Friday, September 09, 2005
“Don’t call her stupid,” the director rushed onto the set. He had just learned from the bilingual script supervisor that the Chinese actress playing the nun was saying ƒ„’Ê±Ω°°(you are really stupid) to the female American protagonist. We were shooting a scene in which the protagonist offered to help the nuns take care of the babies. But she had had no prior experience with babies. The nun had been told to command the protagonist harshly in the baby room.
Apparently calling someone “stupid” was too harsh. The script supervisor, who was born in Taiwan, grew up in the US and now resides in Hong Kong, suggested, “ask her why she doesn’t know how to change nappies.”
For the next few takes, the Chinese actress used several variations of the line, as “how come you don’t know?!”, “how inexperienced you are!”, “aiyaya, the nappies are over there!”, “you, you are…”, harshly.
It reminded me of my previous relationship with an American guy. It took me for ever to stop calling him “stupid” whenever he did something unsatisfactory. I kept on explaining to him that in China, people call each other stupid all the time. He kept on saying, no no no, it’s not ok.
I tried to suppress my laughter at old memories while holding a mic to collect the dialogue from the bewildered Chinese nun.
For the next shot, the protagonist would attempt to change nappies on one baby. We needed the baby to cry loud cries. Four Chinese babies, between 2 to 6 month old, were brought in for the try out.
It was already late. The first baby was fast asleep and thus was sent away with the mother. The second was crying his tiny heart out and wouldn’t stop no matter who comforted him. The lead American actress, who loves babies, couldn’t stand it any longer and asked the mother to take the baby away. The third baby was a happy one, smiling at whoever held him.
“Is he always happy?”, the assistant director asked the mother via a translator. The mother nodded.
The last one, fortunately, cried a reasonable amount during rehearsal. He was only 2 months and a half but looked big and healthy with inquisitive eyes. The mother, a plain yet warm woman from the countryside, was called in as soon as the rehearsal was over to comfort the baby. “Should we give the baby a break?” The lead actress asked repeatedly.
Once the camera started rolling, however, the baby refused to cry. The actress and the assistant director took turn holding him, making funny faces at him and talking to him, and he just wouldn’t cry.
The script supervisor asked the mother, “does he cry a lot?” The mother replied, “no, he usually doesn’t cry.”
The camera stopped rolling. The crew took turn carrying the baby, in the hope that strange faces would scare the baby. But the baby just stared at the white and yellow faces in front of him, sucking on his thumb and giving out a gurgling sound now and then.
“Please baby, please cry,” the actress begged the baby.
The baby opened his mouth wide and looked up. Everyone immediately rushed to position. Camera started rolling. But the baby just yawned and wiggled in the hands of the actress.
“I can hold him far from my body. Maybe that would help.” The actress tried that, to no avail.
The director, who had been monitoring off set, came on. His hair was up and screaming in different directions. The actress took the baby to him. He knocked on the prop cabinet to make some noise. The baby was not disturbed.
“Let’s use the gong to make some really loud noise right next to the baby. Maybe that’ll make him cry.” One Chinese assistant director suggested. “Oh no no, his mother wouldn’t allow it.” The actress held the baby to her breast as if to protect him.
A helpless pause on the set. We ran out of babies. The mother, standing right on the edge of the set, suggested timidly, “just hit his buttocks.”
When that’s translated, every Western crew looked abhorred. “Oh no no no, we can’t do that”, the assistant director scratched his scalp. We still had two scenes to shoot after that. All eyes were on the baby who was rolling his eyes over the crowd around him with a big smile on his face.
The Chinese nun standing next to me grew impatient. “Just spank the baby”. She gushed it out in a low voice that was a mixture of contempt and confusion. She turned to look at me who still pointed a mic at her, “tell the foreigners that in China we spanked our new-borns to get them to cry and breathe. A little spanking is nothing new.”
Which reminded me of the story my mom loves to tell, that when I was born I was quiet as a dead baby; they had to spank me for a long time before I started to breathe. Sometimes she would reminiscence, “you just wouldn’t be able to understand how happy I was when you started crying.”
Maybe the spanking, at my birth and many subsequent years, was the root cause of many of my dysfunctional personality traits.
I looked at the actress holding the baby and decided not to do the translation. The director, now at his wit’s end, suddenly took over the baby. He held the baby up and stared straight into his tiny curious and smiling Chinese eyes.
“Now think about something sad in your life”, he started half-seriously with the baby, “maybe the family reunion at last Christmas.” Ah, the routine dysfunctional American family tragedy. “But wait,” he realized something, “you are Chinese and you don’t celebrate Christmas.” Pause. “How sad. You won’t have Christmas.”
As if some chord inside his chubby body was stricken, the baby looked up at the vast studio ceiling, with all the blinding lights that were creating the illusion of a sunny day on a dark late night, and he started crying a resounding soulful cry.
Everybody rushed back to positions like rats being chased by a cat. We kept on rolling until we got several good takes of the Chinese baby wailing in the awkward hands of an American lady.