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Joan Chen, The Novelists' Film Director

By Lily Lee

The Chinese-American actress Joan Chen in a Céline coat, trousers, and heels.
Fan Xin
The Chinese-American actress Joan Chen in a Céline coat, trousers, and heels.

Deep in thought, Chinese-American actress Joan Chen tilts her head gently to the side and stares into a corner in the distance. She nods her head and murmurs, as though in acknowledgement of her own thoughts. In moments like these, it’s as if she’s caught in a deep introspective within her self-construed reality.

Behind the metaphorical bubble Chen lives in, she remains largely unmoved by the larger world. When her 1998 directorial debut, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl” nabbed six coveted awards from the Taiwanese Golden Horse Film Awards (including “Best Director” and “Best Film”), the glories meant little to Chen.

“It was a boost of encouragement. You’ve worked hard
 and given your best. When someone comes behind you and gives you a pat on your shoulder, you feel reassured. But this does not affect the things that I do on a daily basis. Whether
it’s a good movie or a terrible one, both are products of
 hard work. While the results are dependent on a host of influences, the only thing that I can do is try my best every
 single day,” says Chen.

The 57-year-old actress may seem to live in her head, but she is grounded in humility. Beyond an innate quality, it is a hallmark of her work in a career that spans more than four decades long. Her recent directorial endeavour stands as a case in point.

“I read Wang Gang’s original novel and thought it was interesting, and it was the first time in many years that something piqued my interest,” she says.

Like her debut film, “Xiu Xiu: The
 Sent Down Girl”, her coming-of-age film
 “English”, an adaption of a novel by
 Chinese writer Wang Gang, is set in the 
years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
 The film’s narrative offers a worldview 
during a precarious time in history through the eyes of a young boy — a moving tale of conflicted youth that tugged at Chen’s heartstrings.

What compelled Chen was the idea of growing up, its dreams, uncertainties, the melancholy and loneliness that follow with the ages. Tracing back to the actress’s younger days, the parallels between the film’s narrative and her experiences as a young woman show itself prominently. And she holds the belief that it would also resonate with anyone else who has weathered through a turbulent youth.

Fan XinJoan Chen in a Dior coat.
Joan Chen in a Dior coat.

Between the ages of 15 and 17, Chen spent her days with an acting troupe. It was the first time she had left home to live with other actors. Her years with the acting troupe are ones that she recalls vividly — the row of houses along Shanghai’s famed Damuqiao Road where she stayed, its overgrown courtyard and the groups of people (she later found out these were prominent Chinese film industry luminaries like Wang Danfeng, Zhang Ruifang and Bai Mu) who remained idle in their rooms.

In the same year of joining the acting troupe, Chen rose to fame as one of the nation’s most eminent actresses with her role in the 1977 film “Youth”. Later, she was named best actress at the Hundred Flowers Awards (the Chinese equivalent of the Golden Globes). Fame and success came early for Chen, who at that time was barely 20 years of age.

For Chen, with fame came criticism. She recollects memories of a time when she walked past a giant portrait of herself that someone had painted along the streets. She stopped in her tracks and scrutinised the painting, in particular, the way her eyes and lips were drawn to its absurdities. It was a sobering moment for Chen, one where she recognised the perils of pegging her self-worth to the impressions of another.

In the years that followed, Chen’s career continued to soar. At one point, she took the spot as America’s highest-grossing Asian actress and throughout the years, has been bestowed several of the highest accolades in the Chinese film industry. Praises aside, Chen is an intellect who constantly looks beyond her success, pondering answers to deeper questions pertaining to life.

A glimpse into her wondrous mind can be found in the epilogue of prominent Chinese-American writer Geling Yan’s book, “The Colours of Joan Chen”. In it, Chen penned a hyperreal encounter: It was past midnight and she was on the way home when she encountered a solitary white peacock that stood in the middle of the street. The peacock stared fixedly at her and fluttered its wings. The next day, the romantic relationship she was in at the time drew to an end, as if the previous night’s encounter was a metaphor for what transpired the next day.

