China Town

A film crew from mainland China comes to St. Louis to make a movie about the cultural conflicts that occur when East meets West

A temperate warm morning in February, a forecast of 60 degrees by midafternoon. Those working in the glamorous international film industry in St. Louis this day, however, are sequestered under the concrete overpasses and parking platforms at Lambert Airport. Here, members of the crew are bundled in winter coats, some with fleece-lined hoods. It's not bitterly cold, but if you're involved in the filmmaking process, which mostly entails long periods of waiting -- waiting for light, waiting for equipment, waiting for the camera crew, waiting for the sound crew, waiting for costumes, waiting for makeup -- it's cold enough to make you wish you were in some less glamorous occupation where there's a chair, heat and comfort.

The international film star isn't complaining. He keeps himself active, stretching, running in place, employing what look like martial-arts moves and, with remarkable ease, kicking one foot above his head in a single quick motion.

Eventually he's called for yet another take of this morning's scene. He walks hand-in-hand with the 5-year-old boy who plays his son. He hears something that alarms him. He swiftly picks up the boy and runs across the street. At the conclusion of the take, he makes frantic hand gestures to one of the numerous production assistants, who runs to them with a winter coat for the boy. The child actor -- at least on this movie -- gets a lot more attention and pampering than the international film star.

Tony Leung and Xu Zhu between takes of a scene in Gua Sha.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tony Leung and Xu Zhu between takes of a scene in Gua Sha.
St. Louis' Dennis Zhu: The 5-year-old actor gets more attention on the set than the international film star.
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis' Dennis Zhu: The 5-year-old actor gets more attention on the set than the international film star.

During another break in the shooting, pedestrians are allowed to walk across the set, and an older couple -- call them Mr. and Mrs. Belleville -- on their way to pick up a relative stroll past the actor some consider the Tom Cruise of China with hardly a nod. Tony Leung politely lets them pass, smiling to himself.

Leung, if he's known at all to American filmgoers, is known for being the object of a young French girl's desire in the sultry international hit The Lover, based on the novel by Marguerite Duras. But Leung has made dozens of films, both in Europe and in the thriving Hong Kong film industry. His name alone would probably be enough to make Gua Sha (The Treatment), currently being filmed in St. Louis, a success on its initial Beijing release.

But Gua Sha is more than a Tony Leung dramatic star turn. He plays opposite Wenli Jiang, seen in the critically and popularly successful Farewell, My Concubine and the recipient of both China's Aspara and Golden Eagle awards (American co-producer Mark Byers compares the presence of Leung and Jiang in a Chinese film to having Harrison Ford and Meg Ryan in an American production). Leung's father is played by Xu Zhu, star of the emotionally wrenching King of Masks, for which he won Best Actor at the Tokyo Film Festival. Director Zheng Xiaolong is credited with making the most popular and critically prized Chinese television series of all time, a tragic out-of-towners tale of Chinese immigrants in the Big Apple whose title has been translated into the inelegant Beijing Natives in New York.

Despite a formidable combination of mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and American talent, Leung still stands out as the sexy heartthrob. Co-producer Byers -- who walks about the set wearing a headset, silver-haired, unflappable -- warns that Leung is media-shy. The day before, after playing a farewell scene with Xu Zhu that brought some members of the crew to tears, Leung was too emotionally spent for a brief interview.

The morning in the cold under the concrete overpasses, however, after lugging a 5-year-old any number of times for the whirring cameras, after -- very un-Tom Cruise-like -- moving some orange guard barrels out of the way to prepare another scene, after testing the green Jaguar for the forthcoming getaway shot, the media-shy Leung is remarkably affable. He takes time to explain the scene from the day before, "the most important scene in the movie."

In the story, the grandfather has practiced gua sha -- an ancient treatment that mysteriously drains toxins from the body but also leaves significant bruising -- on the young boy. The boy's American teacher suspects abuse. Now the grandfather chooses to return to Beijing because of all the troubles he's caused. In the scene, the old man dissuades his son from impetuously returning with him, imploring him to face his responsibilities in his new homeland.

"It's my great pleasure to work with actors like this," says Leung. When the RFT photographer tells him she's familiar with Xu Zhu's performance in King of Masks, Leung becomes animated, bringing his hands to his face, saying, "Oh, you have to cry just to think about that movie."

He's funny, teasing. When asked how he maintains concentration in the midst of the chaos of the stage set, he deadpans, "Because I am a professional," then turns away laughing at his mock-seriousness. This is his first film working with a child actor, and, Leung discloses, "In Hong Kong we say, "If there's kids or dogs, run the other way.'"

He was attracted to Gua Sha for its director, whom Leung admires, and the script, which he read in its first draft: "There is a message inside, telling people that although Chinese and Americans are so close -- for 100 years there have been Chinese in America -- still there are differences of culture."

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