Joan Chen on work, life and “Home”


Joan Chen is an actor and director whose work I’ve admired for years.

How can you not respect a woman who, when faced with a dearth of interesting roles from a (still!) largely white industry, will go and make her own films? And brave the displeasure of the Chinese government in the process? Chen has also been good to lesbian audiences, accepting roles in films with lesbian stories, such as What’s Cooking and Saving Face. She spoke with about Saving Face and also did an interview with



I have no idea how I’ve missed this little fact for over ten years, but Chen also played a bisexual woman and Anne Heche‘s lover in a 1995 flick called Wild Side. (Sarah and Lori recently waxed poetic about this movie in the ladies room edition of She Made Me Watch This!)

From the title, I’m guessing that this movie is probably not a masterpiece of lesbian-feminist filmmaking (though it will probably end up in my Netflix queue). But on a somewhat related note, let me say that Chen is up to the challenge of a white tank top:

In her latest project, an Australian film called The Home Song Stories, Chen plays a nightclub singer who follows a dream to Australia but has trouble adjusting to suburban life. In the promotional pictures, she looks very pretty as a young mother:

In recent interviews, Chen has discussed how the role has her contemplating her personal history, which is an epic story of surviving the Chinese cultural revolution in itself. As a girl, she watched family members suffer through reeducation but was spared the same fate after being spotted by Mao Zedong’s wife, leading to an acting career as (in Chen’s words) a “poster girl for the cultural revolution.”

Here is some of what she shared with the Sunday Telegraph:

On communism:

“We were taught a beautiful theory. Even in practice, there are a lot of things I still see as useful, such as gender equality, and the importance of your core strength rather than your appearance.”

On coming to the U.S.:

“When I arrived in the United States I made a big effort to blend in, to be Americanized. I thought that I needed to behave in a certain way but looking back it was really just bad college behavior.”

On Hollywood:

[The Last] Emperor won nine Oscars. People might have thought I’d be the next ‘hot thing,’ but nobody knew where to put me. There just weren’t any roles. Things are different now that China and India are so much the focus of the world. People are more willing to see what’s behind this face.

On beauty:

“You can’t rely on it. If you use it as a crutch to lean on, then you’re going to fall. If people think I’m beautiful I only have my parents to thank, it’s not of my own doing. It’s not by merit. It’s not anything.”

On turning thirty:

“I didn’t want to wake up the next day. I’ve since been liberated. It’s actually a relief to be liberated. I’ve settled into an age where I can play different wonderful characters.”

Without a doubt, there is more to Chen than her beauty, and I, for one, am grateful she woke up on her thirtieth and on every birthday since. At the moment, The Home Song Stories is not slated for U.S. release, but she is working on two American productions scheduled to come out this year that sound promising, All God’s Children Can Dance, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, and Tonight at Noon, which will also feature Six Feet Under‘s Lauren Ambrose.

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