Tea War Shoot Continues in Yunnan
I just arrived back in Beijing last night at 11pm, after a transfer flight from San Francisco via Seattle. Dead tired, but unable to sleep, I rose from my linens at 4am and started composing this blog.
The tea war movie continued into mid-may, until I was given a 2-week vacation and utilized the time for an emergency set of errand runs in the States. Before I left, I spent my days in the lazy atmosphere of a single-story hotel atop a small hill in the Pu-er county of Yunnan province. There were 3 to 5 days between my scenes at times, so I had set out on a few small adventures with some of the other actors there. These usually ended in playing guitar and/or singing with some of the local ethnic minority cultures (non-Han) such as the Dai, Va, Lahu, Hani, Blang, Bai or Yi peoples in the area. We drank at local bars which consisted of a table lined with four or five jars of different colored liquids; we ate at some local cafes in which barbecued meats arrived that were at times unrequested.
On the nights I stayed in my room, I mostly worked on translating my mother's script into Chinese for her, and doused myself heavily in mosquito repellent. Yet there must have been one night where there seasons changed there, for my room was inundated with directionless swarms of mini-moths and flying ant-like things. None of them seemed to pose any harm, but they were damned annoying. I waged a two-hour battle against them on into the night, killing hundreds before my room was peaceful enough to sleep. Going online at the hotel required moving out of one's room and into a pagoda located in the central courtyard, just to find a wifi signal. This provided the opportunity to meet new friends, but also put one within audible distance of the daily afternoon hog slaughtering at a nearby farm.
The days on set were long and tiring, but fascinating. Every day it was an hour and a half trek by van up a dusty road from the hotel to a mountain top covered in tea forests. There was a village there as well, owned and operated for thousands of years by a low-key people called the Blang (worldwide population 40k). Most of the shooting was done in this forest or the village. Originally, the Blang citizens wouldn't allow the film crew to shoot their village, despite having clearance from the local government. After a long two days of negotiation, the village was finally opened up for filming. When the neighboring Dai people were commissioned as extras, the Blang again complained. This time the issue was that they would not be filmed together with the Dai, (perhaps some age-old tea feud a la Hatfields and McCoys?) Finally, when that was solved, the Dai themselves objected to their script moniker of "Dai Soldiers" and refused to continue until the script was edited to show their rightful titles: "Royal Warriors". A few of these conflicts consisted of the local tribes brandishing knives.
I felt bad for the Chinese crew members that were charged with resolving these conflicts, but it was worth it. The village was a piece of well-preserved history, and the result was majestic. On the last day of shooting there, a festival scene was choreographed. A group of Va dancers was summoned to perform their native Hair-Flail Dance, which was like a mixture of Burmese traditional dance, and death metal headbanging.
There was only one other foriegner in this production, and he was also American. A spry old 60-something San Franciscan guitar crooner with a few years of history in almost every major world continent, he had entered China first in the mid-70s, and has been learning the language off and on ever since. Still, due to his age he has learned slowly and, though fluent, he speaks Mandarin with an oddly cute stutter that has the director laughing good-naturedly after every "CUT!"
Also of note was a young Chinese child actor who was so whip-smart that I called him the Prodigy and proclaimed that he was the smartest person in the production. Despite only being 10 years old, he would have rather deep philosophical conversations with me on set, and at times bring pieces of gnarled wood or rocks over to me that he thought would make nice living room art work.
While I was Stateside I bought some goodies for the whiz kid---as well as the rest of the crew---whom I plan to meet up with tomorrow morning on set. If all goes as planned, I will fly out tonight from Beijing and arrive in Yunnan's larger city of Dali before midnight. More jungle trekking adventures on the way!
Photos by Nathaniel Boyd
-- Nathaniel Boyd