Chinese actress Joan Chen is not physically present in her latest film, "Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl." It is her debut as a director.
What gives the film much of its power emanates from a heady mix of the earthy and exotic that has marked Ms. Chen's on-screen performances and garnered her international attention in the years since she left her native China.
Today, the actress's dress is low-key and casual, befitting her new role as film auteur. She is equally at ease as she discusses the practical as well as poetic aspects of filmmaking.
"Directing let me discover the versatility of film language," she says. "You can use realism or poetry, and the language can be symbolic or abstract," she says in almost the same breath as she bemoans the lack of any food on the Tibetan location of her film except the ubiquitous yak meat.
Now based in San Francisco, the actress-director is perhaps best known as the beautiful and spoiled favorite wife to the title character in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor." She began her career in the West in the 1985 TV movie "Tai-Pan."
As at least one critic has noted, for more than a decade Chen has been excellent in good movies and amusing in bad ones ("Judge Dredd," "On Deadly Ground"). In 1996, after a stint on a film-prize jury in Berlin, she decided it was time to tell a deeper story about her own generation in China.
"The films [in Berlin] were all about the end of the millennium and urban despair," she recalls. "Suddenly, I got the urge to do a film of my own, a more hopeful, poetic one."
Chen was inspired by a 1994 novel by her longtime friend Yan Geling about a girl who is "relocated" as part of the Chinese government's attempt to restructure society during the Cultural Revolution some three decades ago. Chen wanted to do something that would commemorate what she calls the "lost generation," the last to come of age during that tumultuous time in China's history.
"The revolution was so big and complex," she says after a recent screening of the film. "There have been very few films that really explore the impact of that time, my time. I wanted to do something that would show the wastefulness, how the young were thrown away."
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), roughly 7.5 million adolescents were taken from their homes and sent to the countryside for what the government called retraining. The film details the downward spiral of an innocent city girl, who is sent to learn sheepherding in the Tibetan highlands. She longs to return to her city life and doesn't realize until too late the consequences of her decision to trade sexual favors for an illusory pass back to civilization.
The film has been well-received at international film festivals, garnering Golden Horse Awards from the Taipei Academy, including Best Picture and Best Director. But in retaliation for filming without a permit, the Chinese government has banned Chen from working in her native land for a year and fined her 1 percent of the film's $1 million budget.
The actress, who was born in Shanghai, China, says she was unable to obtain the necessary permits because the government didn't feel the film's theme would promote good relations between nations.
She adds with a rueful laugh, "They said if I brought back a patriotic theme that promotes friendship between the United States and China, they'd permit it tomorrow." But she does not wear the label of radical easily and chafes under the official disapproval. "I feel bad," she says. "It's a disgrace for my parents."
Director Bernardo Bertolucci, who worked on location in Bejing with Chen for more than eight months on "The Last Emperor," says he is delighted to see "his princess-in-exile" (referring to the role she played in his epic film) go back to China as a director. She has become a person with a point of view and "returned to her empire," he says with an approving laugh.
But while she was willing to investigate the social cost of China's history, Chen is reluctant to discuss her native land's current political landscape. "Things don't change overnight," she says in response to a question about human rights issues. "The change already has been vast from [the Cultural Revolution] to today."
The first-time director is also reluctant to tackle the hot-button issue of Tibet. "I was raised with a Chinese perspective that Tibet is part of China," she says. Today, she adds, everyone is trying to live together, "so why do they want a separate country?" She reflects for a moment and says, "I just don't know if I'm right or wrong." Chen hesitates, apparently concerned that it may sound more critical than she intends and says with more finality, "I just don't know."