Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Dinner with Nicole Kidman
In the van to the studio for morning crew call with my two bosses. Late start due to a late midnight wrap last night. Read newspaper article on a medical “accident” where a patient died in the hospital after a car accident because his family was 100 yuan (US$12) short for a blood transfusion.
The family had 400 yuan total. A blood transfusion cost 540. The wife begged the doctor to take cell phone and rings as deposits. The doctor said no.
After the “accident”, the hospital publicly refused to admit faults, even after the reporter pointed out an internal memo suspending the four doctors involved. The family demanded 230,000 yuan (less than US$30,000) compensation. The hospital bargained it down to 30,000 yuan (less than US$4000). They settled.
The newspaper asked – How much is a human life worth in China?
Too heavy an article for a morning paper. Talk with my bosses instead about the Peking Duck they’d like to have for dinner.
Arrive at the studio and have brunch with the Western crew in the dinning room marked “Western Dining Room” on the door. There’s French toast, omelet, bacon, oatmeal, fruit salad, cereal, coffee and tea, among others. The Chinese crew eat Chinese congee, steamed bun, pickled veggie and boiled egg out of plastic meal boxes out in the corridor. Apparently all Chinese whose job involves English translation are included in the “Western” crew; but the pay and benefits are far lower.
Finally first shoot of the day after a long setup. The Chinese crew, about twenty of them, rushes off the set as if running away from a plague. The bell rings. The Assistant Director calls “Action”. I’m not needed on the set to assist with operating a second boom mic. Very bored.
Lunch. The “Western Dining Room” serves salmon, quesadillas, beans, garden salads, cheese bread pudding, among others. Delicious food and civilized sittings. The Chinese crew eat Chinese stir-fries out of plastic meal boxes while squatting in the corridors.
First shot after lunch. Have nothing to do after laying the cable before the shoot. The male and female leads, both well-known stars from America, passed by me on their way to the set. They carry this air around them which makes them stand out. Or is it just in my head?
On the van to the hotel where boss stays to fetch his laptop charger. Mr. Hong, the driver, yells the F word. The van just had an extreme closeup with a bicycle. Mr. Hong curses “stupid peasant” at the bike rider. He says that the rider probably would appreciate the chance to get knocked down by a city car; the compensation payment from the car insurance companies would far exceed any amount he could make in a lifetime.
The rider indeed looked like a migrant worker from the countryside. Lots of them in Beijing.
I remember a conversation I had once with a Chinese lawyer friend about using compensatory and punitive damages to curb businesses’ disregard of customers’ welfare. My friend’s opinion was that it would only encourage the poor and desperate to seek out accidents for the legal windfall. Life is cheap in China, he said.
I’m longing for the day when China can have the likes of $250 million Vioxx damage awards without many rushing to kill themselves for it.
Back to set. Pass by a newly cleaned restroom marked “Western Restroom” on the door. The old restroom we’ve all used in the past few days was always wet with water (or something else) on the ground. Sometimes people didn’t flush so the place smelt really bad. Some Western crew members complained. The “Western Restroom” still only has squat toilets and inside it still stinks. But at least it’s quiet.
I walk in the “Western Restroom” without any hesitation.
Dinner in the “Western Dinning Room”. Juicy hamburgers (and dry veggie burgers) with salads and fruits and string beans. Chinese crew eat in the corridor with their plastic meal boxes.
An American crew member comments on the “Western Dinning Room” note on the door. It’s racist and discriminatory, he says; it’s exactly the type of things the civil rights movement was against.
I nod. The funny thing is, he continues, in this case it’s the Chinese production office that got the idea and put up the signs. I nod again. We Chinese all know that many of us have the tendency to discriminate against ourselves.
I want to ask him though – would you really like to enjoy the Chinese experience, including squatting in the corridor at each meal and using a wet bathroom that’s sometimes not flushed?
But I keep my mouth shut.
I’ve been holding a boom mic for the long scene we are shooting. Long dialogues. It’s late. Everybody is tired. The actors constantly make mistake. The directors and assistant directors and camera operators are testy.
I’ve learned to rest the long boom on my head during the long take, rather than holding it up straight like a good boom operator. I still sweat like a pig during the take but my arms are not as sore.
A mobile phone rings somewhere. The take is ruined.
We start again. The male lead makes a mistake.
We start again. A mobile phone rings.
The Western assistant director storms out of the set. We hear him screaming – “Everyone turn off the phone! If the phone rings again the owner of that phone doesn’t need to show up for work tomorrow!”
Break before the next scene. Just learned the two rings were from the same phone. The Chinese production manager, apparently enraged by losing face in front of the Western crew, fired the guy on the spot.
The assistant filling me in with the details also said that the guy was a young kid from the countryside; he had a goofy smile on his face and apparently didn’t even understand what he did wrong when he was fired.
It’s got to be the 10th take now of another long difficult dialogue scene. I’m kneeling right in front of the female lead and holding the gun mic up to collect her sound. I can see the veins on her arm and the creases around her wrists.
It feels weird to be so close to a famous star. As if I’m intruding on the mysterious aurora the celebrities have been so carefully cultivating and guarding. Up close, they are just like anybody else, stripped off the effects of camera lighting, engineered smiles and scripted interviews.
I stare at her. She’s having difficulty finishing a long line. She curses with the F word and then giggles. The director comes and whispers into her ears.
She must have suffered a lot in her own way, and now she’s reaping millions of dollars in return. I wonder what her lifestyle is like, living from one party to the next in the Hollywood hills, around glamorous people.
I feel so keenly aware of both the similarities and differences between us. Everywhere I look I see these similarities and differences – the Beijingers vs the migrant workers from the countryside, the Western vs Chinese crew, the stars vs the “normal” people.
I also feel keenly aware that the position I’m in looks like I’m kneeling in front of a pedestal of a star and worshipping her.
Home in my comfortable bed. Dream of Nicole Kidman: She’s in Shanghai shooting Wong Kar-wai’s new film; We walk into a fancy restaurant chatting like old friends, her elegantly in her Chanel dress she wore in the Buz Luhrmann Chanel commercial.
We sit down at a table and look at the Bund. The night is beautiful; she is beautiful. She listens to my dreams and I listen to her loneliness after Tom Cruise.
In my dream, she’s really no different from any of my other friends.
And she’s not wearing any expensive jewelry either.