Joan Chen: Chen Reaction

Actress Joan Chen--now a Hollywood veteran who remembers back when Bruce Lee was just about the only Chinese actor who commanded any respect onscreen--chats about the new wave of Chinese films, Chinese filmmakers and Chinese actors, and reveals her unwillingness to leap into a rice paddy for Oliver Stone.


There's an old Chinese proverb that goes like this: Actors' lives are very cheap. I, for one, have my doubts about whether that's true anymore of Joan Chen. She may have grown up in the squat-toilet squalor of modern-day China, but there's nothing cheap about the home she shares with her new husband, a San Francisco-based Chinese-American doctor named Peter. We've just left her sun-filled living room, with its silk couches that wrinkle if you look at them the wrong way and the polished mahogany table, on which sits an ever-so-tasteful antique vase with one solitary branch of orchids splaying from it. "Oh, I've gone from commie to capitalist," Chen explains cheerfully.

Right now, we're zipping down the streets of San Francisco in Joan's silver BMW convertible. While the Chinese proverb about actors may not hold true for Chen, a certain contemporary American saying definitely does: Asian women cannot drive. Chen is negotiating her personal path through the hilly San Francisco terrain, almost completely oblivious to yellow lights and one-way street signs. In fact, she's just about to plow into the knees of a couple of Bay Area yuppies. The two young men with briefcases scowl at first--until they notice the woman behind the wheel. I don't think they realize that this threat to their lives is the same woman who breathed life into the over-sexed, drugged-out empress of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Nor do they seem to recognize her as the duplicitous sawmill mogul Josie Packard of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks." All they know is that Chen--her hair cropped short to accentuate her knock-out bone structure, her eyes shaded by a pair of cat-eye Persols--is beaming a "Forgive me for almost putting you in your grave--I know no better" smile. The girl from China is working it like a native, and the yuppies smile back.

Chen's grandfather, a famous Shanghai pharmacologist, protested the Cultural Revolution by swallowing a fatal dose of cyanide at a public meeting, and Chen herself seems to have inherited some of this grand theatricality. Of course, it helps that she has one of those gorgeous pouts that annoy women and work wonders on men, and that she comes with the kind of troubled history that sometimes lends itself to great acting (that or a good, long stay in a mental institution). And then, of course, there's Chen's ambition--her Chinese name, Chen Chong, means "Charge On!" And she does.

Chen came to this country in 1981, one of the lucky few to be granted a visa--in Chen's case, to study film-making. Although a child star in China (at age 14, she was picked out of an athletic rifle team to star in a movie sponsored by Mao's wife), Chen was completely unknown to American audiences, and she'd probably have remained that way if Dino De Laurentiis hadn't "discovered" her in a parking lot while he was doing a nationwide search for an actress to play May-May, sex slave extraordinaire, in his 1986 epic/ultimate Western male fantasy, Tai-Pan. It wasn't all that propitious a time for a Chinese actress to arrive in Hollywood. American audiences were still full up on images like Nancy Kwan's happy hooker from The World of Suzie Wong and Bruce Lee's mystical nun-chuck-swinging man from the East.

And these followed on years of travesties like Jennifer Jones's unintentionally hilarious Eurasian doctor in Love is a Many Splendored Thing ("We are a proud people, we are a delicate people, we are the Chinese"), not to mention ultra-WASP Katharine Hepburn's turn as a Chinese commoner in Dragon Seed (go figure). Chen was the beginning of a different epoch, and her two latest films--Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, in which she plays the mother of the young Vietnamese woman whose real-life story the film is based on, and Golden Gate, a film scripted by playwright David Henry Hwang, in which she plays Matt Dillon's lover--are a sign of how much things have changed. I figure she's in a particularly good position to comment on Hollywood's current fascination with all celluloid things Chinese.

Since Chen came onto the scene, Hollywood has moved past its hokey cinematic egg foo yungisms. For example, it's telling that Jason Scott Lee, who kicked his way across the screen earlier this year in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and got the American babe, is well on his way to becoming America's first Asian-American sex symbol. That could not have happened a few years ago. In terms of the larger picture, there is a growing vogue for Chinese and Chinese-American stories and for Chinese and Chinese-American filmmakers who put them on the screen. In a phenomenon that could not exactly have been predicted, Hong Kong directors like John Woo (The Killer, Hard Target) and Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, the Once Upon a Time in China series), Taiwanese directors such as Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet), and mainland Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju) have become the flavor of the moment among Hollywood's cognoscenti.

Which brings us to why I'm zooming around San Francisco with Joan Chen. We're headed for a screening of mainland Chinese director Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, the story of a love triangle between two male Peking Opera performers and a prized prostitute which, along with Jane Campion's The Piano, won the 1993 Palme d'Or at Cannes. It showcases stunning performances by Hong Kong-based actors Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi and perhaps the only Chinese comrade who could make a Mao suit look like a million bucks, actress Gong Li. Word has it that she's managed to topple Joan Chen's standing as China's most gorgeous export, so I'm doubly curious to get Chen's response to Farewell.

