Luo Yan has seen her career peak before. After becoming one of China’s leading actresses, she left unsatisfied and came to the United States with only $60 in her pocket to try once again to make it in the film industry. By the looks of things, she is almost there.
Yan’s latest project, in which she took on the roles of writing, producing and starring, is a look at another strong Chinese woman who sought her freedom. The script is based on a novel by Pearl S. Buck.
Pavilion of Women focuses on the plight of Madame Wu, played by Yan, who struggles to shake off the judgmental eyes of society and her own sexual duties as a wife, eventually finding her freedom through an affair with American priest Andre (Willem Dafoe).
Gaining freedom in China is no new ground for Yan, who was raised by her grandfather only to see him become a political prisoner in the 1949 communist revolution.
“That night, I remember the Red Guard coming to the house and smashing things,” Yan said in an interview with The Hatchet. “The next day I was thrown out of class and beaten by my schoolmates. And I went home and tried to explain why I was home to grandma, and she just couldn’t understand.”
Later, she was the only one allowed to visit her grandfather in the concentration camps, bringing him clean laundry and food.
“Dancing and singing were my escape from that tough, upside-down society,” she said. “It was very hard.”
From age 16, Luo Yan was forced to work in a textile factory. During this period, she said she studied rigorously in her spare time. With the death of Mao Tse-tung, the political climate in China relaxed and Yan’s hard work paid off when she was accepted to the prestigious Shanghai Drama Institute. She was among 20 students accepted out of 4,800 who applied.
Working for government-run production companies, she earned her first film success in The Girl in Red, which earned her a nomination for best supporting actress in China’s “One Hundred Flower” awards. She also received a best actress award from the Chinese Dramatists Association for her stage work. But at the peak of her career, she decided to leave China.
“I figured, I had been nominated or won many Chinese awards, now it is done,” Yan said.
Yan started her career from scratch in the United States, when she landed in Boston, to study acting at Boston University, with $60 and a translation dictionary.
“If you don’t speak English, people treat you like an infant,” she said. “But I figured I had a 50-50 chance in America: I could either go 50 percent higher or 50 percent lower. In China, I could only stay the same.”
She threw herself into her studies at Boston University, taking classes in both English and acting. After working her way through graduate school waiting tables and babysitting, she graduated with a master’s of fine arts in 1990.
“It was at B.U. actually that I first read Pearl Buck,” she said. “And I remember thinking that she writes exactly like a Chinese woman.”
She then went to California and started an import-export business with her husband Hugo Shong, who is now an executive at National Geographic. Meanwhile, she took classes on film production at University of California-Los Angeles.
When she had gotten enough money, she launched her project Pavilion of Women with $5 million she received from Universal Focus.
“The reason most films made in China never make it to American markets is because they go over budget,” she said. “Filming there is very expensive, and that is why I knew I must produce it myself. I was the only one I could trust to not go over budget. No matter how much money you spend, the audience judges it the same.”
Yan said she chose the project because she wanted to show the difference between Chinese and American femininity.
“Chinese women, in general, had to go around traditions to earn their freedom, where American feminism is very direct and in your face,” she said. “It is a cultural difference that I feel I understand very well.”
On the brink of success in the United States, Yan is now regaining respect back home. Official Chinese news sources are hailing her as the first Chinese filmmaker to successfully make a movie for Hollywood that is entirely shot in China.
“I think (the Chinese people) are very proud of me,” she said. “But I did this for myself, I didn’t do it for them.”