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A Martial Artist Marshals Career : Mark Salzman's star rises

Crossover Dreams: This is the first profile in an occasional series, Crossover Dreams , that will feature artists and entertainers who have migrated across Pacific Rim cultural boundaries.

May 07, 1989|DENISE HAMILTON

The day that communications failed 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, Mark Salzman broke his hand.

It happened early during 13 weeks of filming in a resort city in Hangzhou when Salzman--who wrote the critically acclaimed book "Iron and Silk" and stars in the upcoming movie of the same name--was supposed to demolish a brick wall with one well-placed karate chop.

The Chinese film crew had been told to weaken the concrete-coated wall. But as the camera rolled, the first-time actor and martial-arts expert stepped up to the wall, threw a right hook and turned his hand into ground round.

"They didn't weaken it enough," Salzman says today with a twisted grin. "We were only three weeks into filming and I had to shoot the rest of the movie with a broken hand."

Salzman also had to settle for bandaging his injured hand between scenes, since a cast would have marred the breathtaking wushu --traditional Chinese martial arts routines--showcased in "Iron and Silk."

Today, with the movie itself wrapped and scheduled for fall release, his hand healed and a multimedia package tucked firmly under his black belt, Salzman has lots to grin about.

He has gone from an unemployed Yale graduate with a dubiously marketable degree in classical Chinese literature to a mini-cottage industry that is churning out travel literature, novels and screenplays. He's had a photo and blurb in Time magazine's People section, and there's a possible starring role in a TV adventure series, in addition to a Dewar's Scotch profile scheduled later this year.

Not bad for a 29-year-old guy who hates to travel, is lukewarm about contemporary China and says his favorite movie is "ROBOCOP."

"I wouldn't say I have particularly artsy tastes, and I'm not a China watcher," Salzman said. "The thing I dread most is being invited to a dinner party where everybody's talking about China."

In the film version of "Iron and Silk," Salzman plays himself, an American preppie who spends 1982 to 1984 teaching English at Hunan Medical College and learning martial arts from a colorful character and former national champion nicknamed "The Iron Fist."

In between, he jousts with the swinish Chinese bureaucracy in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province; elicits poignant tales from his students, and has a yearning friendship with a beautiful young Chinese woman doctor.

"All I had to do was pretend to be myself a few years ago," says Salzman, who learned to speak Mandarin and Cantonese. "If I could feel natural in front of the camera and relive my experiences honestly, I was happy."

Salzman co-wrote the screenplay with Shirley Sun, the movie's director. Shanghai-born and U.S.-reared, Sun earned a doctorate in art history and studied film making at Stanford University. She was Bernardo Bertolucci's consultant for "The Last Emperor" and co-wrote and produced "A Great Wall," a tongue-in-cheek Chinese "Roots."

Sun, who has often filmed in China and was the first American movie maker invited there in 1979 when Washington normalized relations with Beijing, had no problem getting permission to return for "Iron and Silk." Both she and Salzman hope the movie--one of only a handful shot by Americans since then--will whet curiosity about modern China and traditional wushu, which resembles Mikhail Baryshnikov more than Bruce Lee.

Salzman, whose devotion to wushu borders on obsession, says the martial-arts routines in "Iron and Silk" stress grace and poise without the violent revenge themes typical of kung-fu movies. Wushu routines are more dancelike and elaborate than the austere, clean lines of Japanese martial arts showcased in movies such as "Above the Law." Still, Salzman & Co. wield some pretty scary instruments in the movie, including 4-foot sabers, halberds and a nine-section chain whip with a dart at the end.

The film's budget, which Sun pegs at under $5 million, was minuscule by Hollywood standards. ("The Last Emperor" cost $26 million, by contrast.)

Because she wanted him to act naturally, Sun wouldn't let Salzman see the dailies, he recalls. But some real-life things happened right on cue. When they arrived in China to cast roles, Salzman's memorable wushu teacher Pan Qingfu walked into their office and asked to play himself, the "Iron Fist" whose nickname comes from hitting his hand 1,000 times a day against an iron plate.

Serendipity had brought him to Hangzhou to judge a wushu championship, and after seeing what a character he was, Sun signed him on.

"He was so excited, he wanted to do every martial-arts act known to Earth," Salzman says.

They got Vivian Wu, the Chinese actress who played wife No. 2 in "The Last Emperor," to play the beautiful doctor with whom Salzman has a wistful friendship.

Filming "Iron and Silk" turned out to be a battle with the incredible and constant noise generated by a country of 1 billion people.

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