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Saturday, October 21, 2006

I Am Legend

Today I was a movie star in Zhanjiang.

Well, a TV star, at least. Extra; an extra in a Chinese TV show. Shut up, it was a lot of fun.

Kevin Clancy, Maryknoll’s GiCoMStFTATF’s, arrived in Zhanjiang last night. And what was set to be a small enjoyable private dinner for Kevin, Nicki and I – you know, a simple little catch-up, how’s the teaching going, all that stuff – ended up ballooning into a large dinner party. Liam, Brenda, Kudo, Jude, Lynn, Sheng, Nicki, Steve, Kevin, and myself clambered into some cabs in the less hectic half of eight o’clock, drove for a bit in the scotch-guarded cabs into Chi Kan (one of the small satellite-sister-cities that makes up the whole of Zhanjiang), made our way into a nondescript-but-much-recommended restaurant, and proceeded to have a beer-soaked feast of yet even more awesome Chinese food. Dining in this country never fails to disappoint; I’ve yet to go out and not encounter at least one or two new (superb) dishes, and the variety ranges from mutton chow mein at a local Muslim noodle shop to the hot and slightly gooey chicken and rice-noodle soup we tried in this place. Anyway, about mid-way through dinner, Lynn (a Chinese teacher at Zhanjiang) gets a call from someone looking for foreigners to act in a TV production. Amid half-drunk joke-ramblings (“Is there any nudity? No? Then I won’t do it.”), Steve, Liam, and I agreed to “help out.” We’re team players, and when you’re this gifted, I mean, acting is like, well, like breathing, you know? I feel like I’m choking, like, literary asphyxiating, and only the sweet air of the theater can buoy my crushed soul. We were to meet the next morning at the school’s front gate, and the production would take care of the rest.

One o’clock, at the front gate; Steve and I walked over and met Liam, Sheng, Lynn, and Jude, and idling quietly nearby was a nondescript silver van. As we gathered near the tall arches of the school “gate,” a short, late-twenties Chinese hopped exuberantly out of the car, his long, thin beard clinging precariously to his boyish face. He was the director, we were told (or assistant director, I guessed, since we never saw this guy again after the car ride), and as we met one another through our friends/interpreters, a short uniformed man quietly began passing out small bottles of water, wordlessly, his terse nods of acknowledgement offset by his broad, toothy smile. In quick succession, we were introduced, loaded in the care, and given an informal naval escort into a nearby naval base, where we boarded a (naval) gunship. The pictures are pretty unreal: we go off out of the van, the cool swift breeze mingling with the smell of the rubber bumpers on the dock and the inexplicably clean (for China) ship. We boarded the ship and took some pictures in the gun turret, and very shortly we were picked up by the Chinese coast guard and ferried out to sea, to board the yacht where they were filming.

The first thing I notice as we drifted into docking position with the yacht is the swarm of orange-vested soldiers all over the boat: there were a ton of (coast guardians?), in full jungle cameo (for the ocean?) and belted with blazing neon orange life vests. And they were all armed, with (unloaded) Chinese machine guns and small concealed pistols. I felt a sudden rush of panic, that I must’ve done something wrong to be surrounded by so many armed soldiers, and that my family would soon be getting a receipt for the bullet they just bought. But no, relax, breath; it'll at least be painless. We got off the small speedboat, boarded the yacht, and were herded into the open lower deck. The yacht was one of those “see the Zhanjiang coast in an afternoon!” yachts, kinda luxurious, plenty of legroom, open areas for walking and mingling down the middle, large restaurant-style booths bordering the edges, with a wide spiral staircase leading upstairs to a viewing deck and the outdoor seating area. We sat down and got our bearings, and were welcomed with some warm (and actually tasty!) tea as the cost guards suited, boarded their boat, and sped away. They weren’t going far; they were beginning to film, and the first scene on the schedule was the high-speed chase.

We looked around the boat as they began filming: the coast guard boats were filled with the soldiers (the highest ranking officer allowing a cigarette to hang dramatically from his jaws), and when they were at a good distance, suddenly, action! The boats sped past, circling as their choppy wake crashed against our ship, people falling in random directions like old episodes of Star Trek, sirens blaring and harsh Cantonese being barked from an unseen intercom as the large gunships dramatically sped forward and unloaded a small group of soldiers. All of this, of course, was filmed, and as we extras – ahem, background artists – watched this unfold, the camerman’s (that’s right, just one) assistants were yelling, frantic and confused, at anyone that might happen to fall into frame, snapping at us to clear the siderail or the deck and to just generally get the hell outta the way as they attempted to film as much of this cool stuff from as many different angles as possible.

So, with the initial shots of the docking taken care of, the speedboats and gunships disappeared, leaving a small number of coast guardians with us, so that we could get on with filming and the coast could get back to guarding.

