[Source: China Economic Net, September 11, 2007, from The Bund Pictorial Magazine (Shanghai)]
Because she was not up for a best actress award at this year's Venice Film Festival, Joan Chen did not have the "envelope angst" such nominees encounter. And she didn't mind this at all. As a favorite actress sought out by two major directors, Ang Lee and Jiang Wen, she enthusiastically put all she had into her roles, and as for attending the festival she said "You give it your best and that's it."
Joan Chen and "Little Flower": Forever Linked in Chinese Movie History
Joan Chen, Zhang Ziyi and Jiang Wen appeared on screen together in the 2006 artistic romance, "Jasmine Women," which related the destinies of three generations of women against the changing historical background of 20th Century China. After struggling to succeed in Hollywood for some years, Joan Chen again donned a traditional blue brocaded qipao [aka cheongsam] to portray Zhang Ziyi's mother in "Jasmine Women." If Maggie Cheung in a qipao was the ideal representative of the Hong Kong woman in "In the Mood For Love," Joan Chen was the undoubted Shanghai woman in "Jasmine Women."
At the 64th Venice Film Festival, two new films in which Joan Chen has important roles, "Lust, Caution" and "The Sun Also Rises," were in competition for the Golden Lion award. Ang Lee praised Chen by saying that without her scenes at the mahjong table "Lust, Caution" would have totally lacked the atmosphere it needed. Jiang Wen said that when he began work on the "Sun Also Rises" screenplay, he pictured Joan Chen in the role of Doctor Lin from the start.
Chen was born in Shanghai to a family of doctors, and by the age of 14 she was living in a dormitory at the Shanghai Film Studio. Filming of "Little Flower," her success breakthrough in China, was completed in Shanghai. Although she worked for only five years in Chinese motion pictures before leaving for the United States, Chen's aura of the Shanghai woman was still strong after her return.
In the first mahjong scene in "Lust, Caution," Joan Chen is the very image of the mistress of a wealthy Nationalist Party household. Her every movement, her speech, all reflect the power of her position, and there is no doubt the other women at the table are beneath her in status. Facing Chen's Mrs. Yi, Tang Wei's character of Wang Jiazhi is a bit uncertain as to how to handle it. And while Chen's Mrs. Yi is obviously not the leading female character in "Lust, Caution," just by having his camera linger momentarily on her face, Ang Lee communicates the power she holds. She is in total control, not just of the mahjong table, and as she plays, Mrs. Yi points the way to the entire story.
There is still a trace of Shanghai dialect in Joan Chen's Mandarin. On the big screen, her Shanghai Mandarin sounds quite different from Tang Wei's. Chen, who was born and grew up in Shanghai, often dresses very well, but there can be exceptions: at a press briefing in Venice, she showed up wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Chen herself rated her performance in "Lust, Caution" as "not high": "My acting was too inhibited, and I think the key to that was the character had no true self. She knew some truths in her heart, but outwardly she never let them show. However, director Ang Lee finally arranged for Mr. and Mrs. Yi to have a long talk, and this completed her character a bit more. This was unlike in the story, where Mrs. Yi was just a symbolic figure."
Very Feminine in "The Sun Also Rises"
"Lust, Caution" is not the first Eileen Chang story adaptation that Joan Chen has appeared in. In 1994, she was Winston Chao's "Red Rose" in "Red Rose, White Rose," directed by Stanley Kwan and scripted by Edward Lam. That character was closer to the role Chen has in "The Sun Also Rises," very sexy and very feminine. During press interviews, Chen said that Jiang Wen sought her for the role of Doctor Lin because she and the character had many common life experiences. Chen is herself the daughter of doctors, and she had always thought she would become one as well. Chen also experienced the years of upheaval in China, so she and Jiang Wen have a mutual understanding of Chinese people's lives, feelings and opinions during that era.
Jiang Wen has an interesting view of Joan Chen's character in "The Sun Also Rises." He says that his image of her is that she is always "moist." But if you take this description to mean he imagines Chen's character as a dissapated, unconventional woman, you would be absolutely wrong. Chen herself describes her character as someone with little understanding of human affairs, who also cannot hide her own feelings.
In Venice, Joan Chen trod the red carpet twice, before the showings of "Lust, Caution" and "The Sun Also Rises." Dressed up and looking quite sexy, her appearance widened the eyes of many Hong Kong reporters who were not that familiar with her previously. At the "Sun Also Rises" cocktail party, even the distinguished foreign guests in attendance weren't able to ignore her. It's a little regretable that some of the foreigners only knew of and talked about Zhang Ziyi, but were unfamiliar with Joan Chen, whose success came much earlier. Some even mistook Chen for Michelle Yeoh.
But there is no doubt that Joan Chen is a fine actress. Even after she had won the "Popular Cinema" magazine's Hundred Flowers award for her performance in "Little Flower," the magazine's readers continued to send in ballots for her. Filmgoers' affection for "Little Flower" was something that puzzled Chen for a time.