Once we've gotten to the theater and the epic flickers on the screen, I watch Chen's stoic face as an American woman, who's also at the screening, cloyingly whispers into Chen's ear, "God, Gong Li is so beautiful! Don't you think she's really beautiful?" When we emerge three hours later into an unreasonably bright and muggy San Francisco day and gather under a street vendor's umbrella, Chen, whose speech leans towards the poetic, notes, "It certainly came down hard on the Communists. Here are these three people who live through the Japanese invasion, they live through Chiang Kai-Shek, they live through the emotions they feel for each other. And it's not until they must face the Communists that they finally crumble."

I decide to forego a discussion on the political implications of Farewell My Concubine. "I don't know about that casting," I say, one eyebrow slyly raised. "Leslie Cheung [the male lead] is so physically beautiful that whenever the film cut to Gong Li, the contrast made her look bad."

Chen is silent for a moment. What's she going to say? True to her Mandarin roots, Chen replies coolly, "Well, Gong Li is still very beautiful."

"Would you have been interested in something like Gong Li's role?" I ask.

"Yes," Chen answers curtly. "It's a good part."

I ask Chen if she thinks she'll ever work with director Zhang Yimou, Gong Li's filmic benefactor and real-life lover.

"No, no, no. They're a team. She is his leading woman. It has always been that way."

I'm on the verge of saying, well, who knows? Maybe they'll have one of those big tabloidal Woody Allen-Mia Farrow breakups, but Chen, who's obviously thought about this matter on her own, adds, "Besides, Zhang Yimou will never leave China. His movies are so much about and of that piece of land. That's the earth he derives his nourishment from. You wither if you leave. Part of me died when I left."

How did Chen feel about Hollywood's "interpretation" of Asianess when she first came to America?

"You know," Chen says when we finally make it to San Francisco's Pan Pacific Hotel and sink into a pair of plush chairs, "when I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany's, I didn't know what that thing was supposed to be."

"What thing?" I ask.

"You know, this." She bares her teeth and crosses her eyes and I realize that she's mimicking Mickey Rooney's turn as Holly Golightly's neighbor.

"Oh yeah, you mean Mr. Yunioshi," I say. "The man who yells, 'Missus Go Right-Ry! Missus Go Right-Ry!'" The same caricature from Tiffany's gets Jason Scott Lee, playing Bruce Lee, really steamed up in a scene from the movie Dragon.

"Yes, that thing. After the movie, I thought, 'Okay, well maybe that's supposed to be a Japanese."'

"That was what we call a low point for Asians in Hollywood history," I offer. I wonder whether there were low points for Asians in China, too, so I ask Chen what her first major movie role was. Chen breaks out into a goofy laugh. "It was in 1976 in a film called Little Flower. My character was deaf and mute from birth. This was a time when Chinese traditional medicine was being encouraged, so she got cured by Chinese acupuncture. The first sentence she spoke was 'Long live Chairman Mao!' I said to the director, 'But I don't know how to do it!' And the director said, 'You haven't spoken in 15 years! You can finally speak!' And I said, 'Well, maybe under the circumstances I would call out "Papa."' But no, no, no. There was this portrait of Mao on the mantle, and so this is the first sentence she utters in her whole life, with trembling lips. Even then, with all my beliefs and convictions about Communism, it was difficult for me. And so I yelled it: 'Long live Chairman Mao!'"

"Are there other scenes in your film history that rival that?"

"Oh, yes," Chen answers. The moment occurs in Turtle Beach, the 1992 movie with Greta Scacchi, in which Chen plays a barmaid married to an Australian ambassador. "There was this one scene where I have to make love to my husband and I say, 'Baby wants to fuck you, Papa.'" We are sitting among San Francisco tourists earnestly poring over their colorful fold-out maps of the city as Chen repeats her memorable line in a deadpan tone, her eyes glazed over: "Yes, 'Baby wants to fuck you, Papa.'"

"When did you learn what that word meant?"

"I don't know. I still don't say it very well. But the worst thing about this scene in Turtle Beach was that for the TV version, somebody said ..." Joan assumes a gruff American accent: "'Look, we can't say "fuck" on television.' So I had to reloop it and say, 'Baby wants to love you, Papa.' But it's a closeup of my face, and my mouth is still moving like this," Joan frames her face and her lips to pronounce FUCK! "But maybe that was just a bad movie."

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  • I think westerners need to keep an open mind about any form of ancient/chinese medicine. They (we) seem to forget that we didn't know what antibiotics was 200 years ago. There are more types of energy to be discovered who knows maybe in another 200 years we'll discover something equally as exciting!

  • Her book was on New York Times bestseller list for more than a month. Who has done that? Grisham? She wants people to think she's dumb. The more they think that, the more she earns.