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'Little Flower': Chen Chong

To make her latest movie, Joan Chen is revisiting her past in more ways than one.


In her grey blouse and plain old-fashioned trousers, Joan Chen could hardly look more different from the gorgeously dressed empress chewing opium poppies in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.

With her short hair pinned back firmly behind her ears, it's equally difficult to bring to mind the sensual lips of Josie Packard in cult TV series Twin Peaks. But this is the problem with interviewing an actress with too many faces.  

Chen has returned to her native Shanghai to shoot the film Molihua Kai together with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi. The directorial debut of Hou Zhou, the movie starts out in 1937 and follows the life of Zhang Ziyi's character through Shanghai's history of turmoil, revolution and eventual opening-up at the end of the 1980s. Chen plays both Zhang's sixty something mother and later on Zhang's character at a more advanced age.


"I have a very nostalgic relationship to Shanghai," she said. "There is a certain
snobbishness about being Shanghainese. We are born and raised with the knowledge that this is the most diverse, interesting city in China, especially now."


Chen's involvement with Molihua Kai is highly apt. Not only is she Shanghai-born and herself witness to many of the events the film depicts, but the struggles and triumphs of her own life echo those of the film's female protagonists. And the details of that life sound a little like the plot of a movie yet to be made.


Chen started her acting career at a time many were ending theirs. In the middle of the Cultural Revolution she was picked out by Jiang Qing to star in propaganda movies. Her parents had left her and her brother for America when they were in primary school, but that didn't discourage Chen. She was accepted by the prestigious Shanghai Foreign Language Institute and as a teenager dubbed the 'Elizabeth Taylor of China,' winning top stardom and the Hundred Flowers Award as China's Best Actress for her performance in Little Flower (Xiao Hua) .


After trying to get a passport for six months, Chen went to America in 1981. While studying acting at the State University of New York at New Paltz and then at California State University Northridge, she worked as a waitress to support herself. In an interview a few years ago she said, "The manager kept telling everybody, this is the best actress from China. I felt bad being the most loved Chinese actress working in a restaurant."


To that's she commented on that period of her life: "I was relatively sheltered in China. When I came to Hollywood I experienced more rejections than anywhere in the world. Ultimately it creates character, but it is not easy to take."


Coming back to China in the middle of the 1980s, Joan Chen made a speech on CCTV that was considered insufficiently patriotic.


"There were such great expectations, I was the most loved star and I came back after four years of absence. They wanted a more emotional speech, but I talked about superstitions and Chinese tradition very casually, and then I said 'China' instead of 'Motherland.' It was a big scandal. It was an absurd time."

Chen's first break came in 1986, playing May-May in Dino DiLaurentis' adventure epic Tai-Pan. Although it bombed, it led her to her two best known parts: the beautiful Empress Wan Jung whose love and life are tragically destroyed as the Chinese empire crumbles; and the enigmatic mill owner Josie Packard in David Lynch's quirky thriller series from 1990.


"Hollywood gave me opportunities I never dreamed of," she says. "I met with Princess Di, the queen of Holland and so many other people. [It affected] my life in both a good and a bad way, but most of all it broadened my horizons."


In the following years Joan Chen's success continued with starring roles in less acclaimed movies such as Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, Steven Segal's On Deadly Ground and David Henry Hwang's Golden Gate. She also returned to Asia to film Clara Law's Temptations of a Monk.


Looking back Joan Chen said she never had a thought-out career plan,
sometimes accepting roles just to be able to live a comfortable life. But she doesn'
t regret anything.


"Regret, what does it do? I don't think I did everything right at all. I was very impulsive. But mostly I've lived a happy life, and even if the results of the movies were bad I always enjoy the process, there are interesting people you can watch or talk to. I enjoyed that enormously."


However, being a Chinese actress in Hollywood has its limitations. When you're young, there are the exotic China doll roles; as you mature, you're left with evil old dragons. Which gave Chen another reason to return to the motherland.


"For me it's great to come back here. I have matured enough to get interesting parts as somebody's mother. On top of that, Chinese screenwriters really know how to write for Chinese women."


