“You Don’t Find Yaks in America”: Joan Chen on Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl
An international movie star on screens both big (Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor) and small (David Lynch’s mega-hit, Twin Peaks), Joan Chen’s film career went behind the camera with her feature directorial debut, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Released in the United States on May 7th, 1999 (the day the U.S. and NATO “accidentally” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), Chen’s film was adapted from a novella by Geling Yan and tells the story of the title character, a young girl (Li Xiaolu) who lives with her family in Chengdu and is being forced into Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement. Eventually befriending Lao Jin (Lopsang), a man who has been castrated and left to serve as her caretaker in the mountainous region, Xiu Xiu longs for a return to her family as she is repeatedly taken advantage of and raped by men in the countryside, setting the story up for a very bleak but not unbeautiful conclusion.
Screening this Sunday at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as part of their Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years retrospective from guest programmer, filmmaker, and author Arthur Dong (director of the 2007 documentary Hollywood Chinese and the accompanying 2019 book, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films), Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl will be paired with fellow female filmmaker Tang Shu Shuen’s The Arch, featuring Chen’s Last Emperor co-star, Lisa Lu. (Both Chen and Lu will be in attendance for a pre-screening conversation for the double bill and then, in the evening, to introduce a screening of The Last Emperor). “While The Arch and Xiu Xiu were made at different time periods and with different creators,” Dong explains, “both of them were made because these artists, Lisa Lu and Joan Chen, wanted to get away from the trappings of Hollywood and from the stereotyping and frustration they were experiencing. They landed on these two films [screening together on Sunday] to fufill their true artistic endeavours.”
Ahead of Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl’s screening this Sunday, I spoke with Joan Chen about what led her into the director’s chair, the difficult shooting conditions in Tibet, the film’s American marketing, and more.
Filmmaker: Knowing your incredibly accomplished background performing in front of the camera, what led you to, at that point in your career, getting behind it? Had you had any prior experience directing before taking on your first feature?
Chen: No, I had never even thought of directing before I took on this project. At that point in time, my acting career in America was stagnant, at least in terms of the films [I was in] and nothing great had followed The Last Emperor—which should have been a breakout role for a young actress. While I did continue to work, they were uninteresting [roles] and I was trying to choose what was meaningful to me, but there wasn’t much—numerous parts that I can’t even remember playing anymore, with character names I can’t remember and roles I would just perform with my eyes closed or on automatic. It was a little demeaning, really.
Several things happened around that particular time for me. I was invited to serve on the jury of the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996. Shortly before that, a very good girlfriend of mine [Yan Geling] told me a story about something that happened to a friend of hers. She was thinking of writing a novella about it, one that she quickly finished (Celestial Bath) and which I brought with me to Berlin. While at the festival, I remember the films I saw there as being kind of hopeless. A lot of them were, at least, having an end-of-the-century pessimism and decadence and a lack of meaning to them. I just thought that I could do better, that I had something real to tell. When I went to see some of the short film blocks screening outside of the main competition, those were much more provocative and thought-provoking, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll make that novella into a short.”
I began to write a script (which I had never done before) over the return flight’s 10 or 12 hours and, by the time I de-planed, almost had it finished. I went to talk to my friend and said, “I am going to make this into a film,” and she thought I was crazy. But I then revised the script and it got longer and longer, forcing me to realize, “OK, this is not a short film, it is a feature.” From that point forward, I began raising funds [for production], which is something that needed to be done but which I was absolutely terrible at. There are people who can pitch well and I’m just not one of those people. But eventually, because I wanted to tell this story so badly, I raised the money and off we went.
Filmmaker: Did your screenplay implement many story-related changes from the original novella?
Chen: Not a lot, actually. There were a few little changes, but they weren’t thematic. The changes I made were because a film requires a certain kind of rhythmic structure that the short story just didn’t have. For instance, when the girl falls before the peddler, it was described in just a couple of sentences in the short story, but in the film I had the peddler character appear more than once. I felt that a second encounter between them was needed to push into what the young character perceived it might be: love. That was one change I remember including. I haven’t seen the film in 20 years though, but it was very faithful to the original story.
Filmmaker: You mentioned raising funds for production earlier. Had Good Machine come aboard the project by this point?
Chen: No, they hadn’t. It was sort of a very brave, one-person effort at the beginning. Before Yan Geling and I met with investors, it was primarily just myself meeting with these people. In a way, the making of this film could make for a much better film than the film itself [laughs]. I don’t even know all the details or what to go into, but I didn’t know where to obtain the money, so I reached out to various rich people and all these different kinds of characters—people who would’ve gambled a million dollars over one night in Las Vegas but were asking me for endless, detailed financials proposals to come aboard. I think if you present anything like that, it’s a lie. Nobody knows what a film will make, how much it will make or where it will make it. Not having done this before, I made things up and presented it time and time again in numerous meetings. I eventually got to speak with someone in the financial industry who really loved the original story and my script. She gathered a few like-minded people and that’s how we raised the money for the production.