Chen was certain she was awake and sober that night. Yet, in hindsight, she questions — was that a dream or real life?

“Memories all have a dream-like quality, more so for memories from the distant past — those are tainted with your subjectivity and choices,” says Chen.

Chen dissected the novel “English” with this in mind, analysing the importance of each character tied to the author’s past. The movie’s narrative and memories had to be refined to lend depth to each character.

“What is presented to the audience is actually a worldview,” she says.

In working on “English”, Chen has given much of herself to the project, even insisting on sitting in during the script writing process. In her earlier 1998 film, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl”, also an adaptation of a novel, Chen reinforced the storyline, building on the foundations laid by the novel’s author and scriptwriter to “give the film more dimension and complexity”.

This time around, with “English”, however, Chen deviated from the draft script Gang had given her. “There is no distinction from the novel, and neither was it an accurate translation of the novel,” she says.

“What you have in mind for a film,
you should always write it down.
From writing it to the filming
 process, there will be lots of changes
— be it if you’re in a new location, or 
if there are new actors... But your
initial sentiments will always remain.
 These are the essence of your memories and feelings, and even if you find yourself with new inspirations and presentation methods, this foundation should never change,” says Chen.

Fan XinJoan Chen in a Céline dress.
Joan Chen in a Céline dress.

As a film director, Chen works arduously at bringing her vision to life, and in conveying the intangible emotion behind a movie’s storyline. A feat that has led to both successes and failures for Chen.

After filming “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl”, she directed Hollywood actors Richard Gere and Winona Ryder in “Autumn in New York” — an experience she deemed a failure.

“There was the producer, second producer, third producer, and fourth producer... who are watching and controlling you,” she says. On set, she constantly found herself at odds with their requests. Gere then gave her a piece of advice, telling her not to pursue the creative differences.

“I then realised that it’s true, there was no need to bother. Actually, it’s a learning process — how to express your initial vision under different circumstances,” she says. “These are all constructive experiences. If I were to do it again, I'll have a better approach than the last.”

For Chen, an actress who once stood at the top of the industry, the climb continues.
“When life has wilted, you know it’s time to [produce] new saplings. It’s revival,” she says. With the workings of the film industry the way they are, the chances of a middle-aged actress landing an outstanding role are slim. While to some, shedding their preconceived identity is a means of taking on diverse acting roles, Chen’s experience leads her to believe otherwise.

“I have let go of too much, and took on some roles that I’m ashamed of. In the end, I was left with no other choice but to be a director,” she says with a shrug.

Today, she considers herself an amateur director. “I’ve spent most of my years doing this but you could consider me a hobbyist,” she says. This perhaps stems from a basis of comparison — after all, her collaborators are amongst the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, Li An and Jiang Wen who form the upper echelons of the industry. Yet, for someone who considers her directorial career as a hobby, Chen does not make light of her responsibilities.

During the few years that she spent in the United States, Chen slogged away her days at work. “It was an immigrant’s mentality, always worried about the future, always fighting for the future,” she explains.
More recently, when she was filming “English”, she left home for five months straight — a commitment that took a toll on her relationship with her daughter.

“I felt like it was unfair to my youngest daughter, and may have hurt her along the way,” she says. “But I saw the potential in this movie and the time away was not a sacrifice that I made haphazardly.”
Today, as the sun is gradually setting on a film career that she once gave everything to, Chen’s family takes precedence above all else. As she makes up for lost time with her daughter, she harbours hope for an improvement in their relationship. After all, this was the same woman who once shelved an impending film project to ensure a safe pregnancy when she was expecting her first daughter.
“I hope that one day when my daughter becomes a mother herself, maybe she will understand and forgive me,” she says.

Translated by Guan Tan
Photographs by Fan Xin
Styled by Jojo Qian
Edited by Sen Li
Hair by Bon Zhang Fan
Makeup by Yooyo Keong Ming/ Andy Creation
Produced by Zuoyi Yu
Photographer Assisted by Xie Tian
Stylist Assisted by Ruili Ye