Joan Chen has been one of a very few actors to have a viable career both in Hollywood and in Hong Kong. Whether playing a wizened Vietnamese peasant woman or the doomed Empress of China, she lends her characters a natural elegance and a beguiling vulnerability.
Chen was born tp a family of doctors on April 26, 1961, in Shanghai, China. She tasted fame early in her life when she made her film debut in Xie Jin's Youth (1976) at age 14. She soon enrolled in the prestigious Shanghai Foreign Language Institute while making a couple more feature films, including Zhang Zheng's Little Flower (1979), which eventually won her a Best Actress Prize at the Hundred Flowers Awards (the Mainland Chinese equivalent of the Oscars). Having reached the pinnacle of fame in her own country, Chen made the unusual step to leave China -- not for Hong Kong as many later Chinese stars such as Gong Li and Jet Li did -- but for the United States. While studying at California State University in Northridge, she landed a small role in Wayne Wang's Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), a gentle portrait of Chinese-American family life.
In true Hollywood style, she was summarily cast as May-May in the adventure-epic Tai-Pan (1986) after being spotted in the Lorimar parking lot. Though it was savaged by critics (Leonard Maltin called it "silly") and bombed at the box-office, Tai-Pan did allow Chen to segue into her breakthrough role. As Empress Wan Jung in Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-award winning The Last Emperor (1987), Chen brilliantly played a woman whose love and life are tragically destroyed by China's rigidly patriarchal culture and the machinations of fate. Hollywood roles being notoriously hard to land for Asian and Asian-American actors, Chen's newfound fame did not immediately lead to better movie offers. She appeared in such low-budget fare as The Blood of Heroes (1989) before she attracted public attention again as Josie Packard in David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks. In 1993, she played a Vietnamese mother who suffers for a lifetime in a country at war in Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth.
That same year, she returned to Asia to make a pair of critically successful films. She played a supernatural temptress in Clara Law's Temptation of a Monk (1993), a historical epic with the sweep and visual flare of a Sergio Leone film with a pronounced erotic edge. The role was a brave one to tackle as it not only featured Chen as the movie's clear villain, but it also featuring an unusually graphic sex scene for a mainstream Chinese film. In Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose (1994), which was nominated for Berlin's Golden Bear, Chen played another deliciously evil vixen opposite Winston Chao. For her effort, she won a Best Actress Golden Horse award, Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscar. Her return to the U.S. was marked by another succession of subpar flicks, including On Deadly Ground (1994) and Judge Dredd (1995). Chen also co-produced and starred in The Wild Side (1995), a lesbian romantic thriller in which she played opposite a still-in-the-closet Anne Heche.
In 1998, Chen made her directorial debut with Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, a lyrical, harrowing tale about the loss of innocence and respect during the tumult of the Chinese cultural revolution. Featuring sumptuous cinematography and subtle, remarkably assured direction, Xiu Xiu won armfuls of international prizes, including a virtual sweep of the Golden Horse awards and a nomination for a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1999, Chen climbed back into the director's chair and began production of Autumn in New York, starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder.
Over the next several years, Chen would cement her position as one of the most loved and respected actresses in film, especially on the Eastern side of the globe, appearing in movies like Sunflower, Lust, Caution, Love in Disguise, and 1911.