When it came time to assemble a team behind the camera, the first person I reached out to was the production designer, Lai Pan, who had previously worked on films I starred in in China. He was also the production designer on Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and is an extremely talented person. He was the first person I talked to about joining the film and he introduced me to a very competent producer from Hong Kong who I met with and brought on board. Slowly I assembled a good team.
Filmmaker: Your cinematographer on the film, Lü Yue, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad a few years prior. In your initial conversations with him in pre-production, did you already have the specific Tibetan locations planned out?
Chen: At that point, I had not yet gone to the location. At the beginning of the process, I thought to myself, perhaps naively, that all we would need was a grassland and a mountain slope with some yaks. But you don’t find yaks in America! I had even been talking to George Gund, who was always a great supporter of the San Francisco International Film Festival (he passed away some years ago), and he owned a range in Nevada and told me, “oh, just come up to my range. It’s a huge range and we’ve got lots of land and bison.” So, I went and visited but, while it was beautiful, it was still America. It would’ve turned into a very different film had we shot there. I then looked at a few areas in China, wanting to avoid the real location where the story took place, but in the end, we did film there. It was one of the three poorest counties in the entirety of China and the shoot was really hard [as a result]. I was trying to avoid certain hardships for myself and for the crew, but in the end, somehow all other available doors were shut for me by God. The area was known as the Red County and it wasn’t a naturally formed county where you have natural resources, like a river and fish where, from ancient times to the present, a county would have naturally formed. No, this was a station where the Red Army would stop to let their wounded and maimed stay behind. That’s why it was called the Red County. It didn’t become a community because of its resources but rather due to necessity and that’s where the short story took place. No film had ever been made there. There was only one telephone line that could reach Beijing, one of those hand-cranked, [rotary] telephones, and that was it. We stayed in a hostel with no baths and no showers and the entire crew just didn’t wash for the whole month. It was really hard, but exhilarating.
Filmmaker: You found your lead actress, Li Xiaolu, in San Francisco. Did you audition many different actresses for the role?
Chen: Yes. The film is basically a twosome, two characters, so the casting of the young girl was going to be extremely important. I met with a lot of young girls, somewhere between 80 to 100—they had to be young because the character is supposed to be young. In the story, the character has just finished middle school and is being sent up to the mountains. I visited different cities and sought out local performing troops and local opera schools for the role and actually met several actresses that would later become huge stars, including Zhang Ziyi and Li Bingbing, but I didn’t think that they were right for the role. That’s how terrible my eyes were! I ultimately picked Li Xiaolu for her fragility and rebelliousness, as well as something recalcitrant about her. When we first met, she had just come to the United States and was attending the [Edwin and Anita Lee] Newcomer School in San Francisco. When I saw her, she was wearing baggy pants that dragged on the ground and she was the only actress I saw that wasn’t too respectful of me. When we started reading the lines, however, she was extremely natural. I later began to realize that she was protecting herself with the attitude she was displaying. She was young and living in a new country without her parents (she was living with her grandparents) and she was perfect.
Filmmaker: It’s an intimate film, yet there is an epic quality to the landscapes you photographed. Were those elements that you had a certain vision for while reading the novella?
Chen: There were certain paragraphs in the novel that struck me, like when the girl was violated for the first time and then the second time and then endlessly, or when the Tibetan man, Lao Jin, goes to her with the water and sees her entirely, from her head to her shoulders, skinny and scrawny and lying there dying, and his hand holds her head up. To me, she was like a prematurely-born little lamb, almost deformed and not fated to live. There were certain images in the words of the short story that made me want to make the film, and the beauty of the land was a part of that. From the very beginning, it was about that extreme beauty—the nature, the clouds, the slope, the perfectly shaped curve, the colors, the seasons—and the extreme cruelty of what happens to this girl. All of those elements determined the style I wanted for the film. There is this allegorical sense to the story, almost like a fable, a sense of long ago, and that was all born for me when we arrived on the land.
Filmmaker: I read in another interview that, every few days of production, your footage had to be transported via a car to an airport and then to an international airport in order to be successfully smuggled out of the country. How did you design that secure, secretive system of transportation? I imagine it was a very high-wire act.
