My wife made her way back to Finland after all. She was sending me images on the way: a slumped-over 150kg Russian bear-of-a-man sleeping his head on her shoulder in the plane. The slush-ridden, gray and dark Finland December. Her in our super-comfortable Tempur bed, wrapped in bedsheets. I’ve now been here 120 days, and I can barely remember how our home smells like. It’s been a long time getting from here to there, but not that much to go anymore!
In this blog, I’ve described my stages of integrating to the Chinese culture. It started with going through the four stages of culture shock – the honeymoon, the frustration, the adjustment and, eventually, acceptance. What appeared annoying to me 120 days ago feels now normal, understandable and something I can work my way around.
During these 120 days I’ve learned to love the Chinese cuisine. In Western countries, one might think they’ve had some good Chinese food, but before you really experience the mainland China, you know nothing, Jon Snow. I’ve only had a chance to enjoy Beijing and Qingdao cuisine in depth, and both of them have shown that few thousands of years of culture and human lives create something that can’t be described as “Chinese cuisine”, but must be broken to smaller pieces, to areas, provinces, cooking styles and so forth.
I’ve also admired the Chinese working culture. The Chinese are hard workers, there is no doubt about it. When on a job – like on a film project – they are tireless. They work long, hard days and very rarely complain. They want to achieve the best result in whatever position they are in the production, and are willing to go through huge stretches of work to reach there. Working on a set, it’s interesting to see how things happen fast when they need to happen: one command, and ten people are running with cables, tracks or tools to fix whatever needs to be fixed. You never see that anywhere else. And the commands are responded with a prompt holler: when 1st AD shouts: “props”” (meaning a person in charge of on-set props), everyone in that position instantly hollers back (something I believe means: “here!”. Same with costume: you need the costume, just say the word and they come running.
And it’s not just when shooting. The art direction, for example, is amazing. They pull out great concepts, plans and build sets out of nothing in mere seconds. I did hear that all in all our whole crew here is whopping 470 people, including all the set-builders and crew that are not constantly on set. The costume team is working hard to dress our hundreds of extras and the the office people – ones easily forgotten if you only go back and forth between the hotel and the set – are doing amazing job. All in all, we have an amazing film crew working hard on realizing my vision, and I’m nothing short of grateful to their effort.
Language barrier is still quite heavy on me, both on set and off-set, and Chinese body image does sometimes surprise. Here, they find no problem describing people as “fat” or “ugly”, which would be a big no-no in Europe or USA. But it’s easy to go by these remarks with a shrug: my job is not here to start lecturing every Chinese about how to address people; whatever cultural exchange I’m bringing here will be brought through my work. And then there’s the Chinese culture of avoiding to say directly anything. You rarely get a clear “yes” or “no” to anything, it’s always something in between, and it’s up to you to deduct which way it would be leaning. Duan Yihong specifically explained in-depth me the phrase, which roughly translates to: “I’ll think about it”.
On personal level, I’ve learned also a lot about loneliness, and how it can break you in pieces. I’m working with loads of great people here on daily basis, but if I had nobody to share my experiences with, I’d be a mess. We have established this pattern of WhatsApp calls with my wife here, where we speak about an hour every night, just going through the day on both ends and sharing our thoughts and feelings on everything – news, people, social media and our work. And of course our favourite topic: us. Plus, we discuss our children a lot. We talk almost like we were together in bed, and although the time difference is quite drastic (6 hours between Finland and China), we somehow manage to make this thing work on a daily basis.
And of course, I have Mika, and a selection of my countrymen coming in and out: Roope and Pekka were a great addition to my daily life. I also have some of my actors whom I have bonded more with: Udo is a great friend of mine, and he made a quick appearance here in China; Malla Malmivaara, a Finnish actress whom I didn’t know before, came here and spent two weeks here, and we became friends. Dalan Musson, writer for Iron Sky The Coming Race and Iron Sky: The Ark, who also plays a small role in the film, was a great delight when he showed up for two occasions. With Andy, we’ve had tons of great dinners already by now and I can’t get bored to his endless wealth of stories and lessons in filmmaking. I’ve also been watching his older movies to catch up with his life’s work – just last night I saw Internal Affairs where he plays against Richard Gere, from 1990 – and while I’m a fan, I try to keep the fandom at bay and work as a director with him.
The Chinese cast is, of course, harder to approach because – again – the language barrier. Duan Yihong is a wonderful actor, a real artist who has been teaching me so much about Chinese culture, about his art as an actor and this world. The kids – Liang and Yi – are brilliant and fun bunch, who can say “how do you do” when I come to the set, but are 250% in their roles and throwing themselves into the characters like nobody I’ve seen before! They didn’t know each other when we started, but they needed to play best pals: now I see them on screen and I can’t think of anything else but two best friends in the middle of all these crazy sets.
And of course, then there’s Vivienne, our leading lady who came from the States after facing being a typecasted “Asian girl nr. 3” in Hollywood pictures to create her career here. She is an absolute wonder, hard-working and bullheaded girl who’s set to march through a bunch of expectations built on Chinese female lead and present a new kind of a hero in science fiction films, and Chinese films as well. I’ve enjoyed thoroughly working with her, and her attitude is the one thing that makes me appreciate her the most.
On the production side, there’s Max whom we worked very tightly in the pre-production, shared stories and thoughts on the film – and films in general – and although he is not daily on set, whenever he shows his smiling face, I feel at home. My first AD Lei is also a great company, having been in school in USA to an artist family, he is a great bridge between Western and Chinese worlds, one without whom we would be in great trouble. I also have a great respect for our production manager mr. Zhu, who, although doesn’t speak any English, makes sure I have everything I need to make the best movie possible (and keeps me supplied with Chinese white wine, which I’ve told in this blog more than enough already).
In other departments, we have great people I’ve learned to know a bit more, Barron (not his Chinese name), our 2nd 2nd AD, and Maxine our 2nd AD, and Alain our 3rd AD are all super good at their job (my AD department is just amazing, I have to say), there’s wonderful and understanding people in casting department (Ma Kun for example), and camera department where Jonathan is the key between Mika and the cameras, a young kid with enormous interest in film and game business… and so many more.
So, I’m not lonely during the days, but when the hotel room closes, it sits in. The fact that I’ve been 120 days apart from my son, I see my wife only rarely and I haven’t seen my parents and my sister in a long, long time.
So, however much I’ve enjoyed these 120 days in China, I can’t wait to see my loved ones back in Finland. So if you guys are reading, only one month to go and I’m on a plane back home.
Then, let’s catch up.