WIDE ANGLE: THE STRUGGLE FOR SUCCESS

October 27, 2019

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Though Chen was one of the most famous stars at that time, she chose to seek education in the United States in 1981 | The China Daily
Though Chen was one of the most famous stars at that time, she chose to seek education in the United States in 1981 | The China Daily

Actress Joan Chen, known for The Last Emperor — the biggest winner at the 1988 Oscars — recalled her early difficulties at a master class during the 3rd Pingyao International Film Festival.

Chen, 58, said she started her acting career when she was 14.

A native of Shanghai, she says the Shanghai Film Studio — the largest state-owned film production company in the city — was recruiting cast members for a revolutionary film set in the Jinggang Mountains, where the Communist Party of China set up its first rural revolutionary base in the late 1920s.

“The film was led by actor Zhu Shimao and I was selected to play a guerrilla solider, a minor character who just had one line,” Chen said.

Unfortunately, the film project was cancelled. Chen felt quite disappointed, but her diligence in practicing the line every day impressed a veteran actress.

“She was operating a training programme for newbie actors and invited me on board. So I didn’t go back to high school,” she said.

Superstar actress Joan Chen looks back on the early years of her career

Two or three months later, director Xie Jin — a master of his era — was selecting a young actress for his film Youth and Chen caught his attention, obtaining her first leading role.

Shooting to popularity after that film premiered, Chen became a household name thanks to the 1979 film Little Flower, a significant work that has secured permanent status in the history of Chinese cinema.

Chen remembered most of the crew were young people, all passionate and devoted to the film.

Though Chen was one of the most famous stars at that time, she chose to seek education in the United States in 1981.

“I was ignorant, young and confused then. Although I gained fame almost overnight, I felt very uneasy. I was studying at Shanghai International Studies University then. Shooting films was interesting to me but I thought it was not a credible career I could devote my life to. And I got an offer to study in the US and thought I should go abroad,” she said.

Looking back on her early years in the US, Chen says she endured a lot of hardships, including working at restaurants and doing babysitting jobs. But she returned to the industry thanks to Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.

“[That was] the first time in my life I sensed the poetic aspect of cinema ... Since then I’ve renewed my love of film,” Chen said.

Now mostly working behind the camera, Chen recently shot her latest film English, which features Chen as both director and screenwriter, in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. — By arrangement with The China Daily

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 27th, 2019