Chen subsequently proved very popular in several other Chinese films, acquiring the sobriquet of "the Chinese Elizabeth Taylor". One of her best-remembered films during this time was "Little Flower" (1978), in which she played a deaf-mute girl, cured by acupuncture, whose first words are "Long live Chairman Mao!". The winner of many awards in China, Chen made her US debut with a small role in Wayne Wang's "Dim Sum: a Little Bit of Heart" (1985). Given her star status at home, she was an appropriate choice for the lead role, opposite Bryan Brown, in the English-language film "Tai-Pan" (1986), the first significant collaboration between an American filmmaker and the Chinese government.
Chen came to international prominence as the highly sexed, opium-addicted empress in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" (1987). Film roles have been sporadic since, but she attracted further attention as the duplicitous and mysterious mill owner Josie Packard on TV's cult soap opera "Twin Peaks" (ABC, 1990-91), and contributed to Hollywood's increasing interest in Asian subject matter with her role as the heroine's mother in "Heaven and Earth" (1993). Trying her hand in more mainstream territory, she also served as Steven Seagal's leading lady (an Eskimo, no less) in his blood-spattered action-pic call for environmental awareness, "On Deadly Ground" (1994) and co-starred with Sylvester Stallone in "Judge Dredd" (1995).
Recognizing that good roles were not coming her way and also the industry's emphasis on youth, Chen returned to school and earned her bachelors degree in film production. Utilizing what she learned, she collaborated with novelist Yan Geling in adapting the novella "Tian Yu/Celestial Bath" as her first feature, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl" (1998). In addition to co-writing, Chen produced and directed the drama about a teenager who embraces a governmental opportunity to train to lead a female cavalry unit and then comes to realize that circumstances have changed. Working with the gifted cinematographer Lu Yue, Chen created a gorgeous looking and well-acted character study about love. She ran afoul of the Chinese government, though, for shooting the film in remote areas without proper government clearance. As a result, she was fined $50,000 and banned from working in China for one year. Undaunted, the hyphenate set about developing additional directing projects.