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Marco Polo's Joan Chen on why America and China's film industries misunderstand each other

Joan Chen (left) and Zhu Zhu star in Netflix's Marco Polo, a new retelling of the explorer's journeys in China.
Joan Chen (left) and Zhu Zhu star in Netflix's Marco Polo, a new retelling of the explorer's journeys in China.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It's rare enough for a Chinese actor to build successful careers in both the Chinese and American film industries today, but when Joan Chen successfully did in the '80s, it was almost unheard of. The actress began her career in China in the late '70s, making a major breakthrough with the film Little Flower, and just under a decade later, she was a huge part of Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film The Last Emperor, which brought her to prominence in the US.

From there, she continued to make films on both sides of the Pacific, winning several awards for her work in the Hong Kong film Red Rose White Rose (directed by Stanley Kwan) and later appearing in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's searing, underseen, Lust Caution. She also had several significant roles in US films like Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth and the action movie Judge Dredd. And TV viewers will know her very well for playing the role of Josie Packard in Twin Peaks, one of the most influential series ever made.

Chen has also directed films in both countries, including 1998's Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl and 2000's Richard Gere vehicle Autumn in New York.

Now, she's playing a pivotal supporting role in Netflix's new attempt to beat Game of Thrones at its own game, the historical epic Marco Polo, which launches today. (You can watch the full first season here.) Though she's in only a few key scenes in the episodes we've seen, Chen's continued ability to create confounding, intriguing characters who leap off the screen makes her one of the program's major highlights. We spoke about the biggest differences in the Chinese film industry between then and now and why she could never make a movie on an iPhone.

Todd VanDerWerff: You started out in the Chinese film industry in the late '70s, and that industry has grown so much in that time. What's been the biggest change in that world between now and then?

Joan Chen: It's very different. When I first started, it was like the old studio system. Everybody is employed by the studio, and gets a salary, and you just go make a film when you are picked, when the cadre say, "Well, this seems to be a suitable project for you." It usually takes very long to make a film, and it doesn't matter, because you're on salary.

We used to have very, very little raw film stock, so all the shots are very, very short, so all the editing has been done on the script. Shooting-wise, technically, it's different that way. Style-wise, it's much closer to traditional Chinese opera. It's an exaggerated type of performance, compared to what we're doing now in China, which is much more naturalistic. Also, now, you have to raise your own funds, and have to be responsible financially now. Management-wise, it's closer to what Hollywood is now. The movie stars are getting rich.

TV: Many great directors, who were acclaimed throughout the world, came out of China in the '90s, especially. You yourself are a filmmaker. How has that international recognition helped the country's film scene?

JC: The Chinese film market is very active right now, as you know. All of Hollywood is thinking, does this script work in China, for the Chinese audience? They all want a piece of that pie.

At the same time, the Fifth Generation [a group of filmmakers that came up in China in the mid-80s, usually tied to the 1982 graduating class from the Beijing Film Academy], from a long time ago, their films were seen in the United States, getting awarded internationally. It helped them somewhat, but nowadays, nobody cares. You don't see as many Chinese films in festivals winning awards any more, because they have changed. They are now just interested in the commercial side of films.

I think most Chinese films, the qualities are not as good, not as deep. The ones that I loved, I saw them because I was in Taipei [for the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival]. I was the jury president for the award this year, and saw some really, really beautiful films. And when they come out, they don't make money!

The internationally successful and renowned people don't make any money in China. It's the people you've never heard of. Their pictures are making the money.

TV: When Hollywood executives talk about wanting to appeal to these foreign markets, do you worry that they'll have a reductive or even stereotypical view of what other countries want to see?

JC: It's always that way. I think the misunderstanding, the not at all understanding, between the cultures is very profound.

The Chinese industry will say, "How do we get into the US market?" And it's very difficult. The very famous directors who made extremely successful films in China, they hired American stars to be in their films. But their films don't at all fly in the US market. In the same way, the US studios made some movies with a couple of major Chinese stars. The Chinese stars get cut out when the film is released here. They just tried to pepper it with some Chinese elements that didn't belong at all.

It is still in the process, I suppose. I think it takes some time, maybe.

TV: Just under 25 years ago, you were part of one of the best TV shows ever made, Twin Peaks, and now you're part of Marco Polo. The difference in scale between the two is just incredible! How would you compare working on the two projects?

JC: Twin Peaks was ahead of its time. Way, way ahead of its time. And I think Marco Polo is, too. Almost the entire cast is of Asian descent. I don't think many successful big-scale TV shows have ever done this.

The scale was very impressive. All the department heads are one of the best ever in their own fields. Nothing is spared. Great team working on Marco Polo. I stepped into the studio, and I could sense that vibe, that you're doing something very special.

I hadn't done a show of this scale probably since Last Emperor. Thousands of people working, extras, crews. And any day, I think we would have about 1,000 people in that studio. Back when I was doing The Last Emperor, from cinematography, art department, costume department, props, everybody was really at the top of their game. And Marco Polo also hired great people.

I remember there were certain props that I used in Marco Polo. It was just amazing! They were antiques. I don't know how they found them. Like, a whole set of surgical tools. I wonder if they are surgical tools, or if they just look like that and are almost these beautiful torture tools. And they were antiques. They were exquisite.

TV: You mentioned most of this cast is of Asian descent, and Hollywood is making tentative strides in telling more diverse stories to represent America. Do you think that trend has gone far enough?

JC: Compared to when I was first starting, progress certainly has been made. There are many successful Asian actors in US TV series, and they're playing ordinary people, not exoticized in any way.

I am a little different. Because I wasn't born in the United States, I don't have that feeling of Americana. I don't talk that way or behave that way. For me, I am more suitable and drawn to a project like Marco Polo. That is a kind of character that is more suitable, and so I'm very grateful.

At my age, having come from China to work in Hollywood, there are not a lot of opportunities. So though Marco Polo I play a supporting character, she is quite substantial. I think I have contributed to the character and contributed to the creation of that character from the pages to the final product.

TV: As a director yourself, there are so many new ways to make films, so many new ways to distribute films. What do you like about that evolution?

JC: Nowadays, if you have a great idea, if you have a great eye, if you have a story to tell, you don't need a lot of money. You can actually make it, and you can actually broadcast it.

I'm kind of old school. I have to look at something that's lit appropriately for the atmosphere. So I can probably not do an iPhone movie very well, on an aesthetic level. But I really applaud people who could use very little money and express themselves and have a chance to be very successful.

I think Netflix, the way that you can binge-watch is also a great choice. In a way, Marco Polo is a 10-hour feature film. You can actually show it on a very large screen and still be impressed by the visual feast.

And the audience even have the freedom to say, "Hey, let me watch 10 first, and then we'll flash back." They can do their own editing. "Let's watch seven first, and then I'll go to one, so I'll find out more." Make your own teaser! The freedom for the audience is great.

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