A Martial Artist Marshals Career : Mark Salzman's star rises

The day that communications failed 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, Mark Salzman broke his hand.

It happened early during 13 weeks of filming in a resort city in Hangzhou when Salzman--who wrote the critically acclaimed book "Iron and Silk" and stars in the upcoming movie of the same name--was supposed to demolish a brick wall with one well-placed karate chop.

The Chinese film crew had been told to weaken the concrete-coated wall. But as the camera rolled, the first-time actor and martial-arts expert stepped up to the wall, threw a right hook and turned his hand into ground round.

"They didn't weaken it enough," Salzman says today with a twisted grin. "We were only three weeks into filming and I had to shoot the rest of the movie with a broken hand."

Salzman also had to settle for bandaging his injured hand between scenes, since a cast would have marred the breathtaking wushu --traditional Chinese martial arts routines--showcased in "Iron and Silk."

Today, with the movie itself wrapped and scheduled for fall release, his hand healed and a multimedia package tucked firmly under his black belt, Salzman has lots to grin about.

He has gone from an unemployed Yale graduate with a dubiously marketable degree in classical Chinese literature to a mini-cottage industry that is churning out travel literature, novels and screenplays. He's had a photo and blurb in Time magazine's People section, and there's a possible starring role in a TV adventure series, in addition to a Dewar's Scotch profile scheduled later this year.

Not bad for a 29-year-old guy who hates to travel, is lukewarm about contemporary China and says his favorite movie is "ROBOCOP."

"I wouldn't say I have particularly artsy tastes, and I'm not a China watcher," Salzman said. "The thing I dread most is being invited to a dinner party where everybody's talking about China."

In the film version of "Iron and Silk," Salzman plays himself, an American preppie who spends 1982 to 1984 teaching English at Hunan Medical College and learning martial arts from a colorful character and former national champion nicknamed "The Iron Fist."

In between, he jousts with the swinish Chinese bureaucracy in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province; elicits poignant tales from his students, and has a yearning friendship with a beautiful young Chinese woman doctor.

"All I had to do was pretend to be myself a few years ago," says Salzman, who learned to speak Mandarin and Cantonese. "If I could feel natural in front of the camera and relive my experiences honestly, I was happy."

Salzman co-wrote the screenplay with Shirley Sun, the movie's director. Shanghai-born and U.S.-reared, Sun earned a doctorate in art history and studied film making at Stanford University. She was Bernardo Bertolucci's consultant for "The Last Emperor" and co-wrote and produced "A Great Wall," a tongue-in-cheek Chinese "Roots."

Sun, who has often filmed in China and was the first American movie maker invited there in 1979 when Washington normalized relations with Beijing, had no problem getting permission to return for "Iron and Silk." Both she and Salzman hope the movie--one of only a handful shot by Americans since then--will whet curiosity about modern China and traditional wushu, which resembles Mikhail Baryshnikov more than Bruce Lee.

Salzman, whose devotion to wushu borders on obsession, says the martial-arts routines in "Iron and Silk" stress grace and poise without the violent revenge themes typical of kung-fu movies. Wushu routines are more dancelike and elaborate than the austere, clean lines of Japanese martial arts showcased in movies such as "Above the Law." Still, Salzman & Co. wield some pretty scary instruments in the movie, including 4-foot sabers, halberds and a nine-section chain whip with a dart at the end.

The film's budget, which Sun pegs at under $5 million, was minuscule by Hollywood standards. ("The Last Emperor" cost $26 million, by contrast.)

Because she wanted him to act naturally, Sun wouldn't let Salzman see the dailies, he recalls. But some real-life things happened right on cue. When they arrived in China to cast roles, Salzman's memorable wushu teacher Pan Qingfu walked into their office and asked to play himself, the "Iron Fist" whose nickname comes from hitting his hand 1,000 times a day against an iron plate.

Serendipity had brought him to Hangzhou to judge a wushu championship, and after seeing what a character he was, Sun signed him on.

"He was so excited, he wanted to do every martial-arts act known to Earth," Salzman says.

They got Vivian Wu, the Chinese actress who played wife No. 2 in "The Last Emperor," to play the beautiful doctor with whom Salzman has a wistful friendship.

