June 5, 2005|There's perhaps no better illustration of the generation gap between Chinese persons who've grown up in the United States and their immigrant parents than sitting down at a table in the conference area of Denver's Hotel Monaco with Joan Chen, crowned the "Chinese Elizabeth Taylor" at the tender age of 14, and Alice Wu, the young former software engineer making her writing/directing debut with the lesbian ethnic sitcom Saving Face. Resplendent at 44, Ms. Chen has a deliberate way of speaking that's almost as intimidating as the fact that she never once met my eyes, while Ms. Wu, talking fast, using her hands, addressed me in a way forthright, almost aggressive. I felt admonished more than once by Ms. Chen as she talked about the creative arts as essentially selfish, and I felt challenged a time or two out of the blue by the irrepressible Ms. Wu, who chose to take adversarial positions on a few occasions where there wasn't any kind of natural polarity. Two different ways of approaching conversation, both instantly recognizable from my own experiences with a Chinese mother and father and the women with whom they would occasionally set me up before I did the near-unthinkable and married a white girl. Blonde, too. You could hear the screams back in Nanking--and Cape Cod, come to think of it.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about coming to America at the height of your career to go to school in New York.
JOAN CHEN: New Paltz came about because my mother who was in New York at that time arranged a tuition waiver. Tuition for foreign students was quite high at that time, but she had a friend and she managed to arrange it for me to go there. While I was there, I got a call in my dorm and it was Dr. Paul Chou from Northridge University in California. "We're having a Chinese film festival and we're showing two of your films." I thought to myself, Chinese film festival? This was 1981 or 1982 and Chinese films in America were almost unheard of--but he was serious and he wanted me to come with the films. So I went there, went to Disneyland, had a week of the California sun and stayed after Dr. Chou also arranged for a tuition waiver and a scholarship.
And there Dino De Laurentiis discovered you in a parking lot.
JC: (laughs) Yeah, I had gone for an audition for some television show as a Hawaiian girl--got all dolled up and walked in and they said, "Chen, Chen, you're Chinese, right? Well, we're looking for Hawaiians," and that was that, right back out into the parking lot and there was Dino De Laurentiis in his big Cadillac. He pulled up and said, "Excuse me, do you know that Lana Turner was discovered in a drugstore?" I mean, what kind of line is that, right? (laughs) I didn't know Dino De Laurentiis from Adam, but he told me to bring my agent to his office the next day at 2:00 in the afternoon, that he was casting for Tai-Pan. And though I didn't know who he was, I'd heard of the project, you know, it was the biggest thing going at the time and I couldn't even get an audition for it--but I showed up the next day and signed the contract just like that.
A different discovery story for you, Alice.
JC: It's an amazing story, though, it's incredible.
ALICE WU: Thank you. (laughs)
So here I am at a table with two women directors who've worked in the United States--why aren't there more of you?
AW: That's a really good question. I mean, I don't pretend to know only because in a lot of ways I'm a neophyte in this arena, I never went to film school and all that, but I suspect it's that in a lot of ways to pursue your art is relegated to being a luxury. Economically, you have to support yourself, and directing isn't something that you can do at night or on the weekends. It's a full-time--more than a full-time job that requires a complete change of career. So that, by the same token there's this dearth, too, of Asian-American directors. I think that culturally, we're encouraged to be fiscally responsible first. When I was growing up, no one I knew was going into the arts. We were going to be doctors and lawyers and engineers and accountants, practical professions to pay off loans and support your parents. It's only now that we're experiencing more affluence so that there's this segment of Asian-Americans becoming writers and filmmakers in the United States.
JC: The film business is a little clubby, let's face it. You don't golf with them, you don't drink with them, and that has a lot to do with it, no question. We have a better club, we eat really well, but we don't get behind the camera as much as we want.
You agree with the career assessment?
JC: There are professions that will support your loved ones and there are professions where your loved ones support you. You love what you do in the arts--you get to express, you go out there to express yourself--but you might or might not be able to ever earn a living at it. Asians, I think, have a harder time with that kind of egocentrism culturally. It takes a generation or too to shake those tendencies.
|Joan Chen, Ato Essandoh, and Michelle Krusiec in Saving Face|
Alice, how conscious were you of transcending barriers--gay, Asian, gender--as you were writing this script?
AW: Not very--much more so in this process of criticism and conversation. When I started, I was writing it as a treatment for a novel and I was writing it for my mom. I was doing characters I loved and wanted to spend time with, but at the point that I was actually directing this film, suddenly I was forced to think about the audience. Look, I gave myself five years to bring this project to fruition, I'd planned it all out with my job and everything--I had a budget for living expenses and a little put aside in case something happened in my family so when I told my parents I was quitting this really comfortable, high-paying job to do this dream of writing and making a film somehow, I could go to them with a very careful plan all figured out so they wouldn't worry quite so much. But towards the end of that five years, I was feeling tremendous pressure to sell it to someone else, most of it from producers who constantly said to me that they liked a lot of the screenplay, but couldn't we do it with a straight couple, or with white people, or yadda, yadda, yadda. And no, I couldn't let them do it.
Because you're a software programmer and therefore something of a control freak?
AW: (laughs) I'm a geek, I admit it, but I ultimately think it all goes back to what serves the story best. It seemed to me that I almost never got to see Asian-American actors onscreen with which I completely identified. So there is a little bit of subversiveness in there in some ways to what I wanted to do.