Now it was time for real acting. The crew set up some tables and chairs out on the outdoor deck, and as we took our places and were arranged by the director, we were given more tea and bowls full of peanuts. To make everything look “real,” someone on the crew came by and smashed a handful of peanuts on each table. Because peanut shells = reality. So Steve, Liam and I – the only foreigners on set – were arranged conspicuously in the middle of these tables, the three of us surrounded by a periphery of fifteen Chinese. We were encouraged to just talk, to make conversation, and when the director said the word, we’d turn, look out at the (empty) sea at the rear of the boat, and act terrified. I sensed the camera being on me quite a bit, actually, during the “small talk,” and I tried to give an honest little performance of looking terrified. Liam, meanwhile, was hamming it up, screaming a really campy “Well Jesus fookin’ Christ whut the fook is goin’ on?! (said, of course, in his elegant Galway lilt). We did a second take, now the direction being actively yelled (and yes, in English): “Get down!” “More scared!” “They are shooting at you, with guns!, get down!” So I ducked down, looking fearful, acting my ass off, and I sense the camera is on this Chinese couple and me as we huddle behind the waist-high railing, and the director yells at us, “now, run inside! Scared!” and we do, but the water was still choppy as hell and so as I scramble in the boat, I take a nice little spill, right in front of the camera, and give (I think a very professional) “I am so scared shitless!” look as I hobble into the interior of the yacht. The director seemed to love it.

That is acting, people. Goddamn right.

The next few scenes didn’t really make sense to me, but hey, I’m just an extra, right? So minutes ago, I was Scared Tourist(/Unbeknownst Drug Smuggler/Innocent Bystander?) number three outside, running scared into the ship from the hellacious gunfire of the (apparently pro-active) coast guard. Yet for some reason, the director asked me to do a scene where I walked up the spiral staircase and casually sat down next to another actress (that actress being Lynn, who was so funny trying to ensure that her film debut wasn’t as a villain: “This is my virgin film, I cam am not a bad guy!”) So a few takes of that and I’m asked to run up the stairs, this time with some coast guardians chasing me. Wait, wasn’t I outside when the coast guard “attacked”? And even assuming I’m inside (twice), why am I back downstairs to run from the soldiers? None of this seemed to matter, and there was no way I knew enough vocabulary to explain past, future, and fictitious states of being in Chinese. I did as I was told, and on my third take of running up the stairs, I (again) tripped on the final step, nearly fell but caught myself at the last moment. I didn’t really fall, it was acting. We then filmed two or three dramatic entrances for the Coast Guard Captain (the closest thing we had to a “hero”), but with my disparate scenes and the other discontinuous snippets they filmed, I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to fit together. But I was getting paid, and having a great time on the water, waiting around for my few brief seconds of small-screen glory, so I wasn’t complaining.

After that, I was more or less done filming, and watched them choreograph various fight scenes and such. Watching the fighting from an angle other than the camera’s (a perspective you can share in the video), you can see just how much they pull most of those kicks and punches. But you can’t mime being thrown over a table or being pile-drived (pile-driven?) into the deck of the ship. And those stunt guys did three or four takes of each (not including the spontaneous rehearsals, where they took even more spills), but they gave those table-crashing throws their all. No safety mats, no rubber tables, just pain and grit, all for the art of film(tv). Bravo, stunt guys. In between shots we weren’t in, Steve and I got to play with the coast guard’s (unloaded) guns, and we were free to explore the ship or relax as the finished filming.

It was nice, because all the extras had their own “moments;” Lynn and Jude had a great scream-queen segment, running and screaming off-camera to escape one of the many martial arts melees; Liam and Steve had a “run from the onrushing coast guardians!” moment; and Sheng had a brilliant introspective moment of eating peanuts and sipping tea, the veritable calm before the storm. But our real moment to shine came during the last shot of the day.

The last scene required Steve, Liam, Sheng, and myself; it was going to be a showcase moment, all three foreigners acting their goddamn hearts out. The director wanted all the foreign actors to crouch down behind glass tables and tremble in fear as the Coast Guard Captain burst in and exclaimed “Is OK! Dunna be’fraid!” So Steve and I got down on all fours and commenced cowering, but Liam protested; he has a bad knee, and couldn’t get down easily. The solution? Sheng would cower behind me, leaning over me so he could actually be seen (“Don’t fart!”). And Liam was told to lay on one of the couches and “act scared.” The result was brilliance: Liam hilariously cowering in the fetal position on a couch in the background, whimpering like an octogenaraian that’s just dropped their keys down a storm drain, as Steve, Sheng, and I acted terrified in the foreground. To add just the right touch of camp, the director gave Steve a small plastic trash basket, and ordered him to cower underneath it. Our fear was palpable (well, we left stains of something on the carpet), and between my “scared face,” Steve’s idiotic hiding underneath the waste basket, and Liam’s insane mumblings, it was ridiculous to see the Coast Guard Captain burst in, cry “Is OK! Dunna be’fraid!” and jump-kick a guy across the ship.

That, my friends, is acting.

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