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A Tale of Two Empresses

November 22, 1998|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor," which is being released in its 3 1/2-hour director's cut Wednesday, is a sumptuous feast of Chinese exotica for the eyes, as well as a philosophical treatise on the possibilities of personal choice. In it, the last emperor of China, the hapless Pu Yi (John Lone), and his two empresses (Joan Chen and Vivian Wu, then known as Jun Mei Wu) are thrust into unknown territory in 1924 when they are kicked out of the protection of the Forbidden City complex in Beijing.

He chooses to move to Tientsin, where the Japanese offer him friendship--for a price. Eventually, Pu Yi becomes the puppet king of Manchukuo, which in fact the Japanese are running. At first the ladies go along with his plans, until Wen Hsiu's (Wu) proto-feminist yearnings are stirred by Western ideals. One day she announces, "I want a divorce!" then runs away to new horizons. Meanwhile, first empress Wan Jun (Chen) remains in the gilded cage and smokes opium to forget.

The 1987 film was a turning point in the careers of all three actors, and while Lone seems to have dropped off the continent in recent years, occasionally making films in Asia, the Shanghai-born actresses are very much alive and kicking in the West. Chen has a new indie film she directed and produced, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl," about a young girl lost to the corruption of the Cultural Revolution, and Wu is a featured regular in an upcoming ABC series, "Strange World."

Chen and Wu's careers have numbered among the most successful for Asian female actors in Hollywood--that is to say, a handful of the lucky few--though they certainly have not been without their ups and downs. When "Emperor" was casting, Chen was already living in the U.S. and acting in Hollywood (she had a role in the 1986 Hong Kong epic "Tai-Pan"); Wu was still a Shanghai high school student with some acting experience.

Being in Beijing for the eight-month shoot of "Last Emperor" was a memorable experience for both, the actresses recall today. They remember copious fussing over sets and costuming but almost no rehearsals.

"Bernardo believes in his instincts," says Wu, who is now based in Los Angeles. "The moment he decides on casting you, you're it. He said to me, 'The way you cough, the way you eat, you're her!' That's how much he trusted in me, he trusted a teenager!"

Being inside the thick, high walls of the Forbidden City and in other inaccessible sectors of Beijing was an unforgettable experience, she says. "I remember how Bernardo would say to me, 'I'm in love with this city, I'm in love with China,' " Wu says, noting that it was a romanticized view of China he presented. "It's like a Chinese meal cooked by an Italian; that's how you watch 'The Last Emperor'--but hey, it's delicious."

The production design was a knockout, even to the Chinese, who had done plenty of costume movies themselves. "All these years of socialism, we couldn't know of some of those details," says Chen. "The texture of 'The Last Emperor' is very luxuriant. The sequence of history may be different [from actuality], but Bernardo's sense of poetry is closer to truth than mere facts."

The poetry paid off--the film won nine Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best art direction and best cinematography--but there were no nominations for the actors. Chen's sexy, pouty, larger-than-life performance put her in demand but also typecast her.

" 'The Last Emperor' brought me jobs, but it did not bring me a career," says Chen, 38. "Well, it brought me sort of a career. . . . When I was acting in China, I was just an actress. Then in America I became this exotic beauty!"

Her career detoured into a rut of B-films, including some forgettable action films, co-starring with Rutger Hauer ("Blood of Heroes," "Wedlock"). She regained a certain notability after becoming a regular on television's cult hit "Twin Peaks" as a beautiful young Chinese widow who turned out to be the Dragon Lady incarnate.

"It was when I was so unhappy and doing direct-to-video B-films that I realized I didn't want to do that anymore," Chen says. "At some point, it's too painful to accept mediocrity, and I realized I'd rather develop my own projects. [That's] part of the reason I did 'Xiu Xiu.'

"Even with the difficulties, the physical work, raising the money, political problems--all new to me--I felt the process extremely worthwhile."

Working on "Emperor" made Wu decide that her future lay West, so she came to the U.S. in 1987, first to study in Hawaii, later to test the show-biz waters of Los Angeles. Her first two years in L.A. were tough and lonely, and she nearly gave up until her friend Chen, already a veteran of Hollywood, told her, "Give it three years."

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