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There’s Nothing Like Being There

Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Close your eyes and you might be in China. The room is full of Mandarin conversation, the stiff, acrid smell of endless cigarette smoking, and bodies shifting about until the last possible moment before the holler of “Shi pai!” Then you hear a follow-up in English, “Camera rolling!”

Open your eyes and see a crew of 20 packed into the living room of an Old World-style apartment in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles. Everyone here is Chinese except for a technician, a production coordinator and one actress, a young woman who also happens to actually live here. Quincy Coleman had agreed to rent out her apartment for three days for the shooting of “Be There or Be Square,” the first Chinese movie shot entirely in the U.S.

But then director Feng Xiaogang and scriptwriter Gu Xiaoyang had an even better idea. They found her to be a charming young actress--she’s a Screen Actors Guild member--and quickly wrote her into the movie. Just the night before, in fact.

While that kind of serendipitous filmmaking would give a Hollywood exec a heart attack, it’s par for the course for Chinese films. There are no suits here, just the producer, Victor Li, and the production manager, Lu Guoqiang. But they know the etiquette: On a Chinese film set, the director is king, and what he says goes.

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Hire another actress on the spot? Change the script to give her a part? All possible in this realm. After all, Chen Kaige, when making “Temptress Moon,” managed to change lead actresses twice even after substantial photography had begun.

“We see this film as a kind of ‘When Harry Met Sally’ romantic comedy,” says Li, a former Beijing resident now based here. “These kinds of films do well in China these days.” Into the formula they’ve tossed a heaping of immigration blues. To stay or not to stay, that is the question in “Be There"--when staying in the U.S. requires all kinds of physical and emotional adjustments to an unfamiliar, sometimes hostile, environment.

The “Be There” Chinese cast and crew of about 30 flew in from Beijing in early June for 40 days of shooting around Los Angeles. The film is due to be released in China around Christmas.

Angular Ge You, who has a kind of hang-dog, everyman look and who won best actor for his performance in “To Live” at Cannes in 1994, and willowy Xu Fan, one of China’s hottest young actresses, are the leads. Ge plays Liu Yuan, the jack-of-all-trades who’s an old hand at survival in America. He manages to sweet-talk Li Qing (Xu), a naive newcomer, to let a film crew shoot in the posh house she’s looking after.

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Of course, they trash it, then to make matters worse, she gets burglarized and tied up. At this point he takes pity on her and urges her to leave this wicked country; he buys her a plane ticket home and sees her off at LAX.

A year goes by. They run into each other in a parking lot--literally, he hits her car. Well, it turns out she never left, but while he’s mighty surprised, he’s more than happy to see her again. Just as the mood gets romantic, disaster strikes again, and they have a falling out. So it goes, until the following year. . . .

The script takes them through three star-crossed years of meeting and splitting and meeting again, in all different kinds of locations around Los Angeles, from a posh house in Hancock Park (her house-sit) to a trailer park in Santa Clarita (his house), from Newport Beach to Pasadena’s City Hall.

“It’s on purpose,” says Li. “We thought, we’re shooting here, we might as well take advantage of the area.”

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“We thought about shooting elsewhere,” says director Feng, “but it just seemed more fun to shoot here. And it’ll be something new for the audience.” By audience, he means his audience--the mainland Chinese audience.

The Chinese-ness of this production is everywhere apparent--and not only in the faces of the cast and crew. It’s in the spirit of the shoot, a certain informality, a certain chaos in which people mill about but manage, amazingly enough, to get whatever needs to be done, done.

True, sometimes the chaos gets out of hand. At one moment inside the crowded living room, it even gets to the director, who shouts in frustration, “There’s too much noise in here! Let’s talk less, shall one? One person’s voice up against so many others!” He means his own, which is ragged from shouting and from cigarettes, a pack of which are ever at hand. Feng, 40, a tall, lanky man with a choppy haircut, uses a film canister perched on the monitor as a giant ashtray.

Most of the people working here speak no English, and Feng’s is rudimentary. Of course, when talking to the Chinese cast and crew it’s no problem, but he expresses himself in gestures and minimalist pidgin to Coleman, who has an important scene coming up.

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“Quincy, sit down here,” he says sharply, pulling up a chair in front of one of the Palladian windows. “Git.” By “git” he means “guitar,” as in “pick up the guitar.” For more elaborate explanations, one of the handful of bilingual staff jumps in to translate.

