Jackie Chan and looted treasures

In the winter of 2011 I went along to take part in the filming of “Chinese Zodiac”, starring and directed by Jackie Chan. Of course I was very keen to see Jackie Chan in the flesh. I have to be honest and say that his films are not really my cup of tea, but I admire him for his courage, both as a stuntman, and as a person who stands up and says what he thinks.

We were filming a boardroom sequence, and they even gave me a couple of lines to say. I was delighted, of course. The film crew were one of the best organised I have seen, working quietly and efficiently. A lot of the equipment was specially made for Jackie Chan, and his assistant directors had iPhones and were able to download the takes onto them and show them to the actors immediately, which is a technical nicety I have never seen before.

Jackie Chan seemed much more cultured than his screen persona. Huge energy and intense concentration. What struck me most was the feeling that he treated everyone with exactly the same level of respect, whether they were playing a starring role or had just come along to be a face in the crowd.

I was pleased, also, to find that the theme of the film had a connection with Yuanmingyuan. The European Palace in Yuanmingyuan had a fountain made of 12 bronze sculpted heads representing the 12 animal signs of the Chinese zodiac. After the Anglo-French forces burned and looted the gardens, the 12 heads went missing. Attempts by the Chinese government and by individual Chinese citizens to repatriate these heads as they turn up in foreign auctions can be seen as a representative symbol of the rise of China as a new economic superpower.

Alas, I cannot show a clip from “Chinese Zodiac” because my lines ended up on the cutting room floor. I like to think it was for pacing reasons and not because my acting sucked (if anyone knows different, please don’t tell me). But this is another clip from a TV play in which I play a foreigner who wants to buy a priceless stolen palace antique.

Father Molin and the Yellow River

In 2010 one of the projects I took part in was a TV play called “Yan’an Aiqing” (Love in Yan’an). The play was about a lad who was in love with a girl in Mao Tse Tung’s headquarters in Yan’an. I played a priest who helped him and his friend to cross the Yellow River on his way to find true love.

We filmed this segment in Shanxi Province in a place called Qikou, an old trading town on the banks of the Yellow River. I was told that during its heyday, no women were allowed to work in the town. The men who had wives were allowed to go home for a visit once every three years.

While they were dressing me for this scene, with the robe and the crucifix and all the trappings, the director asked me if I was a Christian. I said no. Oh, he said, but do you know the Bible? I said no. He got quite worried, he said he wanted me to preach a sermon. So I remembered the parable of let he who is without sin cast the first stone and improvised a sermon on that.

We were staying in an old terraced building that had been turned into a hotel. The cave-style rooms were organised on different layers connected by narrow stone staircases. There was a pile of coal in the courtyard below and smoke drifted up from the coal fire on which vast vats of vegetable and tofu were cooked for the film crew to eat. The soldiers were played by a group of young men and women who had just graduated from a drama school in Xi’an.

We had our breakfast in a windowless room like a tunnel, the walls of which were covered with portraits of Chairman Mao and framed quotations from his works. I remember going for breakfast one morning and all the young actors were there dressed in their Red Army uniforms, I thought I’d fallen into a time warp.

The most unforgettable day was the day we filmed by the Yellow River. The carpenters had built a rickety jetty reaching out into the flood and the waters were rising, everyone was in a hurry to get finished before the jetty washed away. The Yellow River really is yellow, because of the yellow loess suspended in it.

Charlie and the piglets

This play, about Chinese boys working in the tin mines in Malaysia, was filmed in the birthplace of Sun Yatsen (孙中山). The weather was very wet so filming was frequently cancelled. As luck would have it our hotel was right over the road from the Sun Yatsen museum, so every day if there was nothing else to do I got my umbrella and went over and browsed. If it hadn’t been for that I probably never would have realised how important both Sun and his wife Song Qingling (宋庆龄) were for the history if China. Song Qingling played a crucial role in bridging the gap between Sun’s era and the communist era. She saw through Chiang Kai-shek and obstructed his claims to to be rightful heir of Sun Yatsen.

In this play I was a violent and murderous mine boss. The Chinese boys, who were mostly press-ganged into working in the mines, are referred to by their employers as “piglets”. The young actor in this scene is Tong Dawei who recently co-starred with Christian Beale in “Flowers of War”.


Mr Schroeder paints the town red

In 2007 I went to Shanghai to film a TV play called “Song Hu Feng Yun” (松沪风云). It was about the life of an entrepreneurlater I tried to watch it. It was quite well made, but far too long, 60 episodes. I gave up after a while.

This scene was fun to film. In this scene I am quite drunk and I drag the hero of the piece (who is my employee) to visit a brothel. This was filmed in Hengdian and I believe the building they used was a genuine antique building that had been dismantled and moved there piece by piece. It was a warm evening and everyone was in a good mood. The girls who meet me at the door of the brothel were wonderful, real blowsy old China whores. I talked to them and discovered that they were graduates from an acting school in Henan, and this was their first job. One of the most enjoyable things about acting in China was acting with young people fresh from drama school. It happened to me several times. Their enthusiasm and discipline was inspiring.