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Jan. 21st, 2007 | 12:43 am
posted by: skywardprodigal in joanchen_daily

Art and Culture's Article on Joan Chen

When people look at Joan Chen, an irresistible urge to see her as the perfect china doll overcomes them, whether they are Chinese themselves or hail from the West. Chen's lifelong battle has been to act her way out of that porcelain persona, and to wrest the director's chair from the hands of those who would stultify her. In her sophisticated performances and controversial directorial debut she has repeatedly upset expectations of demure beauty and unwavering graciousness.

Chen was originally discovered by no less than Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao and head of the infamous Gang of Four. Jiang picked her out from a troop of girls who were demonstrating their skills at marksmanship and soon had her playing the ideal, virginal, selflessly dedicated revolutionary girl guard in propaganda films. This phase of Chen's career culminated with her performance as "Little Flower" in 1980, which won her China's Best Actress award.

But the 19-year-old Chen was ready to shed her green fatigues and dimpled, innocent smiles for something more vigorous and self-fulfilling. The little flower fled west to break into movies and modeling in the land of the capitalist running dogs. She entered film school at California State University, Northridge, and there was "discovered" once again.

As she was crossing a campus parking lot one day, who should espy her but Dino De Laurentiis, international producer extraordinaire. What he saw was the perfect raw material for the Asian exotic, and soon Chen was tempting British viewers in TV series like 1985's "Tai-Pan." The work wasn't any more fullfilling, but the connection to De Laurentiis had its advantages. It put Chen in the path of Bernardo Bertolucci, who cast her as empress Wan Jung in his Oscar-winning epic "The Last Emperor" (1987). Chen's transformation from a dream of beauty into a tremor-wracked, sunken-cheeked opium addict provided the film's most vivid depiction of China's cultural disintegration. The role allowed Chen to shatter her china doll image and finally play a real woman.

Some substantial roles followed, such as Josie Packard in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" (1990), but old cultural imperatives soon prevailed, and Chen was depressingly returned to the exotic-beauty fold in dull American action flicks like "On Deadly Ground" and "Judge Dredd." Chen was privately in despair, close to abandoning her career, when a new and unique project emerged from her friendship with writer Geling Yan.

Chen turned her back on Hollywood and set out to direct her own film based on one of Yan's stories. "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl" (1998) explored the real experiences of a revolutionary girl guard during the Cultural Revolution. Filmed on location at the China-Tibet border, "Xiu Xiu" depicts the lives of millions of girls who were "sent down" for social reeducation in China's remote countrysides. The unsuspecting protagonist encounters brutal treatment, exploitation, and abandonment. The Chinese government objected to this exposé of one of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution and banned Chen from the country for filming without a permit.

Chen remains undaunted. She has a second project in the works with Yan -- a film based on her friend's novel "Fusang," the story of a Chinese woman sold into prostitution in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Hollywood has come courting, enlisting this director to handle Richard Gere and Winona Ryder in "Autumn in New York." As Chen breaks the confining mold of beauty and femininity in her own career, she heralds a new era in which those stereotypes may finally fade from view.

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