Older Articles
South China Morning Post
Cover: Saturday Review
September 11, 1999

SURVIVING THE PRESSURE
Success in Hollywood is a dream for many, but as one mainland emigre has discovered, patience and hard work can pay off.
By David Cohen
Luo Yan has seen her dream come true, but the good news is that she survived the ordeal in one piece.

Her dream is Pavilion of Women, the film which she wrote, produced and is starring in. Eight weeks of shooting in Suzhou were completed in late July. The tight schedule and small budget would have been grueling for any producer. But the Pavilion of Women shoot turned into a parade of near-disasters she calls ‘heart attacks.’

“Are you ready for that?,” laughs Luo Yan when asked about about her ‘heart attacks.’ Then her smile fades. “Through the whole process, I have one sentence I can tell you. Finally I understand how a diamond is made. I would put it that way.”

She says no more about diamonds, so it is up to us to remember how heat and pressure change simple carbon to a gem. Perhaps she is talking about her movie, a romantic drama based on a 1946 Pearl Buck novel.

The story follows an upper class Chinese wife’s spiritual and emotional awakening through her relationship with a western priest in the turbulent 1930’s. Willem Dafoe stars opposite Luo as the priest. Shot in English, the film marks the first co production between Beijing Film Studios and a major American studio. It is also the first time the onetime Chinese film star and cover girl has acted in English.

But perhaps Luo Yan herself is the diamond she speaks of. She knows too well how much heat and pressure she has survived in her life. She also knows how much it has changed her.

Life did not start out hard for Luo Yan. An only child, she was raised in Shanghai by her grandparents while her biology professor parents worked in Xinjiang.

“Pavilion of Women, that kind of lifestyle, that class of people, that’s my grandparents’ life, pretty much.” she remembers. “Late 30’s, upper class, they were pretty much like that.” Her grandfather had been a vice president of the Bank of China in Shanghai and once ran the Nationalist mint.

“I remember when I was little, like every Saturday or Sunday my grandfather took my grandmother to dinner. And I remember my grandmother always wore the same uniform, I call it. She wore a mink coat and high heels. You would never see her dressed up like that. And my grandfather wore suits and a tie and everything. It’s a different lifestyle, and strange.”

Life was comfortable until her grandfather became a target of the Cultural Revolution. He was put in a concentration camp in the basement of the same bank building where he had once worked. While he endured self-criticism, 8 year-old Yan became an outcast.

“I was called ‘granddaughter of capitalist running dog.’” She can laugh about it now, but she admits that “I felt confused and hurt, because I wanted to be good. I was a straight A student, and quiet, nice. All of a sudden there’s nothing you can do. You are a bad person.”

She drew strength from her grandmother. “The neighbors tried to beat me up and I obviously tried to fight back. She would pull me back and say ‘be silent. Silence is the most powerful thing you can ever imagine.’ As a kid, you don’t understand, but what else can you do? She was right. I learned a lot of those things from her.”

Her grandmother was often sick, though, and when her grandfather died in the camp, Yan became the head of the family. She was 12. Then, four years later, she was sent to work in a textile factory.

She remembers those years as the worst of all. “It was hopeless, because you don’t know when you’re going to get out of there,” she explains. “That’s the worst part. If I’d known I was going to stay only five years, I would still have had hope. But in those five years there was no hope. (You think) you’re going to be working for all your life, making this fabric.”

Somehow, though, she found enough hope to find a teacher who would tutor her. Between shifts she acquired the equivalent of a college education, showing a special aptitude for mathematics.

If it was difficult to grow up facing such hardship, she was also learning to be self reliant and to see the world as from an outsider's perspective. It proved excellent preparation for her life as an actress and businesswoman.

“You realize that life is so short, and opportunities are so limited,” she says. “So I will take every single opportunity possible. I will work my tail off to make it happen. Seriously. A lot of people think I’m crazy, because I work day and night, and never stop. But compared with my life in China and the way people still live over there, I have no reason not to.”

“The line producer (on Pavilion of Women) went over to China to shoot the movie. On the way back, when we were all together, he said ‘Luo Yan, now I understand why you work so hard. Seeing how the Chinese live, I totally understand why.’ Few people get the chance to graduate from that kind of background.”

Her ‘graduation’ began when Mao died and Deng came to power. Suddenly, the 21 year-old was free to pursue her own dreams. She was accepted at the Shanghai Drama Institute and soon established herself as a stage and film actress, becoming popular through movies like Girl Students’ Dormitory and The Girl in Red. She was nonimated for 2 Hundred Flower Awards and her face was featured on many magazine covers.

But she was restless. “For me (acting) was like, a job. Yeah, it is a job I love, but it is just a job. It’s not about being a star. I was pretty much repeating myself so it was not fun. I got bored.”

Her grandmother died in 1982, so there were no family ties to hold her. She applied for a student visa for the United States and was offered a full scholarship to Boston University. So in 1986, she walked away from her career. She arrived in the US with $60 and only a few words of English.

