Just when I thought things were the most predictable this term, I had one of my more memorable "only in China" moments last week. Lili from the English department office called my cell phone late Wednesday afternoon and told me "there is someone from CCTV here looking for a foreign actor. Are you interested in having a try?" CCTV stands for China Central Television, and is the Chinese national television network. At first the words "token foreigner" flashed through my mind, as I have seen the sometimes clownish roles given to foreigners on CCTV.
"Well, what do they want me to do?" I asked, though I knew better than to expect to get such a wealth of information.
"I don't know" she replied.
"I'm across town. What time do they want to meet?" Another silly question.
"Could you come to my office right now?"
Long thoughtful pause. Well, I guess I didn't come all this way to lead a boring life. "Sure, I'll be there soon."
When I arrived they simply took my picture, shook my hand, and went on their way. White face, blue eyes; he passes the audition. They had first recruited Phillip, the foreign teacher from Manchester, and apparently he was shooting the first night, so they took him away to parts unknown.
I got the story from him the next day--they were filming a Tang dynasty drama for CCTV1 about an hour outside of Zhangye and, for reasons that are still unclear, wanted some young male foreign faces for some very small bit parts as soldiers. I'm no expert on the Tang dynasty, but I would venture a guess that the number of British and American soldiers on the fields of Chinese battle was minimal. Phillip was given a short but dramatic role with speaking lines that ended in his execution. Ironically, the one with the least interest in learning Chinese was given the speaking role, and he had to get his lines translated so he could say them in English. It all gets dubbed over when they go back to Beijing anyway, and a foreigner is a foreigner.
The next night Phillip was busy and they needed two foreigners, so Andrew was roped into taking part by Lili ("Dan needs some help..."). Andrew tends to shy away from anything involving either an audience or the English department calling to ask "are you free this evening?" but he reluctantly agreed. We met outside the English department at 6pm, and I was told by different sources that we would be home by 2am, 12am or between 9:30 and 10:30pm. Phillip had returned at 4am so I didn't have my hopes up.
The filming took place in an area outside of the city called Danxia Dimao (丹霞地贸), which we had been to before as part of a foreign teachers' trip. They had built a full set on and around the hills, which was very professionally done. The name of the television show is 神探狄仁杰 (shén tàn dí rénjié), and is apparently a popular show comparable to a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Di Renjie is the name of the man character, a portly man with a thin, earnest sidekick. A website with pictures of the show can be found here. I was told by students that older people in China like the show but they weren't interested. I'd like to think I've participated in the Chinese equivalent of Matlock.
I'm glad Andrew was there and I had someone to talk to, because we were in for a long night. When we arrived they got us into costume--fancy Tang dynasty soldier uniforms, tights, and shoes that were much, much too small. The "dressing room" was the inside of a truck which was open to the world. There were one or two people in charge that were friendly to us and would check on us every once in a while. We were told they would do a few scenes before ours, and we just had to shao deng yixia, "wait a moment." My heart sinks when I hear this phrase in China, because "a moment" generally means between 20 minutes and an hour and a half. Chinese people have a tolerance for waiting that far surpasses that of the typical Westerner, and if the wait is truly just "a moment" no one will feel it necessary to even mention it.
There were a lot of people involved in the filming, plus some curious onlookers gathered on a hill, and the place had a bit of a carnival atmosphere. The actors were wearing their various costumes and make-up, and there was a crew of giggly Chinese girls that could be seen chatting excitedly or playing childish games during the downtime. We didn't have to ask who the director of the whole production was--he made his presence known. Equipped with a full camouflage outfit and an inflated sense of self-importance, el generalissimo could been seen stomping around and occasionally screaming at people. The two main characters were also easy to pick out, but they carried themselves with dignity and professionalism.
Filming is known to be a slow process, and combined with the slow, deliberate pace at which most everything happens in China, the wait eventually became agonizing. It didn't help that we were outside on a cold night with almost nowhere to sit and wearing uncomfortable shoes. Around 10pm we still had no idea when we would film or even what our roles were. Around this time they called break for a meal, which was bad news--nothing would happen for a good hour-and-a-half.
Me and Andrew weren't hungry so we took a wander around. Way on the outskirts of the set was a lone man building a fire, who was so isolated we wondered if he was actually a nomad and his costume simply the clothes he prefers. It turned out he was a Uyghur from Xinjiang, so he was ethnically not Chinese at all, nor was it his first language. He didn't say as much but I imagine he would have trouble fully integrating with his Han Chinese workmates; China is indeed a fairly conformist society. Us three outcasts having a quiet talk by the fire was probably the highlight of the evening.
The hours continued to pass with no further sign of what we were even doing there. The night grew colder, and I gradually became less amused until really all I was looking forward to was going home. Sometime after 2am Andrew and I decided to check if our ride home was even there; a carful of Chinese people along for the ride had brought us, but due to the cold (and probably boredom) had been sitting in the car for hours. Sitting in the warm car was wonderful, but soon someone came to announce that our scenes were coming up next.
"Next" was a relative term; they had started work on the scenes we were involved in, but we had to wait another half hour in the cold before anything happened. Andrew was up first, and they explained his role around 5 minutes before he had to film it. It wasn't one of the more challenging scenes. All he had to do was be still and look dead--the entirety of his shot was him lying against a wall while the hand of his killer removed his helmet and revealed his foreign-ness. Probably the coolest part was that he had a stunt-double, a Chinese man with a helmet who gets violently thrown against the wall just before Andrew's shot.
To prepare him for his scene they gave Andrew a wig and a small dose of fake blood. While shooting the scene the victor had difficulty pulling off the helmet in one smooth motion, and it took a number of takes. The crew laughed and talked amongst themselves about how the foreigner's nose was too big--it didn't occur to anyone that the helmet was too small. Andrew finished his scene sometime around 3 or 4am, and I was told I was next.
They immediately packed up that scene and setting up in another spot, which meant another long wait. It was something like 4:30am when I began filming, and by that point I just wanted to get it over with. I also played a soldier who is killed and will get around 5 seconds of airtime. My scene was ever slightly more action-packed--someone slices a sword just in front of my face, at which point my helmet splits open (pulled apart by strings held by men on both sides side). There is blood running down my face (applied beforehand), I do my best expression of surprise/just-been-sliced-in-half-by-a-sword, and fall over, dead. When I was finished it was 5am, and we drove the hour home in silence.
I wasn't in much shape for my classes from 8am-12 and just cancelled them and slept until 2pm. Overall, I didn't enjoy the experience as much as I had hoped and I resented the total lack of respect for our time (I was surely the only one with work at 8am and they could have done our scenes much earlier). But, it was something that will never happen at home and I'm glad I went and have the story to tell. They were filming the third season which doesn't air until next year, but I'm amused to think that one of these days a Chinese national television audience will have a glimpse of two hapless foreign teachers in Zhangye.