Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” in 3D was screened at a special program at the Castro Theatre for the “Bertolucci Series” in the presence of actress Joan Chen on Oct 18. Chen had a lead role in the film. Joan Chen lives in San Francisco and is married with two children. Her family attended the screening. Also present at the screening was San Francisco politician and Italian American Tom Ammiano.
Chen said that she had lost out for a part in Michael Cimino’s “Year of the Dragon” in 1985 opposite Mickey Rourke and her costar to be in “The Last Emperor” John Lone. She revealed that she spent a small fortune for a dialect coach to play the part of the Chinese American journalist Tracy Tzu in Cimino’s film but the part went to the Japanese Dutch model Adriane Koizumi. However, as luck would have it, a casting agent told Chen she should try out for Bertolucci’s film. The director was only going to be in town a few days and she got the part.
Not only is Joan Chen a world class actress but a film director, screenwriter, and film producer. She is known to American audiences for her role in the acclaimed TV series “Twin Peaks” as Jocelyn ‘Josie’ Packard. In 1998 Chen made her directorial debut with “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl”, which received The Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for best director and screenplay and was nominated for a Golden Bear at Berlin.
Chen was actually discovered on a Shanghai school rifle range by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong. “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl” tells part of this story. She was then selected for the Actors’ Training Program and starred in four films. After she was given the opportunity to study in America, which was arranged by her parents, she decided to immigrate at age 19.
Chen is cast in films regularly. Recently she was seen in Phillip Kaufman’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn” (2012) as Madame Chiang and she will soon appear as Consort Wu in “Yang Guifei” (2014) by a director group including Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang.
“The Last Emperor” in 3D was presented for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Joan Chen plays Empress Wanrong, the wife of Pu Yi (John Lone) the last Emperor of China. The Japanese government proclaimed Puyi as the first Emperor of Manchukuo and Wanrong as Empress in 1932. Wanrong later became a heavy opium addict.
Joan Chen was excellent in the film as the Empress. She marries Pu Yi and like him, had a Western tutor/ Despite a small age difference, they held similar interests. Wanrong is depicted as a woman who like her husband is crushed by the political forces of the time. Her descent into addiction is furthered by a female Chinese spy who supplies her with heroine. Later Wanrong is forced into a sanitarium after her child is killed by the Japanese at birth. When she is later released from the hospital she is a broken woman and physically handicapped. Chen displays skill and authenticity in this difficult role. She revealed in Arthur Dong’s brilliant documentary “Hollywood Chinese” (2007) that had she been a white actress her career would have taken off after the critical acclaim she received for Bertolucci’s film. Chen joked that she has been asked to play vampires in recent years.
“The Last Emperor” spans Pu Yi’s life in the Forbidden City in Bejing from 1908 up to the Cultural Revolution where he is displaced and imprisoned by Chinese communists. “The Last Emperor” was the first feature film to be authorized by the Chinese government to be filmed in the Forbidden City.The film won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, three BAFTAs including Best Picture and four Golden Globes including Best Director. The 3D version of the film is impeccable and it is clear that the numerous awards given to the film are warranted. The story is told with a stellar cast and magnificent set design, costume, editing, cinematography, and screenplay not to mention an outstanding soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su who all received an Oscar for best orginal score.
The Bertolucci program was organized by the Istituto Luce-Cinecittà in Rome, the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco and program director Amelia Antonucci. Last year Antonucci presented a film series on Pier Paolo Pasolini with the same sponsors, and actor Ninetto Davoli from Pasolini’s films was a special guest.