Hollywood superstar Willem Dafoe stars in an all-Chinese production
of the Pearl Buck-penned classic Pavilion of Women.
At the break of dawn, Suzhou’s famous Liu Garden is silent. Its doors
won’t open to the public for another hour. With its koi ponds and towering
scholar rocks, the serene setting is reminiscent of a traditional watercolor
painting. It looks nothing like a Hollywood film set, but the quiet
of the dawn is broken by several dozen film extras tramping to the make
up room to prepare to act alongside Willem Dafoe (star of such Hollywood
hits as Platoon, Last Temptation of Christ and Mississippi Burning).
The garden has just finished serving as the backdrop for Pavilion of
Women, a cinematic adaptation of Nobel prize-winning author Pearl Buck’s
novel. To visitors, what’s going on here doesn’t make any sense until
they walk through a narrow corridor and up a slight incline away from
the make-up staging area. There, the massive lights that will turn daybreak
into late afternoon and hundreds of meters of electrical cable belie
the subdued veneer of the work being conducted.
Pouring rain complicates the morning’s set-up, and the downpour lasts
for most of the next two days. Luckily for the cast and crew, the day’s
shooting calls for an interior scene of a banquet, so the weather causes
no delays. The length of time it takes to prepare for filming is one
of the great paradoxes of the movie business: for all the glamour associated
with cinema, making movies is actually an excruciatingly slow and boring
Dafoe’s leading lady, Chinese actress Luo Yan, stands in a traditional
gold cheongsam and cape near a moon gate, sheltering from the downpour.
If it weren’t for the huge phalanx of lights that are turning a rainy
morning into a late afternoon sun, Luo could easily pass for the mistress
of the garden.
On the set of Pavilion of Women, Luo is in charge of all she surveys.
She is the screenwriter, producer and lead actress. Set early this century,
the story is about a frustrated wife in a traditional Chinese marriage
and an American missionary who helps her in her struggle for personal
liberation. Luo’s multiple roles require her to be up before dawn to
meet her on-screen obligations, and her work does not end until well
after dark. But she seems to be standing up admirably to the strain
of 15-hour days.
"If I had it to do over again, I would hesitate," says Luo, a Shanghai
native who now makes Los Angeles home. While far from being a household
name in either city, Luo is in good company when it comes to mixing
film production with business acumen. She is following in the footsteps
of fellow Shanghai actresses Joan Chen and Liu Xiaoqing, the latter
of whom used her fame as a film star in China to launch a multi-million
dollar real estate business in her hometown.
Luo Yan too was an award-winning actress in China before moving to the
United States. She has pursued film production as a career, and considers
filmmaking as much a business as an art. In describing why Suzhou was
chosen as the film’s location, she says "Business-wise, it worked. The
cost was low. Other films cost five times what this one will cost to
make, and artistically, it’s very beautiful." Due to its low cost, Luo
expects that Pavilion will succeed financially and allow her to produce
other English-language films in China. "It’s a great business opportunity,"
Luo says. "As long as this film breaks even, it can be used as a model
to create a lot of other films."
Luo herself is not a box-office draw, but that’s not a problem with
Willem Dafoe’s household name identified with the film. Best known for
his Oscar-nominated performance in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War classic
Platoon, and also for his role as Jesus in the controversial Martin
Scorcese-directed Last Temptation of Christ, Dafoe was not required
at the banquet scene and dashed to Beijing for some sightseeing during
one of his few down times on set. Dafoe says of the project: "I read
the script. I liked certain aspects of it. Some of it is very sentimental,
some of it is very melodramatic. But I was attracted to those things.
Those aren’t necessarily bad qualities for me. After making some pictures
playing some ugly characters, I wanted a change of pace." The exotic
locale certainly exerted some of the attraction. "I probably wouldn’t
have done this film if it wasn’t shot in China and if it wasn’t a Chinese
production. Not because the other elements were weak - but because that
rooted it for me," Dafoe adds.
While Luo is the primary business force behind Pavilion, and Dafoe gives
the movie name-recognition, much of the creative juice injected into
Luo’s screenplay is provided by Hong Kong director Yim Ho. Yim won great
critical acclaim for his award-winning The Day The Sun Turned Cold,
the true story of a murder in Heilongjiang Province. Yim is a strong,
silent type. He stands over six feet tall with a build to match, and
eats by himself during very short breaks in the shooting schedule. His
previous work in China encouraged him to take on Pavilion in spite of
a demanding shooting schedule.
"I like working in China. I think it’s great. People tend to be more
focused when they’re working in China. Things come more naturally,"
"The concept of the film seduced me. I like the historical backdrop.
During this chaotic, traumatic time, there is this relationship that
develops between an American missionary and a bold Chinese woman," he
The long days and tight budget of the film have taken their toll on
the film crew. The banquet scene is the second of a twelve-day shooting
stretch with no scheduled rest. Some production assistants complain
of not being paid, and state that some of the crew already left when
they were not paid on time. Others speak of disorganization. While he
does not speak negatively of the experience, director Yim implies that
there is conflict between himself and Luo in her role as both producer
and lead actress. "This is one of the difficulties of this film, of
course. This is a learning process for every one of us. We all have
to learn how to contribute," Yim says.
Pavilion of Women employs techniques long used elsewhere in China by
business people but not applied to the arts: produce an export-quality
product in China taking advantage of low costs, and play on the Western
fascination with China to draw an audience to name brands, in this case,
Pearl Buck and Willem Dafoe. Luo Yan may not be a Hollywood household
name yet, but if Pavilion of Women succeeds, this won’t be the last
we hear of her.