She struggled in Boston, writing term papers in a language she could barely speak and working at odd jobs to get spending money. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, taking a job backstage with a theatre company. Then, in 1992, the troupe collapsed. She was unemployed for six months.

She was so broke she even considered returning to China. “From then on,” she says “I made up my mind. I don’t have to be rich, but I will never put myself into that situation again.”

So she started her own trading business, bringing licensed merchandise from Chinese manufacturers for sale in the United States. The business has been a huge success. “If I was only thinking of making money, I wouldn’t have to work in film.” she says. “But film, you studied it, your heart is in it.”

Convinced there was a filmmaking business opportunity in China, she attended film school at UCLA, concentrating on producing skills: financing, distribution and accounting.

“I started to think, packaging, it’s not that difficult. I was thinking, how am I going to do it? Okay, I’m not the best producer obviously. I’m not the best person in Hollywood, I’m not the best in China, I’m not the best in whatever. But once I put them together, I can be different. Because a few people has direct contact in China.”

Many of her Chinese peers from the 1980’s had risen through the ranks. Han Can Pin, who had been a lighting grip on her early films, was president of Beijing Film Studio. She had the connections, she had the knowledge, but she needed a project.

Then she found Paviliion of Women. “To me, she’s a Chinese writer,” she says of Pearl Buck. “The way she describes the characters and so on is very Chinese. I feel very close to what she felt, because she lived in both countries and knew both cultures. It’s like she wished both countries could combine together.”

“I have the same feeling. I sympathize with her now. When I travel in China, I can communicate with everybody without any problem, but there’s a certain part of me I cannot share with them. They have no idea. And I have a similar feeling (in the United States) too. I understand China but I can’t completely share that understanding of the culture and the people.”

She persuaded the Buck estate to make a deal with her for the film rights. She secured financing and arranged to co-produce the film with Beijing Film Studio, which exempts the film from China’s import restrictions.

She also wrote the screenplay, with help from her former business lawyer. The script proved good enough to convince Willem Dafoe to play the male lead and Universal Pictures to distribute the film in the United States. She kept Hong Kong and China distribution rights for herself.

“I could say I’m lucky, but on the other hand, I should say I created the opportunity. I purposely created a package for Universal that was too good to be true. It looked like a money-falling-from-the sky-situation, so they couldn’t refuse.”

She hired a multinational crew. Her director, Yim Ho, came from Hong Kong, along with some key staff. To satisfy the American bond company, a her line producer and production accountant had to come from Hollywood. The rest were hired locally in China.

The mix proved awkward at times. When shooting began in June, Luo found herself trying to bridge three different filmmaking cultures. “There was a lot of conflict, a lot of difficulty. I felt like seven years of business operations crises all happened in two months of shooting. Every other day I had a heart attack.”

Between takes, her line producer would approach her for help with the latest crisis. “I felt like it required me to have an emotional button and a logical button. So one minute, it’s like, emotional button, water comes out. Here, push, and I get emotional, I’m crying. Next minute, here’s a problem. You have to forget about the whole thing and be a producer.”

“Even as an actress, I don’t get too emotional at all. You can’t. The whole crew is looking at you. If you get emotional, it shakes everyone’s confidence. You just can’t. So I had to have no emotion. It’s a very big conflict. As a producer, you have no emotion. As an actress,” she leans in and whispers, “as much as possible.”

And there were those heart attacks. “The film got scratched, there were camera problems, the generator broke down.” One actress quit a week into shooting., complaining that she was unwilling to do a nude scene. “Then we explained that we won’t make you, if you don’t want to we don’t even need you to. She said ‘no, you’re going to force me. No, you’re going to do computer animation. You’re going to use a double.’ You’re dealing with unprofessionals. And it’s so hard to find a replacement, who speaks English, who can act.”

Then there was the night when the crew gathered to shoot a big fire scene but found themselves without a fire truck. With no fire truck, it was unsafe to light the fire. The cast and crew were left standing around, waiting.

“They cancelled (the fire truck). On set. They thought it was unnecessary. ‘Why waste money? Why waste money having a fire truck sit down there? Last night, it sat on the set, it did nothing, so it’s a waste of money. We have to spend three thousand Chinese, that’s ridiculous.’”

“They didn’t calculate how much it would cost, all those people. So one little department can screw up the whole thing. But what can you do? They had never run an operation that size. Amateurs.”

At home now in her house in the hills above Pasadena, she is tending to her health, which suffered under the strain. She is also keeping a close eye on the editing and marketing of Pavilion of Women but admits that “I kind of feel a little bit lost. It seems like the dream is a little bit ahead of you, but you know it’s finished. It took a while to adjust to that feeling.”

“It was such an experience. It was horrible I should say,” she laughs, “Everyone asked, and I said ‘I survived.’ That’s all I said. That is a true answer. I survived. That’s all.”