A female filmmaking pioneer, Chinese-born actress Joan Chen broke both race and gender barriers when she directed the May-November romance, Autumn in New York. Released in 2000, the well received film starred Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. Chen mentions taking strength from her female support team including editor Ruby Yang and casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Georgeanne Walken. “I didn’t think of myself as breaking down any doors at the time. I think I was so innocent. I didn’t think about my role as a woman film-maker. It seemed very simple to me – I saw a story I really wanted to tell and was determined to tell it. I was fearless. I’m still surprised there aren’t many more female directors,” muses Chen, 56, when AWFJ catches up with her at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao. Continue reading…
The reasons, she believes, are because its such a demanding job, especially while raising children. “It took me so long to go back to work again,” recalls Chen who delayed having children in order to focus on her cinema goals, but found herself pregnant while making Autumn in New York. “I had my children late by which time, I was ready to take time off and focus on being a mother,” says Chen, who has two daughters, aged 19 and 15. “If you take on a project as a director, from beginning to end, its probably about two years. It’s an obsessive kind of work which is very hard as a mother or wife.”
Once dubbed the Elizabeth Taylor of China because of her early success as a teenage movie star, she later moved to the U.S. where she continued to work as an actress before first finding her voice as a director with the 1998 drama Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl which she also co-wrote and produced.
Already famous in her native China, as a young woman she found a wider audience with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor which received a special 30-year anniversary screening at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao where she also served on the jury.
“I have such fond memories of making that film. I remember all the actors being really excited to be there, like little kids in a candy store. It was a very lengthy shoot, about seven months so it was a wonderful place to study film-making, from the director down to the costume department. It was fascinating,” she recalls.
“I was a distracted young person who hadn’t paid much attention to the movie set until The Last Emperor which somehow commanded my attention and I couldn’t help myself watching everyone working and seeing how they did it,” says Chen who went on to a featured role in David Lynch’s cult TV series, Twin Peaks.
Often typecast as the villainess, her credits including Lust, Caution and Judge Dredd.
Directing her first film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, was a revelation. “I had grown up on the set so it was a familiar place. Its home, so that part wasn’t hard and I had great people helping me.”
However, the big shock came in post-production; “I had never witnessed that before. As an actor you leave the set as soon as you’re done, so I remember thinking: What do I do now?” says Chen recalling how she sometimes shot without permits in China, sneaking cans of film into Hong Kong and then bringing them back to the US in suitcases. “I was carrying undeveloped film to be developed in the US. Can you imagine that?” laughs the elegant Chen who now lives in San Francisco.
Currently directing her third movie based on a Chinese novel titled English, she continues to grow as a filmmaker. Getting back into the director’s seat was not easy. “I was nervous at first because I have to re-learn a lot which is really great, at this age, to still be challenged. Its important to continue learning and to get scared and to still have the desire to want to tell a story.”
Chen’s fascinated by finding herself in the digital era. “There’s so many possibilities and it’s easier now. You can afford to make mistakes and correct them later,” says Chen who cites Kathryn Bigelow as one of the most important female filmmakers today.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2nd International Film Festival & Awards Macao took place from December 8 to 14, 2017. For more information about the festival program, visit the IFFAMACAO Website.