Using diplomacy to film in China Movie: A U.S. producer making a romantic comedy has to negotiate location shoots, casting and script revisions.

October 18, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- When Peter Shiao talks about the challenges of making a romantic comedy about 20-something Americans in China, he sounds more like a diplomat than a movie producer.

His small, Los Angeles-based independent film company, Celestial Pictures, is shooting its first movie, "Restless," on the streets of Beijing. The production follows more than 200 other joint ventures between the Chinese and foreigners since China opened its doors to the world in 1978 -- including the "The Last Emperor" a decade ago.

In the preparation and shooting that began early last month and ends next week, Shiao discovered how tough it remains for a Sino-U.S. production team to make even a small, apolitical film in the chaotic capital of the world's last major Communist regime.

Shiao has had to negotiate with the Chinese government over location shots, casting decisions and six script revisions while trying to keep relations calm between his bicultural cast and crew on a set where none of the American actors speaks Mandarin.

The 30-year-old producer, who learned Mandarin from his parents while growing up in Los Angeles, spent five months going over the script with officials here.

The film focuses on the friendships, romances and conflicts between young Americans and Chinese in this rapidly modernizing city, with no mention of such sensitive subjects as China's human rights record. So, the issues were more a matter of taste than politics.

The film script called for an opening scene that read like this: "INTERIOR. LEAH'S HOUSE, BEDROOM -- MORNING. The SOUND of a WOMAN in extravagant, almost preposterous sexual rapture. Her delighted SQUEAL melts into a BREATHY SIGH -- then a SAVORY CACKLE."

That might be fine in the United States, but at a time when Chinese leaders continue to warn against "spiritual pollution" from the West, China's Film Bureau thought it was a bit too much.

Chinese audiences won't be hearing the rapture with the squeal, the sigh and the cackle.

"Now, it's just 'giggling,' " says Catherine Kellner, who has appeared in movies such as "Rosewood" and "Six Degrees of Separation," and plays Leah, a 27-year-old American expatriate.

At one point, Chinese officials threatened to shut down the production because Shiao wanted to cast Shiang-Chyi Chen, a Taiwanese actress, in the lead Chinese female role.

The government said it didn't think a Taiwanese woman could play a mainlander convincingly.

Although Taiwanese actors routinely appear in mainland Chinese films, politics might have contributed to the government's objections. Exile home to the Nationalists who lost the civil war in 1949, Taiwan is embarrassingly more prosperous and sophisticated than its giant neighbor.

Shiao believes the Chinese authorities were mollified after he agreed to place other mainlanders in key roles.

"I think we chose the road of 'engagement,' " says Shiao, alluding to the Clinton administration's policy toward China that favors negotiation over confrontation. "Our movie was finally approved the day we started shooting."

And then there was culture shock.

When the American actors stepped off the plane in Beijing, none had ever set foot in China before, and little could have prepared them for the working conditions -- especially the lack of privacy.

American actors often have dressing rooms or other spots set aside where they can change clothes and concentrate before a scene. Beijing is a crowded city of 12 million where families live in homes the size of a college dorm room. Actors sometimes change in the streets.

"Everybody is together all the time," says Kellner. "I just need a place to go away and focus."

Shooting amid the cacophony of car horns and bicycle bells sometimes broke the American actors' concentration, requiring the cameramen to shoot scenes again.

"It doesn't take much for them to wig out, and the Chinese crew doesn't understand that," says Jule Gilfillan, a first-time feature director and writer, who is originally from Oregon and studied at the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1990s.

Even Taiwan's Shiang was in for a jolt. She has a master's degree in theater from New York University but had never visited China. "Actually, for me, the culture shock is from mainland China, not from the American crew," she says.

Beijing, with its growing number of modern buildings, cellular phones and foreign cars, is more advanced than she had imagined, and yet backward at the same time. While filming scenes around the Forbidden City, she had to use one of China's infamous public toilets -- little more than a foul-smelling trench.

"I couldn't believe that," says Shiang, who is so determined never to have to use the public facilities again that she no longer drinks water on outside shoots.

The production felt like a step up for some of the Chinese. Geng Le, who plays a Chinese chess master and one of Leah's love interests, says he has never worked on a set where so many people seemed so concerned about his well-being.

"The big difference to me is they take care of actors and actresses," says Geng, a personable 26-year-old. "They always ask you: 'Are you OK? Did you get the new script? Do you have time to come today?' "

"Of course, I have time," says Geng, unaccustomed to and slightly amused by the politeness. "It's my job."

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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