time, looking for the next role and the next project," she says.

Returning to China in 1993, Chen earned a role in director Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose (Hong Meigui Bai Meigui), which was nominated for Berlin's Golden Bear award. Chen plays a married woman, craving for love. The role won her Best Actress at the Golden Horse Award in Taiwan.

She is happily married to Chinese-American cardiologist Peter Hui after a failed marriage in 1992. Who could ask for more? But Chen says she thrives on pushing herself.

"I have always believed in working. Taking care of your house and husband is not enough for a woman. It is not complete," she says. It seems the stability a family has given her has allowed the actress to experiment with her career.

When she read the story of a girl who was sent from a big city to the Tibetan area during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), she felt the urge to make it into a film, which was her directorial debut work in 1998, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (Tian Yu). The movie was a big winner at the Golden Horse Award, winning Chen the Best Director award and the leading actress Li Xiaolu, then just 14, the Best Actress award.

In 2000, she became the first Chinese-born actress to direct a Hollywood film, the romantic drama Autumn in New York, starring Richard Gere.

"The inner urge to seek the next thing keeps me busy and I think it is a good thing for an actress, especially for a Chinese actress working in Hollywood," she says. "My options were limited so I hoped I could create more possibilities either as an actress or a director."

In 2004, she starred in Zhang Yimou's former photographer Hou Yong's family drama Jasmine Women (Moli Huakai) alongside actress Zhang Ziyi, as mother and daughter spanning three generations in Shanghai.

In Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (Se Jie), she plays a Shanghai wife against Tony Leung and in the same year she starred in Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises (Taiyang Zhaochang Shengqi) for which she received an Asian Film Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her most recent international presence was as a factory worker in Jia Zhangke's 24 City (Er Shi Si Cheng Ji), which was nominated for the Golden Palm award at Cannes Film Festival.

With all this glamour and recognition on screen, Chen is the ultimate East-goes-West success story. What's next?

"Actually, my life in the US is quite simple and even boring. I walk around the neighborhood and climb the mountains everyday, while taking care of my children and cooking for my husband," she says.

"And, of course, thinking of my next movie."

(China Daily September 8, 2009)

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