They are shooting a long, soulful take of her singing this mournful rendition of that song from “Midnight Cowboy,” “Everybody’s talkin’ at me / I can’t hear a word they’re saying. . . . " Meanwhile, Xu Fan, as her roommate, comes in and listens to her, and both eventually melt into a sobfest when they think of boyfriends loved and lost.

Shortly after 8, dinner is served outside on the lawn. A dozen metal trays of hot food have been arranged on the grass, and everyone takes a plastic plate and serves himself or herself. Chinese food, of course.

Feng learned his craft by doing, not through film school like many of the Chinese filmmakers who have gained international prominence. Feng worked his way up from the production side of television, then started writing scripts. In 1991 he adapted a novel about contemporary Chinese emigre life in the U.S., then went to New York to direct it, resulting in the highly popular television series “Beijingers in New York,” which aired in China in 1992.

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In it, Jiang Wen (“Red Sorghum”) plays a Chinese immigrant who enjoys a rags-to-riches transformation. This fed the appetite for stories of life in America, but some criticized the series for being unrealistic and overly dramatized.

But Feng knows his niche. He’s focused on comedies and last year released a feature called “Party A, Party B” that set a box-office record--$1.23 million--in Beijing. (Movie tickets there sell for as little as $1.) Only the universal juggernaut “Titanic” has done better.

He’s quietly self-confident as he explains himself by saying, “Generally, there are two kinds of filmmakers in China. There are those artistic ones, who like to take their films abroad and participate in international film festivals. Of course, they’ve made beautiful films--Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang--and I respect them. Then there are those who are hired to make ‘official’ films for specific organizations.” He refrains from using the word “propaganda.”

“Me, I’m interested in the audience. I’m interested in making entertaining, commercial films that please the audience. My greatest reward is sitting in the theater and having lots of people enjoy my films.” And boffo box office? “Yes, the box office is my measure of success.”

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The cost for “Be There,” his fourth film, is $1.35 million and has been put together from several investors, the Beijing Film Studio, and the director himself. “It’s pretty unusual,” he admits. “I’ve decided to take a gamble and put my own money into this film, about 25%. That’s how much I believe in it.” Asked if the film had to go through the usual channels of official approval--all feature films made in China must be pre-approved before shooting begins, so this one falls in a gray area--he says that the script was OKd before they left. “It’s just a comedy,” he says and shrugs. “There’s nothing political about it.” Everything has not been smooth sailing, however. The work visas for the Chinese nationals were delayed, so the shooting schedule was put back nearly a month. Some costs were unexpected, especially for location rentals where people demanded fees of several thousand. The Chinese are willing to work seven days a week, but the Americans are not, so they’re working six-day weeks. And today, at the apartment, the American crew walk off early because their workday is over. The Chinese crew hang in there until the director calls it a wrap.

“If I were a producer,” says American unit manager Craig Ayres of the Chinese crew, “I’d hire these guys. They’re a lot more unorthodox, they do everything. American crews are a lot more structured, rigid. With an American crew you’d have five guys sitting on the car over there, while one woman may be hauling a 300-pound piece of equipment--they don’t help her, in fact she doesn’t want them to help her, it’s her job.”

Someone soon to get a taste of the American way of doing things is Zhao Fei, director of photography, the most internationally known member of the crew. He was the cinematographer on the Academy Award-nominated “Raise the Red Lantern,” directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li.

Just off from working in China on Chen Kaige’s historical epic “Assassin,” Zhao looks remarkably relaxed in California. He is tanned, wearing his LAPD Motorcycle Drill Team cap with shorts and sneakers without socks, and eager to learn new English words. That is because Zhao has been tapped to shoot a new Woody Allen film.

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During the apartment shoot, Zhao sits next to Feng, watching every shot from the monitor, but Feng seems to know what he wants, and he’s the one giving specific orders to the cameraman. The director turns to him now and then and says, “How does that look?” “Looks good,” says Zhao easily.

Zhao is as mystified as anyone else as to why he was chosen for the Allen film. “I don’t really know how it happened,” he says. "[Allen] just saw some of my films and arranged a meeting. He said, ‘I want my next film to have the look of these films you made.’ It’s a period piece, set in Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s.

“That film will be my first American film,” he says. “This film"--he looks around at the bustle of activity on the set of “Be There"--"is really still a Chinese film.”


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