The Ingenue Grows Up

As the presenter read out her name, Joan Chen shrugged off her fur wrap, her elegant black gown revealing a bare back. Ascending the stage of the Hong Kong convention center to warm applause last week, the actress graciously accepted another trophy for her collection—this time, an Asian Film Award for best supporting actress for her role as a nurse caught in a scandal in last year's complex art-house movie "The Sun Also Rises."

The title is a fitting metaphor for Chen's career. Twenty years after attracting international attention as the royal wife in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," Chen, 46, can still steal a scene like no other. In the last few months, the Chinese-American star has undertaken a range of roles that have reinforced her stature as one of the region's strongest talents. She added a patina of 1930s wartime sophistication last year to Ang Lee's period thriller "Lust, Caution" as the collaborator's wife, whose preoccupation with mahjong unwittingly facilitates her husband's affair. And her lead turn in "The Home Song Stories" as a Hong Kong nightclub chanteuse struggling with single motherhood and a new life in Australia earned her a best actress prize at the 2007 Golden Horse awards, the Chinese film industry's Oscars. Chen's success, says Wouter Barendrecht, one of the film's producers, proves "that there is life after 28 for an Asian actress."

Indeed, she has been called "China's Meryl Streep" for her ability to move beyond the role of ingénue and portray strong, complex female characters. "Joan is the only actress in Asia who is not afraid of getting older," says Barendrecht. "She is not afraid of small parts or playing the mother." Grady Hendrix, a programmer for the New York Asian Film Festival and a widely read Asian film blogger for the entertainment trade paper Variety, believes Chen has finally come into her own. "Aging has been a really good thing for Joan," he says. "She used to be cast only because of her looks—those lips, the drowsy eyes, the exotic Asian flower thing. Now she plays roles that show her maturity as an actress."

Still, her reputation in the West lags behind the one she enjoys in Asia—in part because her latest films are considered art-house fare and not widely distributed. "In the States, many think of Joan Chen as a pinup, that girl from 'The Last Emperor' and [the quirky David Lynch TV series] 'Twin Peaks'," in which she played a sinister sawmill owner, says Hendrix. "Hong Kong can be very tough on actors, but here everyone takes her seriously and speaks of her in reverential tones."

Her plucked-from-obscurity beginnings only add to the mystique. Born in Shanghai, Chen came of age in Mao Zedong's China, where the Communist Party selected her to become an actress. "I was picked out of my high school," she says. "It was a happy thing but it wasn't my choice." She was assigned to a film studio headed by the chairman's powerful wife, Jiang Qing, and was trained to act. Thanks to her looks, talent and early success, she soon earned the nickname "China's Elizabeth Taylor."

After moving to the United States to attend school in the 1980s, she was spotted in a parking lot by the legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis. "My father saw her and fell in love with her," recalls his daughter Raffaella, also a filmmaker. "She was so beautiful. He only discovered her background later on." They cast her as a concubine in the 1986 film "Tai-Pan," an adaptation of the James Clavell novel and one of the first Western feature films to shoot in post-1949 China. That project helped Chen land a role in "The Last Emperor," which won the best picture Academy Award in 1987. For the next decade or so, she did plenty of work in Hollywood, most of it requiring her to do little but look pretty. "Not every role was a good choice, but everything I did—even with the wrong projects and the bad directors and the ridiculous characters—I always learned something," says Chen.

Eventually, she decided to turn her focus back to Asia—and try her hand at directing. In 1998 she made "Xiu Xiu," a modest film that critics loved for its portrayal of Cultural Revolution-era rural China. Since then Chen has never stopped working on quality movies. She will soon start shooting her next project, an Australian film called "Mao's Last Dancer," with director Bruce Beresford. Based on a bestselling true story, it charts the life of Li Cunxin, who went from village boy to international ballet star.

The new crop of bright young actresses emerging from China doesn't faze Chen at all. "Chinese actresses now pursue their careers because they love it and not because they were chosen by the government," she says. "They are more brave. They have the courage to say, 'Give me the part. I'm better.' We were trained to wait to be chosen and we always say: 'Well, maybe I'm not good enough'." No one who's seen her recently would ever think that.