This clip is from a TV play about two daughters and the problems they have with their mother trying to control their choice of boyfriends / husbands. One of the girls decides to work on being a perfect wife and goes to a class to learn to bake cakes. I am the “Pastry cook from hell” and I taste her cake and detect that it is a fake (i.e. she didn’t make it, she bought it from a shop), then I storm out of the class. Should have been a bit more stormy really.
Park-style Revolver (派克式作论) was a fictional play based on a real event, the Iowa University shooting in 1991. I played Professor Gordon. My student, the one waving the gun (who eventually shoots me) was played by Yin Xiaotian. This was the largest role I ever had and I stayed with the film group for two months in Suzhou, where they had taken over parts of Suzhou University to represent an American campus.
This was also the only time I witnessed the ceremony that the Chinese hold when they start on a film or TV project. They put a video camera in the lobby of the hotel and draped red silk over it and the leading actors bowed to the camera, each holding three sticks of incense in the Buddhist fashion, one for past lives, one for the present, and one for lives to come.
This play was very daring in its day, and also very popular, as late as 2010 I met people who were still watching it on regional satellite channels. There were several scenes which sailed quite close to the wind, my sleazy colleague Professor Smith kept a drawer full of sex toys which spilled out once or twice, and in one scene the leading lady took off her shirt and seduced a man. Going topless in China is strictly not done, and the scene was filmed from behind. But I was told the actress spent the whole morning with her assistant putting papier-mache on her breasts.
Apparently the whole show is now viewable online here
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.
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.
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”.
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.
About 8 years ago I went to Hainan to film this TV play. The play is called Langjitianya (浪击天涯) and it’s a sort of wacky comedy about romantic intrigues in a holiday resort. Hainan was the perfect place to make it, it is a sub-tropical island at the south end of the Chinese mainland, warm all the year round.
The evening I arrived I was handed a script in which there were, I think, five scenes. The lines were pretty complicated and I set to work memorising them immediately. I was playing a French chef called Hong Mofang, with an assistant called Yamei. While I was looking at them the assistant director introduced me to a girl in blue jeans and said “this is Yamei”. We exchanged pleasantries and I went back to my script.
The next day we were filming in a hotel and there was a grand lounge where we were doing the makeup. I was made up pretty quick, so I sat and relaxed and looked at my script. Every so often I had a look around to see if I could spot the little girl in blue jeans who I was supposed to be acting with, but I couldn’t see anyone like her. There was one girl who might have been her, but she walked right past me. No, couldn’t be her. Right opposite me was an incredibly beautiful actress in a long silk dress being carefully groomed by a bunch of makeup artists. Every so often I looked over, wistfully. Why don’t I get to act with someone who looks like that, I thought.
After a while I got up to go out for a breath of fresh air, and I walked past this goddess in silk, “Hello”, she said. “Do I know you?” I said. “I’m Yamei”, she said. And so she was. The actress was Zeng Baoyi, daughter of Hong Kong Comedian Eric Tsang and already becoming a star in her own right. She was good to work with, I find a lot of actresses hard going as people, but she was sweet.
In 2002 I was recruited to play Isaac, the elderly husband of the young female lead, in a TV play called “Library” (天一生水). The play was written by a young actor / director called Huang Lei (黄磊). The play was set in a library called Tian Yi Ge (天一阁) which is an actually existing collection pf priceless antique books in Ningbo (near Shanghai). The trustees at Tian Yi Ge very sensibly refused to have a film troupe galumphing around in their library so Huang built a replica of the library in a vast studio on the outskirts of Beijing.
The atmosphere of the play is very romantic. Earlier Huang Lei had played a role in a film called “Eighteen Springs” based on a novel by Eileen Chang (who wrote “Lust, Caution”). The film is the story of a doomed love affair set in early 20th century Shanghai, and “Library” is quite similar in mood and setting.
We filmed the various hotel room scenes in an old hotel in Shanghai known as the actor’s hotel because it has been unchanged for decades and is often used for filming. Both Bertrand Russell and Einstein stayed there and there are pictures of them in the hall. Russell later wrote a book called “The Problem of China” which is still worth reading today.
The woman I am acting with is Ma Yili (马伊琍). At one point I was supposed to be lying in bed with her and the script said 搂 – I looked it up in my Chinese dictionary and it was translated as “hug”. So when we got to that bit I naturally, like any red-blooded Englishman, rolled over on top of her which caused her to have a severe panic attack which required us both to return to make-up for a thorough refurbishing. I wrote some more about this experience in an essay called Immaculate Mandarins.