Saturday, February 07, 2004

Celluloid Heroes
China's biggest female movie star at the moment stands about 5 ft.-1 or 2 and probably weighs as much as a couple packs of instant noodles. Her name is Zhou Xun and when I saw her at a recent press conference in Shenzhen she was wearing blue jeans, sweater, and a pair of classic "Chucks" (Chuck Taylor All Stars) and a light blue cashmere cap that covered her hair and emphasized her enormous, expressive eyes. She vaguely resembles a young Audrey Hepburn; gamin-like and appears younger than her 28 years.
She also has an alluring husky cigs-and-bourbon soaked voice -- testimony to her a slightly seedy past as a struggling bar singer in Beijing and at odds with an appearance that looks as if she should be cheerfully exclaiming in helium tones: "Gosh, Mr. Bunny Rabbit! You sure look hippity-hoppity happy today!"
I was at a local hotel tagging along with one of our intrepid reporters, an eager young pup named Alfred who had been assigned to cover the press conference, though he said there was little chance any story would result. The SZ Daily's entertainment coverage is spotty and it was only after I badgered him gently that he began to take notes.
Zhou was here with the two male leads and the female director to promote the release their "newest" release, Baober in Love. I say newest in quotes because the movie was filmed three years ago, but shelved until this month by censors due to racy sexual content. Racy by Chinese standards, I suppose though the clips I saw in the press conference were pretty tame by my jaded Western standards.
Let's just say based on what I saw it's no Das Booty, Gonad the Barbarian or even 9 1/2 Weeks.... It's a contemporary love triangle story involving Zhou and the two guys, one of whom plays a handicapped dude in a wheel chair.
I was curious though -- having covered more than a few such affairs while writing entertainment drivel for the Rocky Mountain News -- to see what the Chinese version of flackdom was like.
It was remarkably similar, right down to our names and media outlets being checked off a list at the door, being handed gimme bags with various promotional items, including CDs of the soundtrack (which wouldn't play on my home player) and having to wear oversized access cards (a reproduction of the Baober poster) on cords around our necks. The crowd of TV and still photogs hogging the front rows making it impossible for the miserable ink-stained print wretches behind to see was also a blast from the past. But the Chinese are too polite to yell "Down in front, muthafuckas!"
Things finally settled down. It began with a long, formal announcement - Alfred translated everything for me - that the movie hadn't been pirated to DVD because of strict and unusually stern security measures taken by the movie company.
I turned and whispered to Alfred, "Funny, I was offered it two days ago by the video pirate boys near my apartment." Which indeed I had.
He looked aghast and made a shushing motion with his fingers.
Before taking questions, the stars posed repeatedly for pictures against oversized backdrops of the poster and then came over to another backdrop two feet from me and Alfred to pose with a corporate sponsor, a cell phone czar who was slightly bloated, middle aged and sporting one of the worst toupees I've ever seen here or in the U.S. I had to scrunch down and fold myself nearly in half to avoid being in the photo and after looking at her tennies found myself looking up at Zhou who flashed a quick sardonic half smile and half-shrugged a shoulder when we made brief eye contact. I returned to contemplating her tiny black and white Chucks until the camera flashes stopped.
The best part, though, was another foreign barbarian who was there. I'll call him C. Our paths have crossed several times here and I still haven't figured out what exactly he does. C is an American in his 30s, married to Chinese woman who manages a men's soccer team, is from the deep south and speaks elementary Chinese with a Mississippi accent. He has mentioned that he's involvedin show business, though is vague on specifics. And most recently he tried to sell me on an Amway-type operation involving nutrients that he thinks will be huge in China. We'd greeted each other upon arriving at the press conference and when the questions to the stars began I saw him edge forward - wearing wraparound shades - with a Chinese woman who was translating for him.
I followed just to see what he had in mind. I heard him ask his translator if anyone of the cast speaks English. She said she didn't know.
Finally there was a lull in the questions from the Chinese press and C. spoke up in English.
"I'm a film producer from L.A.! Los Angeles! In California, USA. Hollywood!" he proclaimed.
Alfred, who also knows C., whispered to me. "What? He is?" I shrugged and didn't know whether or not to laugh or leave immediately.
The cast and director looked at him quizzically. If C. was disappointed for not receiving shock and awe adulation and applause, he didn't let it show. Though his line was complete bullshit, I had to admire the chutzpah.
"Do you speak English?" he asked one of the male leads.
The guy looked at him evenly and said. "Yes, I do. A little."
"Good! Good!" Chuck said, pressing on. "I am a Hollywood producer and we want to make a film in China and we are looking for actors for it."
He focused on Zhou and smiled. "Do you? Speak English?"
"No," she said. For the first time C. looked crestfallen. "No? None?"
Zhou lifted her right hand and made an extremely small space between her thumb and index finger. "Very little," she said.
"Well, maybe we can use you, anyway," C. blustered. Imagine some Chinese loonball interrupting a press conference with Nicole Kidman to say he might be able to use her in a Hong Kong chop-socky flick and you get the general idea of the kind of impression C. was making. But instead of unleashing security goons, the assembled celebs just kept staring at C. Some press folks were giggling, however. I wanted to die, apologizing on behalf of my counry.
C. turned back to the male actor and said, "Would you like to be in my movie?"
The actor smiled patiently, said something in Chinese and pointed to a woman standing at the other end of the table.
"What did he say?" C. asked his translator.
"He said you have to talk to his agent," she replied. "That is her."
A very Hollywood answer. And at that point C. shrugged and retreated.

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