New Shoots, New Cities
I just got back from Tianjin yesterday, which is located a just a half-hour via high-speed rail from Beijing. I was acting in a promotional film for the Tianjin Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. Tianjin is a unique Chinese city with an emphasis on tourism that stems from its closeness to the sea and its history of western occupation, which has left it a few 18th century European architectural relics (and a bunch more built later by the Chinese to increase tourism prospects). Yet I only got to walk down one street, called Italian Street, while I was there. Despite the name, it hosted a potpourri of buildings from various Western countries, including the German Beer Haus, French Gourmet Restaurant, and American BBQ Shack, each with their own distinct milieu. There were many other attractions here, but since I was filming, I went straight to this Disneyland version of Europe and proceeded to wait for the crew to arrive.
A little doll-faced Chinese make-up girl with bright fire-red Anime hair had escorted a French actress and I to the site from the train station at 8 in the morning. We sat there in the middle of a park filled with statues of great western classical composers, shielding our faces from the sandy winds for three hours, while the film crew decided to get stuck in traffic back in Beijing. Finally, when they arrived, they found that we had sneaked into the Beer Haus and ordered some expensive coffee. They apologized not orally but by paying the bill.
Shooting time! The film crew grabbed some random good-lookers off the street and paid them some amount of cash to play our background. The French girl didn't enjoy drinking beer, so it was much to her chagrin that the scene was going to involve dozens of takes of us two westerners at an outdoor cafe clinking glasses and gulping a mouthful of German brew. I, on the other hand, am a fan of the Hefeweizen. Yet by the 15th take I started to regret getting so into my part (remember it is 10am in the morning). Still, I pulled through. All the extras got to come to our table for a final toasting shot at the end, and everyone was giddy and high by lunchtime.
We were treated to a North-Western Chinese lunch (scarce cuisine in the US, and I recommend!), and then were sent on the train back to Beijing with no idea what Tianjin looked like at all. That's showbiz, I suppose!
The same thing happened last week when I went to Shanghai to help shoot a spot for the Luxembourg Pavilion there. It was pretty thrilling to get a VIP pass into the site before the mass crowds started appearing (indeed, many of the pavilions were still under construction, but they already looked state-of-the-art). Yet I missed seeing Shanghai's sites. Mainly, it was just this one thing I really wanted to see: The Shanghai World Financial Center... aka, The New Tallest Building in China. Passing by it in the taxi, I couldn't see the top. It was lost in the clouds...!
At least back in 2006, when I went to Lhasa, Tibet, for a documentary reenactment, I had some time to look around. Half the reason was that the film crew was recovering from chunk-blowing altitude sickness. Fortunately, I personally didn't get the ill until the 7th day we were there, when we scaled upward beyond Lhasa to a ridge at over 17,000 ft and pitched tents with only a boiler pot, 20 whole potatoes and a bunch of yak meat to sustain ourselves for two days. There we shot a climbing scene in which a I had to scale up a cliff in a snow blizzard wearing an 18th century Hindi shawl and turban, while a Chinese camera crew yelled directions from a safe distance. I still clearly remember the faces of the local Tibetan farmers that walked up next to me unaware that we were shooting a film and stared with their arms folded as I grasped for sturdy ledges and continued my attempt to act. We returned to Lhasa two days later and I got to go to the largest Buddhist temple in China, the massive Potala Palace, before hitching a flight back to Beijing. That was the full-deal experience: acting, travel and hilariously deadly adventure.
Looking forward to explore more of China on a future shoot. And next time, I'll make sure I have a little more time to look around!
(Photos by Liu Yitong and CCTV)
-- Nathaniel Boyd