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

Whatever those differences are, Leung is so utterly charming, the chill of the parking garage is forgotten. Tom Cruise could never be this sweet.

Leung's demeanor complements the overall congeniality of the set, which is notable, what with the international diversity of the company. Co-producer Byers sees it as proof of the adage that "film is the universal language." Byers first joined the project as the sole American collaborating with the three-member Chinese screenwriting team. He then became partners with Victor Lee, a Chinese producer who has lived in and worked from Los Angeles for a number of years. Byers knew nothing of director Zheng's work until he actually went to China and learned of the immense impact of Beijing Natives, which Byers says was popular in the way ER has been here, on the television industry. Soon, Byers found himself in Beijing planning meetings where the only language spoken was Mandarin. He surprised his foreign colleagues, however, showing a remarkably accurate understanding of what was being discussed. "I've been in enough of those meetings," he says, "I knew what was being talked about when."

St. Louis is another country, too, and Byers admits to some frustrations. Working in LA or New York, any special equipment is immediately available; here, things need to be FedExed from Chicago, causing minor delays that nevertheless put a crimp in Gua Sha's minuscule $2 million budget. But Byers has no complaints about the St. Louis production team: "We feared missing world-class crews" by coming to St. Louis, "but the locals are definitely world-class."

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.

Those feelings are mutual, as locals involved with Gua Sha attest. David Houlle of Sight and Sound Productions -- they're the ones with the equipment whenever filmmakers come to town -- remarks on the professionalism of the Chinese crew. Jerry Jones, the new director of the Missouri Film Commission, has visited the set and comments, as others do, on the speed and efficiency of Zheng's film team. In the act of setting up a new shot, which entails a collective effort by dozens of people moving equipment, Jones reports, "They're faster than anybody I've ever seen." Byers observes that the St. Louis and Chinese crews are "bringing out the best in each other. It's like watching a ballet."

With all the consideration of detail, precision, efficiency and accounting, the one who receives the most attention on set is Dennis Zhu, the boy playing Leung's and Jiang's child. Before the production company arrived, a call for a child actor went through the local Chinese press and the Chinese-immigrant grapevine. Zhu was discovered at the St. Louis Modern Chinese School in the Central West End. Although he's never done any acting before, he's a natural. Whenever a camera is near, he sits up and becomes attentive. He's enjoying his first film experience, judging acting to be "like playing." He finds his fellow actors "nice to work with," although the duration of some scenes makes him "sort of get tired."

Byers picks up Zhu and gives him an upside-down view of Lambert's East Terminal. Byers is planning on a Beijing release around Christmastime, "which will get the full star treatment." Although "action pictures rule all over," says Byers, the leading actors are generating considerable interest in Gua Sha. The filmmakers hope for international distribution by early 2001. "It will be a nice art-house picture," Byers says.

One of the Chinese scriptwriters interrupts Byers. He's missed a beautiful scene, she tells him -- the one where Tony Leung and Xu Zhu will make those art houses cry, in any language.

Zheng Xiaolong takes time for an interview in the Plaza Square apartments, where the production company has taken up residence on the 12th floor. Zheng looks in every way the calm, resilient center in the midst of filmmaking turmoil. With so many problems calling for solutions, he sets his pack of American cigarettes on the coffee table and sets into talking at length about his film, speaking through an interpreter. Zheng is squarely built and dressed casually in a faded blue sweater. On the end table beside him are stacks of audition tapes and a selection of DVDs.

He explains that he first thought of filming Gua Sha in New York but came to realize that the culture clash that occurs in the film probably would not occur in a city so international in scope. "I don't feel foreign in New York," he observes. "I do here."

He believes that St. Louis, as a Midwestern city, more ably represents mainstream America and provides a more realistic setting for Gua Sha. Also, for the Chinese audience, "The look of the film will be very different because St. Louis is not known." He has enjoyed scouting locations, especially impressed by the look of City Hall and the Old Court House. City Hall in University City, Laclede's Landing and the Central West End are other locations he's chosen for the film. He says he finds a "European feel in some places" in the city but is alarmed that the shoot is turning out to be more expensive than he and his producers had planned.

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