Ms. Chen, you can speak to producer interference with Autumn in New York.
JC: (laughs) I could, but I'd rather not. When I was doing that film the studio was in turmoil, I would take eight different meetings with eight different people in eight different days--all of them wanting something and none of them wanting the same thing. I went into that project at an all-time high in my confidence.
After the success of Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.
JC: Right--and I left that experience never feeling so small. I felt like I had made a piece of shit under all that pressure. I wanted to make a mood piece without all the clichés and schmaltz of a typical love story. I think now in hindsight that there's a lot in the film to be proud of, but yes, I understand being under pressure to produce something that you're not maybe a hundred-percent behind.
AW: I feel like I should qualify that ultimately I got a great team behind me on this picture and that what's there on the screen is mostly what I wanted to be on the screen.
About Xiu Xiu, I was stricken by the water imagery. Can you talk to me about that thematically?
JC: Water was scarce where we were filming in Tibet, it was so remote where we were and we were so scared to be shooting without a contract. So when I was making it, I wasn't thinking of it as a symbol so much as an aesthetic. I went to the place where the story was and water was just really scarce. No showers, you had to travel some distance to fetch it. In that topography, to have a winding river through your landscape was such a vital, visceral image that I kept going back to it. In looking at it and cutting it together, I found the theme, but it was never something that I imposed on the film other than that it was so intrinsic to existence there.
How hard is it for you to find roles in Hollywood?
JC: It's difficult, period. And it's difficult for all races, it's a difficult profession.AW: Your choices for in American films are Joy Luck Club or [porn star] Asia Carrera.
Honestly, after The Last Emperor, you must have thought that you were on the brink of a major breakthrough.
JC: I did, honestly. I did. I expected it in my naivety. Here's a film that got eleven Oscar nominations, was a successful movie worldwide--if I weren't a Chinese, I think it would have been my breakout performance. I would have been leading lady material, but nothing, nothing followed. There were no scripts and I came to realize then, and nothing's changed now, that if we want work we need to provide it ourselves. We need to tell our own stories because, look, nobody else knows what it's like to grow up in your shoes. If they can't ask you, who can they ask? A white person can't write a Chinese experience. I'm not blaming anybody, you can't get into the blame game, you just gotta do it yourself.
Why'd you leave China when you did? You had broken through there already.
JC: But, see, you were born here, you don't understand what it was for me when I left and then when I came. I was 18 when I left, I was a movie star and I knew in my heart that I was at the peak, I had peaked at 18 or 19 and I knew that it was only downhill from there and it was as good a time as any to go to school and prepare for the next part of my life. So when I came here, I came as an immigrant with an immigrant's perspective on things--I had no sense of entitlement here. I never thought I could bypass the audition process, I never expected anyone to have heard of me here. Back in China I was the "it" girl, but I didn't care, you know, it wasn't important in my life that I was a movie star and it still isn't. The catch is that I love it. Watching them, acting in them, making them--and so that's why I'm here. It's the love of my life.
Helpful or hurtful, the success of stuff like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and House of Flying Daggers?
JC: I think it's wonderful. I love it. Listen, Asians don't want to be seen as magical fantasy creatures, we want to be seen as normal, at least sometimes, right? But I still think all these martial arts fantasies are wonderful because somehow you're gonna be part of a genre that's popular. And that penetrates the ruling consciousness. We've never been popular like that. Never. But so many Asians don't want that, they complain about how it makes us seem to Americans--but, look, it's not like we're just making these movies for white audiences, martial arts films are traditionally the backbone of the Chinese film industry. We need to make movies like Saving Face so that people will see us as people, too, but positive visibility is its own reward.
AW: I don't know if that's true, Walter, I don't know that if people like House of Flying Daggers that they'll turn around and go see Saving Face. I think what is true, though, what's wonderful is that if for no other reason there's this image of Chinese people as didactic and that everything's about the Cultural Revolution and the fact that if any Chinese films come out with "happy" in the title, you better prepare for the worst--so that when you see something like House of Flying Daggers which I think of as high entertainment...
...High entertainment about China's tradition of concubinage--
AW: (laughs) Yes, there's that--but what most people will see it for is as this very positive, entertaining movie so, in that respect, it's stereotype-busting in a way. It shows how entertaining we can be. That said, I think it paves the way for Kung Fu Hustle, but not Saving Face.
How about inspiring Asian-Americans to engage in the dominant culture?
AW: Absolutely. If it can get us up and out of our chairs and writing and directing, then that's the real benefit to films like that. Better yet, maybe it encourages the Chinese people to write some checks.
(laughs) Jesus, good luck.
JC: I was raising money for Xiu Xiu and hosted all these very wealthy Chinese in Las Vegas for a couple of days to tell them about the project and to beg them, to beg them, for anything--for $100,000, for $10,000, for anything. And these people would lose a million dollars in one night at the roulette table and all I needed to make the whole damned film was a million dollars, you know, and the worst of it is that they would lecture me about why this would work and why that would work and what I should cut out of my film. The whole time I'm listening to these blowhards, I know that they're not going to give me a cent anyway. It's infuriating. The business proposals, the risk factors--what risk? The way they live, the things they spend money on, the waste--and I just wanted a hundred bucks to make my little movie.