- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

"I would say I dreamed where I am now exactly 10 years ago," the Chinese-American movie actress Luo Yan says in recalling an extraordinary career odyssey.
After 15 years spent adapting to a new language and culture, she managed to realize a feature-length movie version of "Pavilion of Women," a 1946 novel by Pearl S. Buck. The movie opens today in Washington and three other cities.
Miss Luo, doubling as producer and leading lady, completed the production on locations near Shanghai, her native city. It was shot in English with a largely Chinese cast and crew and supervised by a director with experience in Hong Kong filmmaking, Yim Ho.
The results leave much to be desired as a cinematic romance and period piece, but Miss Luos grit and resourcefulness command off-screen respect. "Pavilion" was bankrolled on a modest budget of $5 million, which goes much further in China than it would domestically. The distributor, Universal Focus, is an art-house subsidiary of Universal Pictures.

Luo Yan (pronounced "Lew Yen") was a promising ingenue in China in the early and mid-1980s. The turmoil from Chinas Cultural Revolution had denied her a sustained formal education, and Miss Luo believed an American college degree would prove invaluable. She decided to travel to the United States "with no English and about $60 in my pocket."
"It was tough," she says during an interview at the St. Regis Hotel in Northwest. "I was kind of successful in China. Nominated twice, best actress, best supporting actress… . (In the United States) I worked in a lot of restaurants. I worked as waitress, cleaning lady, baby sitter, security person. Lots of jobs."
Such part-time work was a necessity after she enrolled at Boston University in 1986. Miss Luo graduated four years later with a masters degree in fine arts. She moved to Los Angeles "because, of course, in my mind, it was Hollywood, and I have to get closer." She had a low-paying job as a production assistant at an arts organization, the Los Angeles Theater Center, which folded about six months later when the city didnt reauthorize funding for it.
She concluded that her English was still too poor for her to compete for acting jobs or even entry-level production jobs in the movie industry, so she went back to waiting tables. Then she got a job at a title company that needed representation in the Chinese community.
"It was great training," she says, giving her a chance to learn sales, marketing and management. She also enrolled in extension courses at the University of California at Los Angeles that emphasized the business aspects of the movie business.
"I had to kind of put aside acting for a long time," Miss Luo says. She started an export-import company, which she still has. In 1995, she started a company in China that does TV distribution. She also released two Chinese films in the United States. "I startedto think I could package a film for the U.S.," she says.
Miss Luo, who became an U.S. citizen while living in Los Angeles, was not aware of the work of the late Miss Buck until she attended Boston University. Her boyfriend, a journalism major, knew a professor in the communications school who had grown up in China.
"This professor knows I am an actress in China" Miss Luo explains. "He says I ought to see 'The Good Earth, which is a great movie. I dont know the book or movie at all. Pearl Buck was just ignored in China for many years. So I rent the movie and think its magnificent production, even for black-and-white so long ago. Truthful, too, for the characters, the whole thing. Except the actors are Caucasians playing Chinese. So I thought, 'I should redo that movie, with Chinese actors."
Miss Luo looked into the remake rights of Irving Thalbergs prestige production of 1937. MGM evidently had sold the rights to Warner Bros. some time earlier. "They want to negotiate even," Miss Luo says. "When I tell our Boston friend, he says, 'Well, she wrote many books. Try something else. I call a professor at Nanking University, where Pearl Buck taught, and say I need all the books. He slows me down. I say I need a book with cross-cultural love; thats what Hollywood does. I need a character my age, so I can play it. I have to shoot in China, to keep costs low."
He recommended "Pavilion of Women."
Set against the backdrop of an approaching World War II, "Pavilion" champions the aspirations of a respectable but disenchanted matron, Madame Wu, who uses her 40th birthday as a pretext for domestic reform. Announcing that her husband deserves a younger and more vigorous erotic consort, she takes the initiative and recruits an impoverished peasant girl as his concubine. Though a bit disconcerted, the blustering husband consents to the new arrangement.
Madame Wu hopes to devote herself to good works and study. She also becomes attracted to a medical missionary, Andre, portrayed by American actor Willem Dafoe. Mutual passion overwhelms their inhibitions, but invading Japanese troops overwhelm the Shanghai region, turning the lovers into refugees and fugitives.
Miss Luo experienced a prolonged internal exile of her own. She grew up in Shanghai with grandparents. Her mother and father, university biology professors, were "allocated" to the faculty of a distant school near the Soviet border. Miss Luos grandfather, a vice president of the Shanghai home office of the Bank of China, remained useful to Mao Tse-tungs communist regime in that position for a number of years. He became a victim, however, during the Cultural Revolution.
"The Cultural Revolution was very bad, very bad," Miss Luo says. " Red Guard came to our house. Twice… . All of a sudden attack you in the middle of night. They took my grandfather. I had to visit him at a concentration camp every weekend, to give him clean clothes. And take a little food."
Ostracized from her neighborhood school, Miss Luo resumed classes through the junior high years, at which point formal education ended entirely.
She was "allocated" to a textile factory in Shanghai at age 16. Alert to any potential exit route, she participated in a drama group associated with the factory. She was able to take advantage of an open audition for the Shanghai Drama Institute, re-established during Deng Xiaopings regime. Graduation from the institute led automatically to work as a repertory actress in a professional company. It also gave her access to roles in movies produced at a large studio in Shanghai. She became a national sweetheart in her debut feature, "Girls Student Dormitory."
Miss Luo expresses some regret at leaving her homeland before Chinese filmmaking began to attract international esteem. "It was a cultural desert to me," she says.
In China, her own movie "is like a top box-office (success) right now," she says. "They dont have many movies, and mine had very sympathetic portrayals of a young, intellectual generation… . Women especially seem to love the movie. They come to me sincerely and thank me for making a movie about a lady."


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