Chen: It’s unfortunate that I had to do it that way. When they [the Chinese government] saw the script, I was told to revise certain parts here and there, and I thought, “If I’ve never made a film before, I only want to make one because I see it in a specific way. I don’t know how to make it any other way.” I decided that I wasn’t going to change the script and that I was going to have to shoot “underground.” Back then, in the late ’90s, there were other people shooting underground as well but you had to hide your dailies and pretend you weren’t making a film. There weren’t any good roads in the very remote region we were filming in, so we would travel a whole day, driving a vehicle to get to the nearest city. After that, we would get flown out to Shanghai and then from Shanghai, [my parents would continue the journey]. I can’t believe I subjected my parents to this, but I couldn’t trust anyone else with the camera negative and the dailies. Those were everything to the film, so I told my parents that they had to do it for me. Anyway, my dad had the means and the two of them carried suitcases to Hong Kong with the dailies inside. My mom told me that her legs were shaking the whole time. They had always been extremely careful, law-abiding citizens who would never have done anything like that for themselves. It would be unimaginable to them, but for me they did it. They were parents who never said “I love you,” as that wasn’t a part of of our tradition (I never even said “I love you” to them), but they did that for me, like mules, and did it a couple of times.
Filmmaker: What was the chain of events in terms of traveling with the footage?
Chen: From the set, I had my production team take the dailies to Shanghai to make sure it would arrive safely to my parents. My parents would then transport it from Shanghai to Hong Kong, which is across the [mainland China] border and it was a nerve-racking experience for them. It was like smuggling, and for my parents who were doctors, it was unimaginable. A little over a month into the shoot, we were able to move [production] to Shanghai and that’s when I was able to view our dailies for the first time. I had technically only received daily reports before then, but when we arrived in Shanghai I was able to view a month’s worth of dailies. Many were scratched by then, as the [filming] conditions had been so horrible that they couldn’t clean the film gate well enough. It was heartbreaking but also exhilarating to see the things that we did get.
Filmmaker: After the film’s award-winning festival run [beginning with the Berlin International Film Festival in 1998], the film was released in U.S. theatres in May of 1999. The marketing centered around the film being banned in China for sexual and political content [due to its subject matter, the film was never granted permission by the Chinese government to be shot within the country]. Did you agree with that marketing angle?
Chen: I wish we never had to do that. I also wish that I wouldn’t have been banned in China. I don’t do marketing and it’s unfortunate that they felt that that might be a way to sell the film. I mean, it probably was a way to sell the film, unfortunately, but it probably shouldn’t have been. I hate politics, I really do. Everything is politicized today, but I didn’t mean to make a political film. I wanted to make a film about my generation, our collective longing, our collective nightmares. It is, to me, a creative work, not a political work. I couldn’t escape politics, nor how I grew up, but a poltical film was not what I meant to make. I wanted to make a piece of cinema.
Filmmaker: Did the experience of directing Xiu Xiu better prepare you for what would come next in your directing career? Your next film, Autumn in New York, would star two popular American leads (Richard Gere and Winona Ryder) and would be a very different kind of movie made under very different conditions. Did you go directly from one project into the next?
Chen: It was sort of an accident, happening right when Xiu Xiu was released in the United States. I learned much, much later that Autumn in New York had lost its original director and that the producers were searching for a replacement, but at the time, I did not know this. I believe Richard Gere saw and appreciated Xiu Xiu, then someone at Lakeshore Entertainment also saw it and mentioned my name to the producers of Autumn in New York. I only heard this story years later, that the conversation between two producers was like, “Gee, who are we going to get?” It was already summer by that point and the actors were only signed on, of course, for the autumn and that was that. If they missed the autumn window, then the film would have been canceled. So when the producers were laughing to themselves like, “Come on, we’re going to get a Chinese movie star to direct this picture?,” it really sounded ludicrous to them. But they seriously had no one to direct, so they decided to meet with me and that’s how I started on the film. The script was obviously already in place and the actors were too, almost everything was really. There weren’t a lot of elements of the film where I could actually assert myself, but it was still a great learning experience.
Filmmaker: When Xiu Xiu screens at the Academy Museum this Sunday afternoon, it will be paired with Tang Shu Shuen’s 1968 film, The Arch, the film that gave Lisa Lu her first Hollywood role. The double feature feels purposefully programmed as, of course, Lisa Lu and yourself both co-starred in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, a film which will also be screening on Sunday. I know Lisa [at 95 years of age] is still working, so I was curious about your professional relationship. Have you seen The Arch?
Chen: I have not seen The Arch, no, but I look forward to it, as Lisa and I have known each other for a very long time, although we haven’t seen each other in quite a while. When I came to the United States, we met in Los Angeles very early on and had dreams of working together but none of it ever came to fruition. The timing wasn’t right and neither she nor I knew how to bring anything to fruition back then. However, I remember Lisa giving me a few of the most gorgeous gowns that she had worn in her youth. They were exquisitely made and had been beaded so beautifully, but I was so young then. I was 21 or 22 and cut them very short! I cut them to thigh-length, and now I look back and think, “They were like museum pieces, Joan!” Those were our memories. We actually visited a few different countries together when The Last Emperor was released in theaters and I’m really happy that she is getting more work now in her later years. I think the times have changed and more Asian film projects are happening, so good for her.