Joan Chen’s life shares a resemblance with Li Cuxin, whose autobiography inspired her new movie Mao’s Last Dancer. In it she portrays Niang, the mother of Li Cuxin (portrayed by Chi Cao), a child who trained as a dancer by the Chinese government, who comes to the Houston Ballet to continue his studies, and ends up staying in America.
Chen trained at the Shanghai Film Academy and moved to the United States to further her studies in 1981. She has appeared in many movies including Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth and David Lynch’s TV series, Twin Peaks.
I spoke with Joan about her life, which chronicles the movie, Mao’s Last Dancer, so closely.
When you were a child star in China, you too came to America and decided to stay – can you talk a little about that?
Li and I left for America at the same time. I could understand his feelings, the feelings of arriving at some wonderful opportunities, as well as the aching nostalgia for a home where you might not ever return. So, I could relate to his story very, very closely.
I was denounced by an audience really. I was their little darling – on everybody’s calendar on everybody’s desk. But the Chinese government was a very prideful government and somehow they view your leaving as an act of treason.
So, it was very difficult to bear, especially when you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to return. It’s very painful. What makes the film interesting, I think, is that it shows you pay a great price for your passion.
Have things changed? Can you go back to China now?
Oh yes, they’ve changed. That was a long time ago. I was banned for three years and then I went back and I paid my fines and I did a self-criticism session and got it over with. The fine was $100,000, but I negotiated it down to $50,000. I’m happy there now.
I finished two films in China this year. And the films they are making in China nowadays are different, both films were comedies. A big switch from the time when films were propaganda tools, now they are entertainment.
You play a villager in Mao’s Last Dancer. Was it harder to observe the people in China when you’re so famous and the people are watching you?
I don’t think so, I arrived in the countryside in Beijing for Mao’s Last Dancer and I just saw the peasants walking by and I picked an old lady and I followed her for a little while. I thought, ‘Yeah, that kind of a stoop is kind of nice.’ That’s what we actors’ do, that’s just one part of it.
I don’t know if this movie will play in China, but is there an opening to revisit those days?
In the eighties there were a bunch of movies about the Cultural Revolution. The eighties were an interesting time in China, there was a new breath of fresh thinking, all of a sudden there was some freedom, new ideas emerged; it was very exciting.
I imagine in the next five years there will be a lot more cultural revolutionary films coming out, because my generation of filmmakers revisit with a new perspective. Now you see the absurdity and you’re able to change in style how you portray it.
In the eighties it was different; it was too recent, it had just ended. That piece of history is a huge part of our lives, it’s important, it will not go away.
Did you get to meet Li during the shooting of this, and did you discuss that time with him?
We did meet. He came to the theatre when we were filming the reunion scene, but I was working so we didn’t get to talk much.
When I first arrived here in 1981 that’s when his story broke out, and it was a big cautionary tale from the Chinese Consulate to us students, this is a shame that you don’t want to bring onto your motherland. And so we knew about it.
What was shooting that reunion scene like, when you come to the theatre to see Li dance?
I was very moved. Can you imagine this person not having seen her son for 20 years and going there? Chi did a great job on that scene.
Bruce Beresford (the movie’s director) said, ‘What would you do if you saw your mother on stage?’ I said, ‘I would kneel down,’ and it felt so right when it happened. The Chinese don’t hug much, that’s why we didn’t have the hug.
(The final scene in the film when they dance in the village), to see those dancers feet in the dirt flying up, it was just so beautiful. It was freezing cold and we had to be playing summer! But everything came out very naturally. It is a very natural story, there’s nothing too forced in it.
How has America changed in the last twenty years?
The America in this film is the America that I came to. America today is so different, at least when you look at it from other countries. America was the creative dream that you could realize and the kind people that you would meet who could help you, which I met.
The image of America is so different today, which is a shame.