Actress-turned-director defies Chinese government to make political and personal "Xiu Xiu"
Joan Chen doesn't look like a rebel this afternoon, what with her perfectly pressed, couture-quality, chiffon dress and the length of her flapper-style bob brushing a soft, spa-toned cheek. Nevertheless, she seems as braced for a barrage of questions as she must have been two years ago when she defied the Chinese government, filming her politically volatile directorial debut on the sneak in Shanghai and on the Tibetan border.
An affecting condemnation of the Communists' 1970s Cultural Revolution policies as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" has since been banned -- along with Chen herself -- from the country in which it takes place.
"I was ready to be kicked out any moment (during production)," she said with a look of brazen memory crossing her face. "I actually kept a producer in the United States, so (if) I got kicked out...I was fully prepared...to get everything ready for me (here).
"Of course, if I got kicked out it would not be the movie you see today."
The highly acclaimed film -- it swept the Golden Horse awards (the Taiwanese Oscars) and has been the buzz of several U.S. festivals since late last year -- was also produced by Chen and adapted by Chen and Yan Geling, the author of the short story on which the film is based.
It accounts the plight of a happy-go-lucky teenager called Xiu Xiu, whose life is torn asunder when she's forced to leave her family and is cast into effective servitude to learn a practical trade for the good of The People.
This "sent down" policy, as it was known by the population it effected (mostly educated middle class Chinese who weren't connected enough to get strings pulled for their children), saw thousands of kids leave home, many never to return again after they were stranded by this government directive which had by then outlived its usefulness.
Chen and Yan, who became friends when Yan was writing Chen's biography, both grew up in this era and saw many friends dispatched to remote regions by this policy.
"I think I was about 6 years old when I first saw neighborhood children being sent down," Chen says of growing up in China in the '70s. "Geling joined the army at age 12. I was chosen to be an actress at age 14. We were both luckier than Xiu Xiu."
Played by a beautiful, spirited and talented 15-year-old named Lu Lu -- the daughter of one of Yan's friends, who has won two best actress awards for this performance -- the heroine of the film is exiled to the remote prairies of Tibet to learn cavalry from a reclusive, weather-beaten horse herder. Made to live in a small, ramshackle army surplus tent on a hillside, and all but abandon by the government, she becomes disillusioned, turning to prostitution, in an attempt to bribe a pass home out of military passersby. The consequences, and her eventually abandon hope, are tragic.
Now safe at home in San Francisco, where she lives with her physician husband, Chen recalls the steps she and her crew took to avoid detection by a government that disapproved so strongly of the story in her film.
"We worked from 7 at night to 7 in the morning (on the sound stage scenes)," she says in a bold, still-defiant voice that betrays her determination on this labor of love project. "We were like the vampires of the studio."
So why did she risk the wrath of a repressive regime instead of just shooting the movie elsewhere?
Yan, who has come to the Bay Area to help Chen promote the film, chimes in. "We went there (for) the scenery. She had an idea she might make it somewhere else, but she needed to see what Tibet looks like."
"I thought I could make it in America," Chen contributes.
"But after she saw (Tibet)," Yan finishes, "she thought, 'no replacement.' Absolutely no place in the world looks like that."
Then Chen laughs, "Plus, where do you find yaks in America? We (would have had to) put hair on bison or (do) makeup jobs for the cows. And also, of course, Tibetan people around to give you authenticity."
Told the uniqueness and remoteness of the landscape comes through beautifully in the film's breathtaking, panoramic cinematography, the rookie director smiles and says, "It was really an interesting part of the story because of the isolation that was so real. (Xiu Xiu) was completely isolated, and I felt it (there)."
The fact that it the film captures that isolation was something she didn't know for sure until long after the shoot was over and she had returned to the United States to edit the film. Because they were shooting secretly, she did not develop or look at a foot of celluloid until she was safely home.
So that's the story of how she completed the film. But how it begin?
"(Geling) told me the story before she wrote it, and I found it very compelling." Chen says, glancing with admiration at her friend. "And when I read it, it was astoundingly beautiful. She has a genius for words, but also, the way it was written was very visual, very sensual, and I could picture a poignantly beautiful film just by reading it."
Then in 1996, while serving on the jury at the Berlin Film Festival during a year apparently featuring a lopsided number of dark films, Chen began writing the script. "I gave (Geling) a call from Germany and said 'Oh, all these urban despair movies!' I wanted to get out there to the Tibetan sky and I wanted to transfigure something different and beautiful."
"Xiu Xiu" became her directorial debut, says Chen, because "I love this story, and there was no other responsibility I could assume."
"I couldn't play anything in the film (none of the characters are her age) and wanting to tell the story, I decided to write the script. Then (Geling and I) worked on it together, then we went to Tibet together. When I was in front of this piece of sky and terrain, the movie was born to me."
With "Xiu Xiu" so well received, directing is something Chen intends to do again very soon -- she and actress Gong Li ("Chinese Box") are planning to shoot another Chinese language film called "Fusang" -- but she would rather stay away from producing in the future.
"The raising of money is not what I do best. I can't even keep a straight account for my house. My husband pays the bills. The producing part, the details of finance, I would never do again."
As for braving the official wrath of the world's second most populous nation, that's probably behind her as well, although aside from the pain of her banishment, as far as Chen knows, there's been relatively little backlash against her cast and crew, all of whom still live there.
"I talked to Lopsang (the actor who played the herder) and he said they had him interviewed, investigated and wrote sort of a self-criticism, but that's it."