Nevertheless, Chen says that opportunities for the younger generation of Asian film actors are getting better. She stresses the difference between her own generation and Zhang Ziyi's.


"Her generation is a lot more savvy and competitive. My generation was taught not to glorify individual achievements. We were modest and got picked, that was different."


Raised in the last generation to experience the austerity of extreme communism, Chen says she still has it in her blood.


"I've been indoctrinated by communism to crave for something bigger than my self-interest and that thirst is part of what is driving me. I see beauty in sacrifice and suffering, communism gave me that. Zhang's generation are a lot more practical. For me, I don't care what I make on a job, I'm more idealistic."


After her commercial success of the early 1990s, Chen's acting offers dried up and she was forced to work with lower quality material. Her frustration at the situation was relieved when a writer friend, Yan Geling, came up with the short story Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl (Tian Yu) in 1998. When Chen read this tale of a girl sent from the city to the Tibetan steppes during the Cultural Revolution, she felt an urge to make it into a film.


"It was the material that gave me the desire and courage to go through with it." said Chen, who personally escaped the fate of the sent-down girl when she was selected for film work during her first year of high school.


"It was an inner urge to step up, instead of being dragged down by the bad offers that were no longer good for me. I created a new profession for myself."


The result of the adventurous filming in the Tibetan highlands is a lyrical movie about the loss of innocence and respect for humanity during the tumult of the revolution. Shot by the cinematographer Lu Yue (of Shanghai Triad and To Live), Xiu Xiu won prizes including the Golden Horse in Taiwan and a nomination for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Not only that - when Richard Gere saw Xiuxiu he loved it so much he recommended Chen to be the director for his and Winona Ryder'
s romantic drama Autumn in New York the coming year.


"I got the opportunity because they couldn't find a suitable director. They were running out of time because they had to catch the season," said Chen with customary modesty. However, there might be some truth in her account: if it's hard to be a Chinese actress in Hollywood, it's nothing compared to being a Chinese woman director.


"For me it was a problem coming in so late, because I couldn't control the script. Next time I want it to be my picture," says Chen, though she recognises the improbability of her being let loose on a Hollywood blockbuster.


The solution, just like with the acting, was to go back to the Motherland. After paying a fine of US$50,000 last year, Chen's exile has been rescinded and she is free to work in China again. And she will.


"I have a few eggs that I'm hatching but I don't know which one will be a chick first. I don't have a very lucid plan."


Chen has bought the right to a book about contemporary Shanghai that she wants to turn into a movie (she won't name the book). She has also written a script for a National Geographic film, adapted from an autobiography about a boy in Vietnam, which she will either direct or star in. The third project is making a film out of a short story called The Last Daughter of Happiness, written by the same writer that wrote Xiu Xiu. Though she may still focus her directorial sights on Hollywood, it's simpler for Joan Chen to get support in China.


"Although I've been gone for so long, I'm still in the small A-circle here." she said. "Every little territory that I've been trying to conquer in America has been very, very difficult. Somehow it's easier here. So coming back seems like the right move for now."


Chen emphasizes the differences between the American and the Chinese film industry: Hollywood pays better, but in Shanghai she feels more part of a family.


"I enjoy the Shanghainese humor. It's less formal, and even though they always beg me to work longer hours that my contract says, I do enjoy parts that are more complex."


Shanghai's Film Industry still has a lot to prove, however. Chen says Chinese film can only be a niche market in the international film industry.


"Hollywood entertainment business occupies the world and there can only be so many Crouching Tigers. But I do believe in cultivating the Chinese market. With the world's biggest population, it can be the richest business."


Innocent propaganda girl, decadent empress and exotic China doll - Joan Chen's many roles have always brought her back to her motherland. Despite her obvious affection for China, Joan Chen still has no plans to move back for good.


"In San Francisco I want to live a boring life and my children to be safe. Coming back to Shanghai is like getting an electric shock. There are so many opportunities here, so much to prove. But it doesn't work for me, I would only like to live here if I didn't have anything to accomplish."


And so China's once most loved movie star has made San Fransisco the center of her life, and Hollywood the center of her career. She seems satisfied with what life has brought her. But then again, how would I know. Maybe I've never seen her real face.


(China Daily September 25, 2003)

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