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.

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."

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."

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.

But Zheng is more artist than pragmatist today. He's interested in discussing the film's theme, which might be best expressed as "family values" -- a subject that shows what both divides and bridges East and West.

Gua Sha, says Zheng, focuses on cultural differences and how those differences can create dramatic conflict. At the core of Gua Sha are distinct attitudes toward family. "For a Chinese person, the issue of family is very important," says Zheng, sounding unwittingly as if he's on the American campaign trail. "The feeling of love families feel for a child is extremely deep, but how they show their love is very different from American families.

"The hope, or expectations, they have for a child is very important. They will punish the child in order to show love, for the benefit of the child." He says the intense concern for children has escalated with the government's one-child policy. "Parents hover around the child like an old hen," he laughs. "When they come to this country, however, they don't know how families in the U.S. are. They're not familiar with U.S. traditions, so they commit mistakes."

These "mistakes," Zheng argues -- and hopes to present in his film -- are really cultural misinterpretations. For example, where Chinese immigrants might be seen as obsessive in one area of child-rearing -- education, for example -- they can be seen as neglectful in others, at least to Western eyes. "Even if you look at Chinese immigrants in the U.S., they will give children a lot of homework themselves. They will spend a lot of money for a child's education. Yet with all that emphasis on the child, they will not mind leaving a child at home alone. It is very normal to leave a child alone in China." Zheng explains that for all of China's social upheavals in the 20th century, the country still remains a place where neighbors and extended family members contribute to a child's rearing, where a community watches out for a child as one of its own.

In Gua Sha, what the Chinese family considers love, Americans see as abuse. "And that becomes a story about culture."

These are not the kinds of stories Chinese filmmakers could have made just 20 years ago, before a new openness became evident in Chinese society and in Chinese films such as those of Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, To Live). Says Zheng, "Twenty years ago, if they had made such films they would have been thrown into jail. They'd be afraid to even think about it." Creative ideas are being pursued that would have been unheard of before, when art was always about politics and served as a "propaganda machine" for the government. "There's a huge difference," he says. "For instance, I'm here now." But more important than foreign locations and the ability to work internationally, says Zheng, "We can talk more deeply about human nature."

Zheng perhaps speaks from as much political optimism as political reality. The Chinese government has suppressed and censored the great Zhang Yimou's work but, because of his immense international reputation, has chosen not to treat him with the severity it reserves for other Chinese dissidents. Even Zheng Xiaolong's own Beijing Natives in New York, according to some Western critics, can be seen as both dramatic soap opera and Communist polemic -- a harsh vision of the cruelties of American capitalism.

But there's no doubt that Zheng is driven by the inspiration of a new Chinese cinema, a cinema that is being changed by money as much as by politics. With China's new economic climate comes the increased demand for profit. With the government no longer the sole movie financier, stories are made with an eye toward the box office. Scripts are still submitted for approval to the Chinese Film Commission, which concerns itself with the sexual content as much as it does the political (as with Hollywood before the 1960s, Chinese filmmakers are bound by strict moral codes, which include the number of centimeters of neckline that may be exposed and how many seconds a kiss may last). But once the script has passed bureaucratic muster, "You look for financing yourself. You have to find money. You have to promise the money can be earned back. How commercial a film is has become very important."

But the investment capital is available. Zheng says many private companies -- advertising firms, trade and business corporations -- are investing in films, banks have special lending policies for the film industry and money is still available from the government. All the major American film studios now have offices in Beijing as well.

Zheng is even considering using test audiences for the first time -- a new concept for Chinese filmmakers. He believes a story such as Gua Sha, which focuses its drama on cultural conflicts, is the type of story that will appeal to international film audiences. "Way back when, China and the U.S. could completely ignore each other. It once took two months to reach the U.S. by boat; now it takes an 11-hour plane ride, or we can just talk on the phone. You cannot avoid the other culture. There are all those sneakers made in China, and the Chinese smoke American cigarettes." Zheng alludes to the recent World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, which, besides the riots, brought forth agreements for the exportation of American rice to China.

As East and West commit to a fuller economic relationship -- even as the ghosts of the Cold War still rattle -- the benefits and mysteries of Chinese medicine, both gua sha and the more familiar acupuncture, might serve as an apt metaphor for the precarious bridge between cultures. "Acupuncture is unexplained," says Zheng. "In the U.S., everything is based on science, facts. Chinese acupuncture is based on knowledge. All these pressure points, you can't explain through dissection. All Chinese traditional medicines are based on handed-down knowledge. The deep-down basis for knowledge in the U.S. and China is different but parallel -- one based on fact, one based on knowledge."

Then, after this brief comparison of philosophies, Zheng sounds like the bottom-line Western pragmatist: "Whichever works is better."

"Whichever works" might be the universal truth to break down all ideologies.