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Joan Chen's China Syndrome

Joan Chen didn't set out to court controversy when she directed "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl." But the internationally famous actress, known for her roles in "Twin Peaks" and "The Last Emperor," ran afoul of the Chinese government with her maiden directorial effort. China's Film Bureau fined her $50,000, and banned her from film and television work in her homeland.

"Xiu Xiu" takes place in 1975 at the tail end of the Great Cultural Revolution in China. Teen-aged Xiu Xiu is an "Intellectual Youth" from the city of Cheng-du, who is "sent-down" to the Tibetan countryside, as part of the government's massive, misguided relocation efforts. She enlists to learn horse herding from La Jin -- a simple herder. But she finds herself stranded in Tibet, and eventually is forced into a kind of prostitution, trading sex to peddlers, soldiers and bureaucrats in the slim hope they can help her return home.

Chen recently talked to George Online about "Xiu Xiu" and the furor it has engendered.

George Online: Did the Chinese government objected to Xiu Xiu's content?

Joan Chen: The subject matter of the movie isn't what is controversial. The Chinese public has seen more pornographic images than you can imagine, so the sex in the film is nothing to them. And the politics in the film -- they have all gone through it, so it is nothing.

George Online: Then why did you get into such trouble?

Joan Chen: To film in Tibet you need a permit. I didn't have a permit. I did send the script to the censorship committee in the beginning. There were too many revisions and it would have required all of this back and forth. I couldn't do it that way. I was limited by funds; I was limited by lack of experience; I was limited in so many ways that I chose not to be limited again in storytelling. So I chose to do it the wrong way, which is to do it illegally.

George Online: What will the outcome be?

Joan Chen: I haven't settled this matter. One day soon I will have to go back there and figure out a plan to redeem myself. Having grown up in China I know one thing -- everything can be resolved.

George Online: What if you could never film again in China?

Joan Chen: If I couldn't do another picture in China, I would feel very sad about it. When I went to Tibet and I saw the clouds and the little tent -- it was just like the movie in my head! There are so many locations in China that do that to me. So to go back there is important.

George Online: Do you think it's easier to make films in the United States?

Joan Chen: The commercialism in filmmaking in the West is almost as hard on artists as the censorship restraints in China.

George Online: Are you a political person?

Joan Chen: I don't think I am, but when I was growing up, politics was in every part of your life. What you wore, what you ate was always considered politically. Even when I say I am not political, it is part of my upbringing.

-- Sean Doorly
(Written for George Online)