‘I’m certainly not a legend,’ joked Joan Chen. ‘Legends [have] to be dead. I’m so very much alive.’
Yet with more than 20 awards and 43 years of acting under her belt, the 57-year-old Chinese-American actress-director needed no introduction to the audience that had gathered for a dialogue session with her at the National Museum of Singapore on 8 December, 2018. Chen was in Singapore as a recipient of the Cinema Legend Award at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival.
Legend or not, ‘I’m flattered and encouraged,’ she continued, about the accolade. ‘It’s like you’re on a long arduous journey, and someone comes to you with this chilled coconut juice. You feel nourished.’
Born into a family of pharmacologists in Shanghai and raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Chen was chosen to participate in the Shanghai Film Studio’s Actors’ Training Programme when she was in her early teens. At 16, she debuted in the 1977 film Youth, playing a deaf and mute girl who enlists in the army. A couple of years later, she made a bigger splash in the 1979 film Little Flower, for which she won a prestigious Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress. She moved to the United States at age 20 to study filmmaking at California State University, Northridge in Los Angeles.
Chen recalled those early days during her In Conversation session. ‘I went to school, supported myself by working in the school library, working Chinese restaurants… At that time, it was $5.75 per hour, minimum wage.’ It was only when Chen’s classmate encouraged her to act in order to earn a higher pay that Chen found an agency to represent her. ‘I didn’t even know what a headshot was. In China, we never needed one—I was just chosen, assigned a part.’
Feeling like just another Asian face fighting to make it in Hollywood, Chen financed English lessons with her wage from the restaurant and attended rounds of fruitless callbacks. Then, in a stroke of serendipity, she landed the role of Empress Wanrong in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor, a sprawling production that went on to win nine Academy Awards. Chen played the lonely, opium-addicted empress consort to Emperor Puyi, who went from emperor of Qing Dynasty China in the early 20th century to a prisoner in his own palace.
Even after The Last Emperor, however, producers weren’t knocking down Chen’s door. ‘Back then, [as a Chinese actress] you couldn’t just play any female role. You needed to find a Chinese role. So even though [acting in The Last Emperor] was great, opportunities were still very, very few,’ said Chen. ‘There weren’t enough Asian filmmakers and Asian writers to really follow up.’ It took nearly two years after The Last Emperor for Chen to appear on the silver screen again, this time as a participant of a brutal post-apocalyptic game in the 1989 film The Blood of Heroes, directed by David Webb Peoples (screenwriter of Blade Runner).
Things eventually picked up for Chen when she was cast in David Lynch’s 1990 television sensation, Twin Peaks. And again in 1994, when she starred in Stanley Kwan’s Red Rose White Rose, winning the Golden Horse Award for Best Actress and the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award for Best Actress, among other trophies.
While her star grew, however, Chen began to get ‘bored’ with acting in Hollywood. ‘When I was working in China, I played revolutionary heroines that were very different from what Hollywood wanted from females—this exotic, sexy person.’ So she finally decided to take matters into her own hands. ‘I began to adapt stories that I wanted to act, to tell stories that were meaningful to me.’
In 1998, Chen moved into directing with the critically acclaimed Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Set during the Down to the Countryside Movement in 1970s China, where literate bourgeois youths were sent to rural areas to learn from farmers and workers, the film tells tragic tale of Xiu Xiu, a young girl living in Chengdu who is sent to the countryside to herd horses.
‘It wasn’t a film for me to play, but I [wanted] to see it on screen,’ Chen said. ‘It resonated because it is my generation’s story.’
Two years later, she followed up by directing Autumn in New York, a Hollywood romantic drama starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. Although the film did well in the box office, grossing over $90 million worldwide, Chen felt an insatiable need to go back to acting.
‘If you must act, you may not be playing the lead part, but you’re happy because you’re playing a part. You’re having this opportunity to express yourself. It satiates something deep in your soul.’ (When it comes to parenting, however, the mother of two has a more laid-back approach. Though her younger daughter, Wen Shan, has ‘got the acting bug’, Chen is ‘not going to influence her in any way’.)
Fans can be assured that despite being crowned a legend—and rekindling her acting career, with recent roles in Netflix’s Marco Polo and Chinese series Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace—Chen’s creative career is far from over. Her latest directorial project, English, is an adaptation of the 2004 novel by Chinese author Wang Gang, and slated for completion in 2019.
When asked by Singaporean actor Andie Chen, who was among the audience at the National Museum, for her advice to young actors trying to get by in between roles, Chen encouraged them to press on.
‘You may get one opportunity, you may get two, you may get [none]. But you will not stop. And only by doing it, you will find opportunities… If you are so hungry that you really want mantou [Chinese steamed buns], you do not get stones. You will get mantou somehow.’
– Nicolette Lin
Photographs by Chrisppics+