Combustible Celluloid

Joan Chen & Geling Yan

Making Xiu Xiu

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joan Chen, one of our local Bay Area treasures, makes an astonishing directorial debut with Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (pronounced "Show Show"). Chen also produced and along with her old friend writer Geling Yan, wrote the screenplay which was based on "Celestial Bath," a short story by Geling. Chen has worked as an actress until now, in such productions as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987), David Lynch's Twin Peaks television series (1990), and Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose (1993). Clearly she picked up some magic touch from these three directors. She also appeared in such movies as Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground (1994), and Judge Dredd (1995) with Sylvester Stallone. Those movies are worthy as well because they gave Chen the push she needed to make her own movie.

"Xiu Xiu" is the name of a young girl (played by Lu Lu) who is forced to join the military at age 15 and is "sent down" to the countryside to live in a tent and learn how to raise horses. Her companion is the Tibetan Lao Jin (Lopsang--one name), who has been castrated during his imprisonment as a war criminal. The two form an unlikely bond as Xiu Xiu waits to be picked up by headquarters and returned to civilization. Xiu Xiu begins doling out sexual favors for anybody who comes by and claims to know somebody at headquarters. The story ends in tragedy. Xiu Xiu is not likely to be a huge crowd pleaser. (Though it has already won five Golden Horse awards, for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress.) It's the kind of movie audiences generally resist because of its unpleasant nature. It's meant to enlighten its audiences rather than making them feel good. We leave knowing a little more about the world.

I had a chance to speak to Ms. Chen recently about the new movie. Geling showed Chen the story before it was published, and Chen fell in love with it. "I was on the jury for the Berlin film festival, and I gave her a call from Germany. I said, 'oh, Geling--all these Urban Despair movies.' That year there were a lot of Urban Despair movies; set in the city, in the dark, at night, end the of the millennuim. Doom. And I said, I really want to make Xiu Xiu." Chen began working on a script for what would be a short film, but it came out to be over 100 pages. "OK. Now what?" Chen asks. "Now it's a real film."

Although both Chen and Geling were about the same age as Xiu Xiu during that time period, "We were both luckier than Xiu Xiu," Joan says. "Geling joined the army at age 12. She entertained the soldiers in Tibet as a dancer when she was in the army. I was chosen to be an actress at age 14."

Chen knew she would have trouble getting a permit to shoot in China considering the controversial material. But after visiting the grasslands of China near the Tibetan border, Chen knew she couldn't film anywhere else. "It really is different. The sky is very different. The whole combination of the grassland and the gentle rolling hills--and a yak. Where do you find yaks in America? We even thought about, 'Maybe we can put hair on a bison?' And we were thinking of makeup jobs for the cows."

So she went ahead and filmed without a permit, all the while making plans to finish shooting in the United States just in case. "I actually kept a producer in the United States. George Gund allowed me to use his ranch in Elko, Nevada to continue shooting if I got kicked out. I had one tent there and one tent here. So I was preparing on that side. Any moment I was ready to be kicked out. We tried to do certain matches--I would do the big landscapes first. Of course, if I got kicked out, it would not be the movie you saw today."

In order to evade visits from Chinese officials, Chen and her crew worked mostly at night. "We worked from seven at night to seven in the morning. I didn't want people to stop by to say hello to me. I wanted them to go home first. Then we start working. We're like vampires. The vampires of the studio," she jokes.

Everything went well until the last day. "[We didn't have] enough raw stock for two nights of work. And so we were really calculating every foot. It was the first time I storyboarded everything. But luckily enough, by seven in the morning we finished, and right after seven o'clock, we got done and another team went in and knocked the set down." They were also trying to make snow for the scene. "We made really nice snow and then it rained. The art director and the workers were there for 36 hours because we kept on preparing and then it was gone." Then the food was late because of the bad weather. "Everyone was HUNGRY. Can you imagine a hungry crew? That's why they always have good catering service in America. That's the key! Even the low-budget pictures will pay you very little, but they have to feed you! When there was no food, everybody was revolting. They were about to just walk. Good thing we were so isolated, nobody could walk! Seven weeks without a hot shower for the crew, and then starving, a whole night of snow and blizzard. That was it. That was all they could take. It was hard."

The other drawback was that there was no way to watch dailies. Chen was essentially shooting blind. She didn't use storyboards either. "I storyboarded only for that night when I thought I was going to be kicked out. I storyboarded now and then for certain difficult scenes. Otherwise it seemed to come naturally to me, since I was involved so early on."

The Chinese goverment has recently barred Chen from returning to China as a result of her finishing the film illegally. "Of course, shooting without a permit was what they considered the most insolent, arrogant act, which needs to be punished. But the story--if they approved the story, why would I do it without a permit?"

Even after going through such horrors on her first film, Chen plans to direct again. She has another movie based on work by Geling planned, and a project in the works with Gong Li. She will also direct a $50 million Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. And she will act again, with Alfre Woodard and Kyra Sedgwick in What's Cooking? set for release next year. She also hopes to direct herself in a movie someday. However, she never wants to produce again. "That's one part I really hated. The raising of money. It's not what I do best. The whole details of producing. I actually had to really keep my books. Because I'm a one-woman team, you know. To save money, I did all my paychecks. I can't even keep a straight account for my house. My husband pays the bills. I'm completely inadequate in that area. And for this film, I did everything. For the first time in my life, I actually logged the checks, because it was for the film. So I was impressed that I could actually do it. So producing part--the detail of finance--is something I would never do again."

Hopefully, audiences will respond to this lovely and sad movie. Chen herself doesn't have a pessimistic view of the story. At the beginning of the film, Xiu Xiu is given a kaliedescope as a gift by a neighbor boy who's clearly in love with her. Later, the boy acts as the film's narrator. "Geling and I want Xiu Xiu to be remembered beautifully. She was the boy's first love. His obsession with her and her memory allowed the film to be poeticized in a way that the night sky was a deep blue, the stars loomed larger and spring flowers more bright in colors. We know that she will live at least as long as the boy will."

May 17, 1999

This Interview originally appeared on
Movies Unlimtied