In the early 1990s, when Chen was taking advanced acting training in far-off America, she appeared in some daring movie and TV scenes in which she was partly unclothed. This behavior resulted in some severe criticism of her among some film fans back home. Chen herself thought this was not that big a deal, for as she told reporters, she needed to develop her acting, she needed acting work, and she needed the income that work would bring. More importantly, she said, "I can't stay 'Little Flower' forever."
Director Joan Chen: the only Chinese director to make a US$50 million production
When Jiang Wen talks of Joan Chen, in addition to praising her acting he adds his personal admiration for her. "Chinese directors all talk about making big pictures, but at least until now only Joan Chen has made a US$50 million production." While everyone recognized her firm grasp on acting, her directing skills came a pleasant surprise. It's a subject she has always tried to avoid mentioning. So far, Chinese audiences have had no opportunity to see her big screen directing talent.
As a woman director, Joan Chen has always persisted on unearthing topics of women's interests. Although "Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl" was never shown in China, bootleg tapes of the film have circulated there. Another movie Chen has always wanted to make is a screen adaptation of Yan Geling's novel "Fusang" [aka "The Lost Daughter of Happiness"], but the plan has until now never received Film Bureau approval. So in the year Chen had her second daughter she suspended her efforts to make the film.
Joan Chen says her two daughters are her own best works. Because Venice was too far off, and too tiring, she felt the trip would be too much for the two little girls this time. But this reporter remembers very clearly the opening ceremony at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2006, when instead of some very handsome man as her escort, Chen walked the red carpet hand in hand with two very pretty young girls – her "own best works."
Earlier this year, when a reporter interviewing Chen asked if she would bring her daughters to walk the red carpet in Venice, she laughed and said that while the elder girl "doesn't like the atmosphere, the younger one just loves it. She still likes to stand in front of a mirror playing she is dressing up for a premiere." But Chen leaves the time-consuming and hard work for herself, and doesn't want to introduce her daughters to the entertainment world too early.
In the following interview, B="The Bund" magazine, and C=Joan Chen.
B: Of your two roles in "Lust, Caution" and "The Sun Also Rises," which do you like more?
C: These two roles are polar opposites. In "Lust, Caution," Mrs. Yi is a completely worldly-wise, very slick and evasive sort of person, completely joining in the fun. I had to absolutely smother my own instincts in portraying her. But in Jiang Wen's movie, all my acting in the role was instinctive. Doctor Lin was someone open and aboveboard in everything, she didn't know how to hide her feelings, but at the same time she was a very vulnerable person. She exhibited much contentment with life. Of the two characters, I liked Doctor Lin more. She did some things I would never dare do in everyday life.
B: How do you appraise the two directors, Ang Lee and Jiang Wen?
C: Ang Lee has a very good attitude, he doesn't let minor matters upset him. If you heard him talking about re-editing "Lust, Caution" for mainland release, you could see he was very calm about making the cuts required, and letting policy replace logic. I admired him very much for this. Jiang Wen? He's a specially good actor, and can explain scenes to other actors very well.
B: You said you preferred the character of Doctor Lin in "The Sun Also Rises," that you liked her directness in expressing her romantic feelings. But I understand that you actually found it very difficult to do the scene where Doctor Lin expresses her love for Anthony Wong.
C: At the time we were rehearsing the scene, I wasn't feeling well. So when I read those lines, I didn't know how I could directly express romantic feelings, and that discouraged me somewhat. And I also thank Jiang Wen for that, as I just said he really knows how to explain a scene to an actor. He didn't directly tell me I must do this or that, but he told me "Picture an actress on stage to accept the Oscar for Best Actress, and she is very nervous from excitement and joy. She is so moved by her achievement, and by the audience's expression of love for her, that she is laughing and crying at the same time." His putting it that way gave me the insight into the scene that I needed. So while that scene was a little over the top, it was not over-acting.
B: In these two movies you worked with two past Hong Kong Best Actor winners, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, respectively. What particular experiences from that can you share with us?
C: I feel that being able to work with a good actor is the greatest honor. When I am working with him, I feel very happy, and there is a mutual feeling much like that of meeting one's equal in a tennis match. If he makes a subtle change, you can adapt to it; if you make a subtle change, he will adjust and drive the ball right back at you. There is a high degree of sensitivity in this sort of give-and-take, and I can say very truthfully I was overjoyed to be working with both of them.
B: You seem to have worked a lot this year. Before these, you were in the Australian film "The Home Song Stories," and were also at its exhibition in a film festival there.
C: It just seems like that, with three pictures screening at the same time. But actually, there were considerable time intervals between their filming. I usually receive only one script a year, and absolutely will not take on a workload of more than four months.
B: Is that out of consideration for your two daughters?
C: Right, I mainly focus the year on my children.
B: So would you ever consider becoming a stay-at-home mom?
C: No. I feel that full-time motherhood can be deteriorating if the brain doesn't encounter new stimuli. I feel that some day when the children are grown, if I haven't said good-bye then I can return. I still have so many scripts that I want to direct, so many things I want to say. Through working with Ang Lee, working with Jiang Wen, I have accumulated so much valuable knowledge about directing. I feel that right now I'm actually in my cumulative phase.