With a career spanning Chinese and American films and TV, both acting and directing, Joan Chen is a recognizable and stellar talent in the industry. And a fair number of her acting roles have been historical, so it’s high time she’s featured as our woman crush!
May-May in Tai-Pan (1986)
Per IMDB: “Historical fiction set against the backdrop of Hong Kong in its early years of British rule.”
Set in 1841, the film has the Chinese characters wearing both Chinese & western costumes, which fascinates me.
She’s the insanely glamorous (yet tragic!) empress consort of China’s last emperor in the 1930s in this jaw-droppingly amazing epic film.
I said it before & I’ll say it again: only Joan Chen could make a tennis visor & cheongsam look chic.
Princess Hong-e – Scarlet / Qing-shou – Violet in Temptation of a Monk aka You Seng (1993)
Chen plays a dual role in this Hong Kong martial arts film, set in the 7th century.
And she really did shave her head!
Mama in Heaven & Earth (1993)
Chen plays Hiep Thi Le’s mother in this Viet Nam War film.
Mo’s Mother / Elder Mo in Jasmine Flower aka Mo li hua kai (2004)
A family saga set in Shanghai that spans the 1930s, 1960s, & 1980s.
Rose Hong / Hong Meigui in The Home Song Stories (2007)
A semi-autobiographical film from director Tony Ayres about his mother in the 1960s.
Joan Chen plays the mother, a Hong Kong nightclub singer who migrates to Australia.
Beautiful, complicated, & warning — not a happy ending. But a much-lauded film.
Mrs. Yee in Lust, Caution aka Se, jie (2007)
A small but important role in this Ang Lee film set during World War II.
Despite the title, it’s as much about political intrigue as about sex (there is sex though).
Empress Longyu in 1911 aka Xin hai ge ming (2011)
As the dowager empress at the turn of the 20th century, Chen’s character has the most fabulous & elaborate costumes.
But revolution is coming!
Madame Chiang Kai Shek in Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012)
A brief appearance as this Chinese political figure who, I guess, met with Ernest Hemingway at some point.
Patricia Cheng in Serangoon Road (2013)
This HBO ‘detective noir series’ set in 1964 Singapore only lasted one season.
Soong Ching-ling in Cairo Declaration aka Kai luo xuan yan (2015)
A film about the Cairo Declaration 1943 that set the terms of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Joan Chen plays Madame Chiang Kai Shek’s sister, thus having portrayed two of the famous three Soong sisters (& yes, I need to review that movie too!).
Empress Chabi in Marco Polo (2014–2016)
In an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Joan Chen described her approach to this role:
“Mongols really valued queens as much as kings. In a way, queens had equal power to them, and that gave me the initial idea on how to create the character. Chabi isn’t on the battlefield, but she’s not shy about offering advice and expressing her opinion.”
Ula Nara Yixiu in Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace aka Ru yi zhuan (2018)
What’s your favorite frock flick role of Joan Chen’s?
Now I want a cheongsam.
The Last Emperor is the only historical film I’ve seen her in, so…yeah. Definitely one of the most beautiful women on the planet. But nice to have a list of things to look for. Vis-a-vis women in power in general, read “The Warrior Queens” by Antonia Fraser.
I have a soft spot for Lust, Caution. I enjoy Ang Lee as a director, and the visuals are excellent.
Sadly unfamiliar with this.. The Honk Kong and 1930s ones look interesting to me though!
A correction: Joan’s character in The Last Emperor should be Wan Rong, not Wan Jung.
Also, you’ve probably covered Marco Polo, but the costumes Joan wore as Empress Chabi bear no resemblance whatsoever to what said Empress wore IRL, as this portrait of her amply demonstrates: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chabi#/media/File:%E5%85%83%E4%B8%96%E7%A5%96%E5%90%8E.jpg
Too bad, I’d love to see that headdress in the cloth!
Joan Chen is gorgeous and also a great actress. Thanks for putting her back on my radar and giving us all a great filmography to explore. And the pic for The Last Emperor has now whet my appetite for a MCM on John Lone–he’s soo yummy!!
Ruyi’s Royal Love in The Palace is on Amazon Prime, and I just noted that the subtitles also make note of forms of address in them – someone was just greeted, and the subtitle explained that the language specified that he was addressed suitable to “an older male of the same generation, friends or family” which is very useful context.
I thank you for this post – I like watching other culture’s movies, but sifting through them to find ones worth the extra concentration it takes to read the subtitles (which means I can’t sew while watching, horrors!) is difficult.