West To East

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RICHARD CORLISSTwo lovely, vivacious girls, members of the educated youth, grow into their teens in a 1970s China torn by Mao's Cultural Revolution. One girl is fictional, though her story has the sad ring of truth. Wen Xiu, the protagonist of Yan Geling's 1995 novel Tian Yu (Celestial Bath), is the daughter of a Chengdu tailor. Like some 7 million other youngsters, Wen Xiu, whom her family calls Xiu Xiu, is sent down into rural Sichuan to learn from the heroic peasantry. What she learns are lessons in venality and pain. Befriended by a Tibetan herder, Xiu Xiu is brutally misused by Chinese officials. She never escapes her youth. The other teenage girl, Chen Chong, is real, though her story sounds like Hollywood fantasy. The daughter of Shanghai doctors, she stars in her first film, wins a Best Actress prize at 19 and goes to college in the U.S. As Joan Chen, she plays the spoiled royal wife in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, an alluring businesswoman in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, a doomed Vietnamese mother in Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth. She makes onscreen love to Anne Heche and lots of bad movies with the likes of Rutger Hauer and Steven Seagal. Tired of being a China doll in rough Hollywood hands, Chen returns home to direct her first film, a stark telling of the first girl's life. Xiu Xiu: The Sent-down Girl does not please the Chinese authorities, but it wins citations around the world--seven Golden Horse awards, the Chinese-language Oscars, including best actor, actress, film, script and director.

Chen, the blessed child, might seem to have little in common with Xiu Xiu, a child of tragedy. But in any story of Chinese womanhood there are struggles and complexities. As Xiu Xiu became the plaything of low- and middle-level Chinese officials, Chen was toyed with by Western directors to fit the standard-issue image of the Asian woman. Though she was not sent down to Tibet, Chen did spend an arduous month there shooting Xiu Xiu; she describes it as an assault course. And as Xiu Xiu bartered for her future with army officers, so Chen dissembled to be true to her vision. I tried to hide the fact to China that I was making a film, she says. I lied and lied. They would come talk to me, and I would deny it, saying, 'No, no, no.'

When Xiu Xiu premiered at last year's Berlin Film Festival, the secret was out, the picture's metaphor crystal clear: that Maoist officials defiled a bright generation of Chinese youth. (One rapacious fellow looks exactly like Chairman Mao.) The censors' verdict was swift. I was banned from working in China for one year, Chen notes, and told to pay a fine of 10% of the budget. The film cost $1 million, much of it out of Chen's pocket. I do recognize that I filmed illegally in China, and I formally promise, in TIME magazine, that I'll never do it again. That's my apology.

Chen, 38, need apologize to no one else. Her film is a delicate, harrowing epic in miniature, with an artist's attention to the harsh allure of physical and psychological landscapes. Xiu Xiu would be memorable if only for its lead performers: Lu Lu, an elfin charmer whom Chen found studying English in San Francisco, and the Tibetan actor Lopsang. But Xiu Xiu is more than a star-is-born showcase. This story of a girl who rolls down the slope of degradation and finally has no power but to choose her own grim fate, is a worthy cinematic sister to Mouchette, Robert Bresson's great document of adolescent despair. It is also exciting as emotional autobiography--a declaration of independence from an artist who felt trapped straddling East and West.

Chen was once the busiest actor in the whole Chinese diaspora. Now it is clear that her striking beauty--the searchlight eyes, long, strong neck and the most luscious mouth on either side of the Pacific--is merely the wrapping for surpassing talent and drive. Working with her, says Bertolucci, I had the feeling she was somehow in exile, not always comfortable. So I love the idea that my own Empress in exile went back to China as a film director.

Xiu Xiu begins her adventure as if it will be the coolest summer camp. Her tailor father sews blouses for his girl; her mother provides sensible advice. The family's easy warmth seems endearingly ordinary here. By the end of the film it will be a miraculous memory that Xiu Xiu can barely touch without getting burned.

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At school, there's a boy who is sweet on Xiu Xiu. When she leaves, he stays home because of family connections--as the young Joan Chen did. In a way, he is Chen, paying retrospective tribute to a girl who suffered what Chen escaped. The boy is the film's narrator, and we expect that Xiu Xiu's prince charming will ride in to save her in the last reel. But he is never seen again.

Xiu Xiu is sent to train in horsemanship with Lao Jin, a veteran herder who, we are told, lost his manhood with one slice of a sharp knife. Lao Jin is tough and tender, instantly devoted to the girl's well-being. Xiu Xiu, the sent-down girl, is still stuck up; the movie doesn't glamorize her petulance (though Lu Lu is very much the bedimpled beguiler). Besides, she cannot ignore Lao Jin's kindness. When she complains about not being able to wash, he builds her a small pool; for Xiu Xiu the act of bathing never held such rapture. Your eyes will rot if you peek! she tells him. Yet the little flirt wants him to look. She needs to know she fascinates men.

And so Xiu Xiu wades into a tender comradeship with Lao Jin, and the movie bathes in the gentle radiance of its two stars. Now we understand: this is an opposites-attract story. The affection of the city girl and the craggy horseman must ripen into romance. But no again: Chen has rude, sad surprises in store for her heroine and us.

