INTERVIEW: A Long Way from Twin Peaks, Joan Chen Gets Sent Down for "Xiu-Xiu"
by Augusta Palmer
Star of screens big and small, indelibly fixed in our minds as the emperor Pu Yi’s wife and a mysterious Twin Peaks maven, Joan Chen has been in front of the camera as an actress since she was fourteen. Her debut as a director, “Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl,” opens in New York this Friday. Chen’s film has already earned her seven Oscar equivalents at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. It also earned her a $50,000 fine and an indefinite ban on working in any capacity in the Chinese film and television industry because “Xiu Xiu,” the story of a city girl sent down to the countryside in the waning years of China’s Cultural revolution, was shot in a remote corner of Tibet without a permit. The glamorous Chen sat down for an interview, not swathed in imperial furs, but dressed casually like the San Francisco resident she now is.
indieWIRE: Tibet’s a long way from “Twin Peaks”; what were the working conditions like?
Joan Chen: Oh, nothing like “Twin Peaks.” The lowest budget U.S. films are ten times times better (than shooting in Tibet).
iW: What was the budget?
Chen: It was one million dollars. It’s very low, but we tried very hard to save every cent and put it on the screen. And also of course in Tibet one couldn’t spend much money. We stayed in this little hostel for a dollar per person per night and then food is probably another dollar a day per person. So you couldn’t really spend too much money. But you don’t have anything either…
iW: But you had to get everyone there…
Chen: Most of us took the train to the nearest city, then we got on the road and drove for about two days. So we had six buses for everybody and everything. It was very scary because if anything broke down that would mean that ten days were gone. But we were lucky. God was with me, we were very lucky. But we did encounter a lot of problems and a lot of nervousness that we might be found out or that this or that might happen. But we did finish the film and cut it together, which was a miracle to me – an absolute miracle! All these things that could have gone wrong easily…
iW: So no real production horror stories?
Chen: I mean, every day, the line producer and I, and also the cinematographer; the three of us would be sitting there talking about this and that – all these nervous things that happened – but everything was somehow solved, resolved. The local government was okay. They didn’t know we didn’t have a permit. But every day there was a little suspicion. They’d say “How come you don’t have meetings with us?” You know, every day a production would have meetings with the local government, telling them about what you’d do the next day and stuff like that. And we were being extremely casual. We tried to avoid them and not have meetings. They said, “This is very strange. No Party secretary is the leader of the crew and there are no meetings. That’s very strange.” But everything seemed okay. We were so far away.
iW: Where did you cut the film?
Chen: In San Francisco… During the shoot – probably every three days we would have a jeep, the jeep would drive two days to the nearest airport, then from that airport, [the stock] would be flown to another airport – which is an international airport – to be smuggled out, which is really nerve-wracking because I didn’t see dailies at all. We just wanted to get out. To safely get out. And when they were gone, I was like “Oh god, please get there.” And then there was no telephone, no international lines, so I couldn’t even call the lab. I couldn’t even say “How was it?” There would be a letter 10 days later saying this roll was scratched. You know, it’s very difficult… Then, the last batch of dailies I said forget it, we’re not going to send any jeeps. I’m just going to take it with me to America. I finished and by the time I got to San Francisco I had this huge luggage and I drove in my van directly to the lab – it was something like 200 rolls – and the lab was looking at me like what are you doing. Dailies means every day you have twenty rolls and here I was with 200 rolls of film. They said “What is it? Where are the camera notes?” and I said “No, I don’t have the camera notes.” They were just looking at me… It’s amazing that we got the film made.
iW: As a first time director, do you think your background as an actress worked against you or for you?
Chen: Oh, it definitely worked for me. That was the only experience I could rely on. The fact that from the age of fourteen I was on the set all the time and worked with alot of people helped. So I felt extremely comfortable and at home on the set and actually I did homework about breaking down the scenes and often had shot lists in a rough way, but it was actually extremely spontaneous. Working with David Lynch – he is so spontaneous. And I thought it was very nice because at that time, if you’re open you’d be very inspired by the moment, by what the actors gave you and what the set would give you. So I felt extremely comfortable and I wasn’t intimidated. Having been an actress was also good because I know how to talk to the actors. I know what comes through and what doesn’t and often times I’ve worked with a director whose directions I knew I’d just better not try to listen to because it messes you up. So, having had an acting background really helped.
iW: The Tibetan actor, Lopsang, is amazing. His face alone is enough. How did you find him?
Chen: There aren’t many places you go to find Chinese speaking Tibetan actors – Lhasa, that’s where you go. . . When I was in Shanghai, I knew that they had four classes of Tibetan actors who were trained there, and they were really famous for their Shakespeare plays. . . His [Lopsang’s] life is so close to Lao Jin’s [the male lead role]. It was an example to me that Lao Jin should be the way he is. He’s so honest, straightforward and simple that it’s profound; we’re not able to be that simple or that honest. Now he’s won Best Actor awards for the film and gotten a lot of attention in China. But even today, when I ask him what he’s doing, he says, “Oh, not much acting. I did a TV series, I played Mahjong. In my spare time I do sky burials for the master.” So he chopped corpses up for sky burial. Extremely straightforward. He would never hide anything. . . He’s so open and there’s nothing to hide. And he’s so peaceful because he’s so spiritual. A great man to work with, especially on a hectic shoot. Whenever we have the greatest nervous problems, he’d be there giving us some very simple solutions that we didn’t think of. . .
iW: Tell me about what you were doing when Xiu Xiu was sent down. Does the film comes out of a kind of survivor guilt?
Chen: . . . ever since 1967, when I was 6, we started to hear and talk about so-and-so getting sent away and seeing people older than you get sent away. It was a continuous fear as well as fascination. All teenagers have this desire to somehow run away. There was this fascination of wanting to hear how somebody got sent away. And people sometimes would say, “Oh, you kids shouldn’t be hearing this.” Somebody disgraced themselves, somebody got killed, somebody became a hero by saving all the cows. And that was just part of our growing up. It was so intense – 1967-1977 – this was the fate of all junior high or senior high school graduates and it was almost like the Vietnam war here. The psychological effect is that generation would be talking about it. It’s the most important thing for them. . . I mean, nothing can be compared to the Holocaust . . . but I think the Cultural revolution and the sending down of the children are of that kind of importance for humanity.
I was amongst happier and luckier children growing up, but even me, my grandfather committed suicide because he was wrongly persecuted. My grandmother got sent away to the countryside and then my parents got sent away for awhile . . . we were little – only 6 or 8. . . To me it is my generation’s coming-of-age. Everybody loses his or her innocence in a different way and that’s how we came of age. It’s with a certain nostalgia that I made the film and also a certain guilt, as you said, as well as a sense that I’ve missed out on a whole generation’s destiny. A shared destiny that I was lucky enough to have missed out on . . . Today, when you talk top people who survived it, they talk about it with such passion and romanticize it so much. . .
iW: Isn’t there something wrong with romanticizing it so much?
Chen: Not romanticizing, poeticizing is more like it. Only when you poeticize something does it become universal. I believe when your experience is more crystallized through distance and time, you’re more able to poeticize something . . . I don’t believe beauty exists without suffering – that’s just a tourist picture in a travel agency, which isn’t beautiful to me. . . Hopefully I’ve achieved some of it in the film; that was my goal. . .
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer currently teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts and pursuing her doctorate in Cinema Studies at N.Y.U.]