One of the things that everyone who has ever seen one film about Beijing knows is the local Hutong areas. Hutongs are typical Beijing local areas of small streets and a certain type of old buildings around them, located in the heart of Old Beijing. These street corners have been here forever – first ones were already built in the 13th century, so their historical and cultural importance is immeasurable.
Immeasurable to the level that it’s absolutely forbidden to shoot a movie in there. Of course, being Chinese, these crafty bastards have circled the issue and built at least two hutong sets in Beijing area: one in China Film Studios, the other one somewhere outside the city. And since we’re shooting in Wanda Studios in Qingdao, the production rather wants us to use the one outside the city.
We set in the car for over one hour to get to this one abandoned, huge warehouse located amidst some old, rotting buildings and a desolate lot which looks more like a place where the mobsters dump their bodies than an area to shoot movies. But lo and behold, stepping inside the warehouse is like stepping in a completely different world. A perfectly crafted Hutong streets spread suddenly in front of us, with flying walls (that’s a term for a removable wall, sounds better that way – and much easier, gives you an impression that moving the wall can be fast and easy like flying – I can tell you it takes hours of shooting time every time anyone so much as mentions a flying wall), green screens and whatnots. And inside the buildings, perfectly crafted houses, almost like the Chinese families living here had just taken all their furniture, trash, posters and vehicles and left, leaving empty buildings behind. I was, of course, very happy to get a fully crafted set for my use, and so was the poor production designer Gordon Lee, who already has a world and a half to build – and we’re shooting in just over a month from today!
Back at the office, we had a huge planning day with the stunts coordinator set out for us. We have basically storyboarded every scene in the film, and now it’s time to start splitting the scenes into single shots, into camera setups and into concrete shooting days. But this meeting was not about that – it was about the stunts. We had chosen two main stunt-requiring sequences of the film and broke them down into shooting days and what we’re planning to shoot every day. We had (well, Mika had, I would never have enough discipline for that) drawn maps of every location, pointed out every explosion, every special feature and every piece where something will happen in detail.
Our action coordinator, mr. Liu, is a great guy. He’s quite a silent type, unlike most of the stunt people whom I’ve worked with – they tend to be many, rowdy bunch of guys who love to play out their stunts, come up constantly with exciting ideas and loudly explain them. But not mr. Liu. Mr. Liu sits in the corner, listens dutifully as me and Mika blast away our plans on how to shoot this stunt, how to crash this guy through this piece of wall. When he speaks, he speaks with a soft voice, but he’s always on top of his game: he’s ready to suggest multiple ideas, all very story-driven (another feature that’s not as common in stunts as one would hope), but listens carefully to our wishes.
We sat around the storyboards and the plans for hours, but managed only to finish two sequences – but these sequences are already two of the three actual main action sequences, so we were pretty good. We decided to give it a Saturday celebration, since Sunday was a day off, and although Mika had to stay back and had another discussion with the gaffer, I headed back home.
Now, no matter what anyone says, understand one thing: in Beijing, nobody speaks English. And by “not speaking” I mean they have absolutely no kind of a vocabulary. For example, today I went to a restaurant and asked for a toilet. None of the five people had ever heard that word. Then, I asked for a Coke to go with my noodles. Five people, again, and nobody had any idea what I was talking. Google Image Search didn’t help much: the red Coca-Cola logo didn’t ring any bells – until one of them spotted the Chinese-written Coca-Cola sign on one of the thumbnails, ran to a big container full of Coke cans and asked (well, communicated) if this was what I wanted. Yeah. So no, nobody in Beijing speaks English. That’s rule nr. 1. Rule nr. 2 is: don’t get frustrated by it. Remember, it’s actually *you* who don’t speak any Chinese. I have no idea what a “toilet” is in Chinese, or “Coca-Cola”, so I’m no better – besides, I’m in their home turf, they are not responsible for learning my language… But still, you would think in a restaurant people speak few words. But let’s leave it at that.
Mika had his own trials with the gaffer. Being an extremely fast-paced and technical job which relies heavily on the duality of a Director of Photography and gaffer (that’s the guy who does all the lighting), a common language would be helpful. But in this case, there is none. Only way for Mika to communicate – and they even had a translator, but really you have to know the terms and the equipment so well to be able to be helpful – was by drawing the style of equipment they needed. Later on he looked like he had been drive over by a truck…
We enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant Nola. Well, there was one hiccup: a woman came in with a scruffy dog. I’ve seen her there before, and warned Mika: she has absolutely no control over her dog. And it became very apparent quickly: the dog was sniffing under everyone’s table, and that’s fine for me (for others it may be a nuisance, but I like dogs, although I’m a bit allergic to them so I try not petting too much), but in addition to this, the dog is fucking loud. He barks out happily, loudly, randomly and constantly – and even that is bearable. Like I said, I like dogs. Sometimes, dogs do bark. But what I can’t stand is people who can’t handle their dogs. If you want a dog so badly, at least take a moment to learn to work with it. What she was doing was rather appalling: when the dog wanted to go somewhere, she grabbed it by the tail and dragged it. Of course, it was yelping. And when it did that, she slapped it in the head. So the dog was totally confused: whatever it was doing was apparently wrong.
We had to move inside before getting into a fight with this madame. Fuck her. Some people shouldn’t have a dog…
Later, I introduced Maggie’s to Mika. It was another rather slow night, although it was nearly midnight on Saturday. The same band was playing the same versions of the same songs, as they have done every day for the last God knows how many years… My friend bartender was there, so were the pretty girls who spotted me – the big tattooed guy – instantly and came swarming about. We had few drinks there with Mika, talking about everything between the Earth and the sky above it, and I did a bit more of people-ogling. This time, a group of ugly fat businessmen had parked their asses into one of the cabinets, and pretty callgirls were swarming around them. The evening was headed for something I’d rather not picture, and didn’t care to stay to witness more, so we decided it’s time to head back home.