Thursday, May 14, 2009

To Catch a White Wolf with Bare Hands

The cliché goes—in the new Wild Wild East of China, anything is possible. Tiring as it is, clichés do seem to exist for a reason.

In early 2006, Betty, a Chinese screenwriter friend living in Los Angeles, forwarded me a movie script in English and asked if I could help rewrite. I was having a two-year filmmaking stint then. There was a small circle of bilingual filmmakers in Beijing who, like me, were trying to leverage the West’s growing fascination with China to work on co-production projects.

But few seemed ever to pan out. Some American independent producers I knew made frequent trips to China, visiting film studios and attending film conferences as “Hollywood experts.” The scripts that they pitched varied from mediocre to trash. One such meeting that I attended was about a 3-D film of humans battling giant alien lizards in the Gobi desert. I admired the Chinese studio head for his patient smile throughout the session.

The central issue, like always, is about money. The most difficult for independent producers is to find the “first money”— usually with nothing more than a script, suggested star castings, and a fantasy revenue forecast—to attract later investors. In an industry well known for its crapshoots, this routine always reminded me of the Chinese saying, “to catch a white wolf with bare hands.”

None of the stereotypes seemed to apply to the project referred by Betty, however. For one, the producer had a real office (albeit in an apartment building) staffed with young faces apparently busy in front of computers. Secondly, he did not mention the need for financing once in our two-hour conversation.

“During my most recent trip to Hollywood, I met with executives from Warner Brothers and Dreamworks,” he said with a deep southern accent. “Your friend Betty helped me a lot. She recommended you to help clean up the English translation of the script.”

No wonder—Betty, an established screenwriter, would never associate herself with such a project. It was a story about an American stranded in Beijing, having a relationship with a Chinese girl while still pining for a Middle-eastern girl whom he had met in Paris and who was now trapped in her war-torn home country. It had all the clichés of a Chinese melodrama and none of the cultural understanding of foreign countries. Structurally, it also needed a complete rewrite.

“I wrote the script myself,” the producer announced proudly. He looked like your average Chinese businessman with his chubby face, faded zipper jacket, and a man-purse on the coffee table. “The West has Gone With the Wind and the Titanic. It’s time that we Chinese have a similar movie classic. Once the script is finished, I’ll go back to Dreamworks and ask Steven Spielberg to direct it.”

That made me gasp. I gathered that he had made a fortune from somewhere; he was an avid movie fan and it was his first time at filmmaking. But hiring Steven Spielberg?

Soon after the meeting I had to leave Beijing for six months and forgot completely about the project. In late 2007, while having coffee with a French filmmaker friend, she told me that she had been working on pre-production for a tri-country love story set in Beijing.

It shocked me that the project had survived this long. Then a year later, after the Beijing Olympics, posters for the movie suddenly popped up at all the Beijing subway stations and bus stops. The entrepreneur-writer-producer ended up directing the film himself. He invited the biggest Chinese movie stars to the premier, and in the press, there was orchestrated fanfare of the movie going to the Oscars!

That the movie opened to a box-office disaster did not shock me. Internet users gossiped that he made the movie on borrowed money and was now in big trouble with the debtors.

I never watched the movie. But the more I think about his story, the more my respect for him grew—fool or not, bare-handed or not, he had a great dream of the white wolf and he went after it persistently until catching it.

With people like him, no wonder people call China the new Wild Wild East.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Lesson of Happiness

Ben was my Ph.D. advisor in Boston. I have forgotten all of what he had taught me about evolution and molecular biology. One thing I do remember clearly was what he had said to me once at his house party, back in 1994.

His family had just moved into a beautiful colonial house in Cambridge and invited everyone working in his lab over for a party. While all the adults chatted over free flowing white wine, his preschool twin girls chased each other around, scattering pearls of laughter in every room.

“They are so cute,” I said to Ben. “Which one is smarter?”

Ben immediately pulled me aside and whispered: “We shouldn’t say anything putting either down. They are both great in their own ways.”

I remember being very embarrassed by my cultural faux pas. To us Chinese, to be put down, by parents and by our peers, is a natural part of growing up. In high school, my grades were never good enough for my parents. When I was number 2 in my class, they pointed to number 1. When I reached number 1, they pointed to some genius who had just won the Maths Olympiad.

But Americans tend to believe in the power of encouragement and positive outlook on life. Thus one often hears enthusiastic “super,” “awesome,” “fantastic,” and “good job!” To us Chinese, how could that kind of seemingly superficial praise really encourage hard work and achievement?

Ben seemed a prime counter example to that Chinese prejudice. In his teenage years, he dropped out of school and worked in hospital, construction and boat building. Then he went to a community college for his associate degree. It was there, at the age of 23, that he discovered his passion for science. He studied hard, received top grades and transferred to Berkeley. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he studied at Harvard for his Ph.D. and later did post-doc work at the prestigious Mass General Hospital.

As a balding tenure-track professor, he still sported a child-like grin in the lab. He spent most of his time in his small office, among piles and piles of littered paper, reading, thinking and every once in a while, jumping out into the lab area and proclaiming another breakthrough in his thinking. Sometimes I wondered whether he could have come this far if his American family had not supported his early wandering, or if he had been raised in China, being constantly put down and laughed at as a vagabond.

However, Ben’s positive attitude did not get him to the top. He chose an exciting yet extremely risky research topic. After six years, he did not find any major breakthrough and thus did not get his tenure.
I left graduate school before he did. Ben did not try to convince me to stay. Unlike the other professors in our department, he had never frowned upon my taking French lessons or auditing psychology classes. He must have sensed that in some way I was following his footstep.

I wandered—worked in biotech company, moved around the US, went into business, moved back to China to take up filmmaking ... Every time I made a change, my Chinese friends tended to put me down, while my American friends cheer me on. Some days I felt lost and worthless, and others ecstatic at being able to do what I loved.

Now many years later, I am back in business, older, calmer and happier. A week ago, I searched online to find Ben’s whereabouts. Apparently he had started a biotech company that appeared somewhat successful.

Still, what a pity that Ben did not become an academic star with all his intelligence and hard work? I thought.

Then I remembered his child-like grin. I knew regardless of how other felt about his path, he had been enjoying what he did all along.

It was then that I realized what Ben had taught me is not that encouragement and positive attitude beget success; rather, they allow us to try things appealing to our hearts, which, ultimately, make us happy.