Each day, Xiu Xiu dresses up for the ride back to headquarters that never comes. Then a peddler appears. He tells Xiu Xiu that pretty girls like her are using their wiles with Communist Party officials to get sent back to the city. Why, he will put in a word to them. Dazzled by the glare of his promise in this long night of isolation, Xiu Xiu surrenders to him. And then to other, less attractive strangers, all in the hope of getting a pass home. Without money or connections, she asks, What's a girl to do?

The cute girl is a broken woman now, a soldier's trophy. The men who love her (father, boyfriend, Lao Jin) are unable to save her. Lao Jin can only ease her suffering, and finally end it. To prepare for his last act of tenderness, she braids her hair, fastens her scarf and wears a brave little smile. Naively, coquettishly, Xiu Xiu has been courting disaster--a prom date with death. Now that affair will be consummated.

Joan Chen was born under a happier star. She was one of those people who did everything well, says Yan, a friend from childhood. With grandparents educated at Oxford and parents trained at Harvard, Chen had the pedigree for success, as well as the stern expectations. Joan's father kept asking what she was going to do with her life. In my family, Chen says, going into acting was regarded at strange.

Excelling at marksmanship, she was discovered on the school rifle range by no less a talent scout than Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, and at 15 went into movies. In her debut film, Xie Jin's Youth (1977), she played a deaf mute whose senses are restored by an Army medical team. For her role in Little Flower (1980), as a revolutionary's daughter in pre-Maoist China, she won the Hundred Flowers Award. Instead of staying in China, she moved to New York City as an actress-model. I was clueless when I arrived. The cultural shock--even the toothpaste tastes different! My desire to go to the States was so vague, yet so strong. It's like going to heaven: you don't plan what happens after you enter.

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She studied filmmaking at California State University at Northridge and then--lightning strikes again--was seen crossing a parking lot by mogul Dino De Laurentiis. Instantly, she had the lead Asian role in his 1985 TV saga, Tai-Pan. For more than a decade, Chen was excellent in good movies and amusing in bad ones. In Clara Law's Hong Kong-made Temptation of a Monk, Chen sings, does a cute cootch, gets acupunctured and has her head shaved--it's a charismatic turn. In Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose she is a figure of eros and pathos, playing pensive airs at the piano and driving her lover quietly nuts with her desperate vitality; the turn won her a Hong Kong Film Critics award. Back in the West, in Judge Dredd and Seagal's On Deadly Ground, she was just fabulous-looking furniture.

Her verdict on those two cinematrocities: The sad thing is, they weren't the worst films I did. Chen may be thinking of Wild Side, a fascinating mess in which she took a three-minute nude roll in the sheets with Heche, who later declared herself a lesbian. Before me, she was with boys, Chen says roguishly. After me she came out. No, I'm kidding, I'm kidding!

Chen wasn't kidding about her unease over her career. I have delicate, sensitive nerves, but I don't look delicate and sensitive--my physique forbids it. I did my best to give a version of Chinese-ness that the West was looking for. I understood that they would only accept certain versions of me, which I played up to. But I also understood that that version of me was worthless. Yan recalls that after a bad film experience Chen would bang her head against the wall. We'd talk about her trying to go to medical school or do a law degree. But I always said, 'Bullshit, you'll forget it all tomorrow.' And of course she always did.

Yan rescued her friend with Tian Yu, a novel that stirred in Chen both a memory of the Cultural Revolution and a long-deferred desire to direct. Chen could have shot her film in the familiar cocoon of a movie studio. But to be faithful to Xiu Xiu's story meant filming it on the remote Tibetan steppes. The location was 4,000 m high, Chen says. It was hard to breathe. We didn't take showers for a month. We were all sniffing each other. Lunch on the set was always late and cold. Or it wouldn't arrive. So we ate yak meat, yak meat, yak meat. And lots of yak meat.

As a first-time director, Chen says, At times I felt like the captain of the Titanic. Chen may also have felt like Xiu Xiu: both abandoned by the government hierarchy and subject to its whim. We were working without a permit. Every day we worried that our equipment would be confiscated and that the film negative would never get out of China. But fortunately nobody came to look for us.

The few faxes Chen sent home, to her cardiologist husband Peter Hui in San Francisco, showed how neurotic I was, how scared. But unlike Xiu Xiu, Chen chose these conditions; she sent herself down. Once I started filming I didn't mind the hardship, she says, because that's the romantic part of it. You endure for a few months, then you go home.

There were also the fleeting epiphanies. One day, Chen recalls, it started raining. We got on the bus, and everyone was so tired, they dozed off. Except for me; I'm an insomniac. I was listening to Rachmaninoff and staring out the window. The black clouds were rolling, but at the end of the horizon a strip of blue showed up, then a rainbow. It was very intense--strong and beautiful, like a gate to heaven. I woke everybody up, and we got it in the movie. So seldom do you see beauty face to face. It was all worth it for that one day.

The Chinese censors and their 10% fine be damned. With her sad, beautiful film, Chen may not have a pot of gold, but she has a rainbow.

Reported by Isabella Ng and Stephen Short/Hong Kong

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