Filming "Iron and Silk" turned out to be a battle with the incredible and constant noise generated by a country of 1 billion people.

As Salzman and Pan started shooting a martial-arts scene that took all day to set up, an awful screeching erupted outside where peasants were trussing up pigs, throwing them in wheelbarrows and wheeling them off to slaughter.

Despite repeated pleas, the peasants refused to hold off, informing the film crew that their work was just as important as that of the film.

The film crew had to wait.

And cultural confusion reigned when Salzman's fiancee, Jessica Yu, a fourth-generation Chinese-American who speaks no Chinese, visited him on the set. The Chinese made a beeline for Yu and addressed her in Chinese while ignoring him. Ironically, he would then have to translate.

Sun says she will finish editing by June and screen the movie this fall at the New York International Film Festival and Telluride--where "A Great Wall" premiered three years ago.

Meanwhile, Salzman isn't sitting on his sword. He recently moved from San Francisco to Glendale with his fiancee and is three-quarters of the way through a novel for Random House--which signed him to a two-book contract after the success of his first book.

For someone who rode the Orient Express to fame, Salzman has a paradoxical love/hate attitude toward China, an enchantment with classical Chinese arts and a disillusionment with the country's modern shortcomings. He wrestles with the tensions between those two worlds in the book, the movie and in everyday conversation.

And he still practices wushu three hours a day in parking lots, basketball courts and his back yard. Self-defense runs in the family: Yu was ninth-ranked in the trial competition for the Seoul Olympics last year.

Standing in his driveway, Salzman demonstrates a routine that involves deft parries with a 6-foot, wood-handled spear topped with a flowing red tassel and announces gleefully that "my neighbors must think I'm crazy."

But advertisers and TV executives apparently don't.

"He's got star quality," says Andrew Susskind, president of television at Weintraub Entertainment Group Television, which has developed two pilots in which Salzman would battle world evil with martial arts. Weintraub says he's now shopping the series around to the networks.

Last month, celebrity art photographer Herb Ritts photographed Salzman for the Gap's new print ad campaign, in which accomplished young adults strike hipster poses.

Salzman's infatuation with China began at 13, when he saw his first episode of the TV show, "Kung Fu." Calligraphy and martial-arts lessons followed, and Salzman worked at Chinese restaurants in his teens to learn Mandarin and Cantonese.

Salzman, who grew up in a small middle-class neighborhood outside New Haven, Conn., never finished high school, but was accepted into Yale as a cello prodigy. There, he switched to Chinese language and literature and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude in 1982. At loose ends, he then took a two-year teaching job in China.

From the beginning, however, Salzman was the prototypical "Accidental Tourist."

"I'm not a good traveler, I hate traveling. God, it was miserable, I was so homesick," recalls Salzman, who crossed off the 712 days on his calendar one at a time and studied wushu to stave off boredom.

Contemporary China proved a rude shock.

"I thought I was going to read poetry and sit on a boat and do calligraphy and that's ridiculous. China is a dirty, modern, industrial country in the throes of an incredible upheaval," he says.

When he returned stateside, Salzman had no intentions of writing a book. Instead, he wrote a screenplay that he admits now was awful. But it led to a short story about his martial-arts teacher Pan Qingfu, which Salzman showed to a friend, who sent it to another friend at Random House in New York.

"The writing was magical. Mark's a natural-born storyteller," says Becky Saletan, who became Salzman's editor at Random House.

"Iron and Silk" was the first book she acquired, and Saletan says today that the whole process was "a real Cinderella story, a first-time book by an unknown writer that everybody loved but nobody expected to take off commercially the way it did."

Salzman's approach to China was simple, if not unique for the time.

"Most people like to write about China and how different it is. I was surprised at how similar it was," he says.

For now, though, Salzman is firmly grounded in Los Angeles where he meets with TV executives, worries about his movie performance and toils at his novel, which he calls a sort of Holy Grail, coming-of-age epic about a young Chinese orphan in America forced to reconcile old loyalties with his new life with the help of a mythical character called the Monkey King.

Salzman, for his part, also must reconcile his old life with the potential of his new one.

"I keep reminding myself that this could all fizzle at any time. And I don't want to be turning 50 and doing the flaming-sword routine in Las Vegas and be known as the Liberace of martial arts," he says with his trademark grin.

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