As I prepared to interview Joan Chen, my guest on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30), I had a general idea of what my research would turn up: an accomplished and glamorous actress, with signature roles on film (the doomed empress in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor) and TV (the equally doomed widow Josie Packard in David Lynch's Twin Peaks series). So I was basically unprepared for both her improbable life story and her remarkable work as a filmmaker.
Also, she's giggly. Or maybe I was giggly; I don't quite remember, as I am still not at all used to actually meeting people whose work I've admired from afar, and thus experienced our conversation from within a kind of haze. By the time I realized that I was actually talking to her, and not to her characters, I had somehow absorbed a number of amazing facts about her early life in Communist China and her subsquent adventures in capitalist America. I also was beginning to wrap my head around the fact that this still-young woman -- two years younger than me, for goodness' sake! -- has, in the eyes of filmdom, reached the dowager stage. (For example, she plays the humorously cranky -- though admittedly still vivacious -- mother in Alice Wu's Saving Face.)
But what most excited me was to talk about a movie she didn't appear in: Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, which she directed and co-wrote. When Chen was a youngster in China, teenagers were routinely "sent down" from the cities to spend some time in rural areas. Ostensibly, this was to prevent them from becoming bourgeois urbanites -- but in actuality, countless of these youths were subjected to exploitation and degradation; many were never seen again by their friends and families. Chen, whose sudden career as a politically favored child actor rescued her from possibly being sent down, defied the authorities by shooting this film in China without a permit. But Xiu Xiu is not just a labor of love; it's also a very unlikely love story, and it's staggeringly beautiful to look at.
If you missed it in the theaters, you can find it on videotape (though not, it seems, on DVD). And you can find Joan Chen sitting on my couch tonight, as I endeavor -- without much apparent success -- to keep my wits about me.
December 12th, 2005