FIRST Film Festival: Jury Head Joan Chen Finds Inspiration in Event’s Young Filmmakers

FIRST Film Festival: Jury Head Joan Chen Finds Inspiration in Event’s Young Filmmakers

Chinese-American actress Joan Chen has spent the last week watching China’s “brave” and “refreshing” independent cinema, but she cautioned young filmmakers against what she sees as a current wave of “correctness” that she believes is stifling the art of filmmaking.

Describing the movement as “the enemy of art,” Chen said she believed conformity to what society currently believes is “correct” has resulted in the scope of creativity and subject matter becoming “narrower and narrower.”

“It’s happening in the U.S.,” said Chen. “But I want (young filmmakers) to forget about what is correct and just tell us what they want to tell us.”

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Chen was speaking on the sidelines of the 17th FIRST International Film Festival, hosted by the central highland city of Xining, where she has taken on the role of jury head.

The festival — which ends on August 1 — is the leading event of its kind for independent Chinese cinema. Much like the Sundance Festival in Utah, to which it is often compared, the focus at FIFF is primarily on discovering emerging independent talent and providing these young filmmakers with a platform to introduce their films to both a domestic and, increasingly, an international market.

“So many of the films that I have seen, they’re brave,” said Chen. “They have been refreshing and I have seen real talent, real energy. I’ve heard about FIFF through some of the young actors who have been coming here every year. They love the atmosphere here, the region, the relative freedom and the energy.”

The 62-year-old Chen was a child star in China in the 1970s, before breaking out internationally thanks to her role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor in 1987. After moving to the U.S., Chen found further fame through collaborations with the likes of David Lynch (Twin Peaks) and Oliver Stone (Heaven and Earth). As a director herself, Chen won acclaim for the China-set drama Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl in 1998.

Most recently, she was set to star in the Disney-backed detective series A Murder at the End of the World, which has had its August release on the FX network delayed by the SAG-AFTRA strike. But Chen said she had been inspired by her trip to Xining — and by a festival that has an extremely enthusiastic and overwhelmingly youth-based audience.

That love of cinema is refreshing for me,” said Chen. “I’ve been doing this all my life and sometimes you lose sight, you lose that kind of energy you need. They remind me of when I directed my first film. They have given me a great deal of inspiration. I come here and it reminds me how beautiful films can be, actually how beautiful life can be.”

Within its overall program of 98 films, FIFF staged a special screening of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Chen was happy to see many in the audience given their first opportunity to see the film on the big screen, even though she believes that the era of such lush filmmaking has been consigned to the past.

“It’s an enormous film,” said Chen. “It’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s like Lawrence of Arabia and films like that. That style of filmmaking was just so luxurious, but it’s over. It’s gone. I actually watch it as if it’s got nothing to do with me, like it’s a piece of history.”