Joan Chen

Thesp turned helmer Joan Chen returned to China to direct her first film, “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl,” and ended up mounting a guerrilla production that won her an Intl. Freedom of Expression honor from the National Board of Review but got the pic banned in her homeland.

Chen shot secretly in Tibet, where the story of a girl sent to work in a remote area under the 1970s Chinese social youth programs takes place.

“We’d send a Jeep out with the dailies and my heart would hang. Two weeks later we’d get a letter from the lab saying ‘Got it,’ ” remembers Chen. “To direct is always stressful, but to do it in those conditions, without a permit and without the usual support system, was very difficult.”

While Chen says she never consciously thought about directing, she’d been studying it throughout her acting career. “I’ve worked with great directors in my career, and I’ve learned by observing,” she says. “I’ve had filmmaking 101 from Bernardo Bertolucci (she acted in ‘The Last Emperor’) and Oliver Stone (‘Heaven & Earth’).”

Some of Chen’s turns in B-movies, on the other hand, have taught her what not to do. “Certain scenes with emotional importance should show the actors’ faces; it’s not a time for intricate camera moves,” she says, referring to some of the testosterone-laden actioners she’s toplined. “The moment should come from the actors close up. It’s so rare, it’s gold.”

Chen spent a lot of time with “Xiu Xiu’s” two leads, who had many long and difficult scenes together. “The experience of acting was the only experience I could really rely on, but it was a solid one,” she says. “It was helpful to know how to communicate with them. They gave me more than a performance; they gave me themselves.”

Chen also bonded with Winona Ryder and Richard Gere, the stars of her second pic, MGM’s “Autumn in New York.” “They had done a lot more movies that I had, but we had a special understanding. Both are Buddhists and have an affinity for Eastern culture. We spoke the same language,” says Chen, whose directorial debut got her noticed by the pic’s co-producers at Lakeshore Entertainment and landed her the “Autumn” gig.

Among possible future projects, Chen is developing “Fu Song,” a novel by “Xiu Xiu” writer Geling Yan. Meanwhile, she can be seen in “What’s Cooking,” a multicultural pic about Thanksgiving which opens the Sundance Film Festival this month.

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