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There's Nothing Like Being There

'Be There or Be Square,' a romantic comedy set in L.A., is mainland China's first film shot entirely in the U.S.

November 01, 1998|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Close your eyes and you might be in China. The room is full of Mandarin conversation, the stiff, acrid smell of endless cigarette smoking, and bodies shifting about until the last possible moment before the holler of "Shi pai!" Then you hear a follow-up in English, "Camera rolling!"

Open your eyes and see a crew of 20 packed into the living room of an Old World-style apartment in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles. Everyone here is Chinese except for a technician, a production coordinator and one actress, a young woman who also happens to actually live here. Quincy Coleman had agreed to rent out her apartment for three days for the shooting of "Be There or Be Square," the first Chinese movie shot entirely in the U.S.

But then director Feng Xiaogang and scriptwriter Gu Xiaoyang had an even better idea. They found her to be a charming young actress--she's a Screen Actors Guild member--and quickly wrote her into the movie. Just the night before, in fact.

While that kind of serendipitous filmmaking would give a Hollywood exec a heart attack, it's par for the course for Chinese films. There are no suits here, just the producer, Victor Li, and the production manager, Lu Guoqiang. But they know the etiquette: On a Chinese film set, the director is king, and what he says goes.

Hire another actress on the spot? Change the script to give her a part? All possible in this realm. After all, Chen Kaige, when making "Temptress Moon," managed to change lead actresses twice even after substantial photography had begun.

"We see this film as a kind of 'When Harry Met Sally' romantic comedy," says Li, a former Beijing resident now based here. "These kinds of films do well in China these days." Into the formula they've tossed a heaping of immigration blues. To stay or not to stay, that is the question in "Be There"--when staying in the U.S. requires all kinds of physical and emotional adjustments to an unfamiliar, sometimes hostile, environment.

The "Be There" Chinese cast and crew of about 30 flew in from Beijing in early June for 40 days of shooting around Los Angeles. The film is due to be released in China around Christmas.

Angular Ge You, who has a kind of hang-dog, everyman look and who won best actor for his performance in "To Live" at Cannes in 1994, and willowy Xu Fan, one of China's hottest young actresses, are the leads. Ge plays Liu Yuan, the jack-of-all-trades who's an old hand at survival in America. He manages to sweet-talk Li Qing (Xu), a naive newcomer, to let a film crew shoot in the posh house she's looking after.

Of course, they trash it, then to make matters worse, she gets burglarized and tied up. At this point he takes pity on her and urges her to leave this wicked country; he buys her a plane ticket home and sees her off at LAX.

A year goes by. They run into each other in a parking lot--literally, he hits her car. Well, it turns out she never left, but while he's mighty surprised, he's more than happy to see her again. Just as the mood gets romantic, disaster strikes again, and they have a falling out. So it goes, until the following year. . . .

The script takes them through three star-crossed years of meeting and splitting and meeting again, in all different kinds of locations around Los Angeles, from a posh house in Hancock Park (her house-sit) to a trailer park in Santa Clarita (his house), from Newport Beach to Pasadena's City Hall.

"It's on purpose," says Li. "We thought, we're shooting here, we might as well take advantage of the area."

"We thought about shooting elsewhere," says director Feng, "but it just seemed more fun to shoot here. And it'll be something new for the audience." By audience, he means his audience--the mainland Chinese audience.

The Chinese-ness of this production is everywhere apparent--and not only in the faces of the cast and crew. It's in the spirit of the shoot, a certain informality, a certain chaos in which people mill about but manage, amazingly enough, to get whatever needs to be done, done.

True, sometimes the chaos gets out of hand. At one moment inside the crowded living room, it even gets to the director, who shouts in frustration, "There's too much noise in here! Let's talk less, shall one? One person's voice up against so many others!" He means his own, which is ragged from shouting and from cigarettes, a pack of which are ever at hand. Feng, 40, a tall, lanky man with a choppy haircut, uses a film canister perched on the monitor as a giant ashtray.

Most of the people working here speak no English, and Feng's is rudimentary. Of course, when talking to the Chinese cast and crew it's no problem, but he expresses himself in gestures and minimalist pidgin to Coleman, who has an important scene coming up.

"Quincy, sit down here," he says sharply, pulling up a chair in front of one of the Palladian windows. "Git." By "git" he means "guitar," as in "pick up the guitar." For more elaborate explanations, one of the handful of bilingual staff jumps in to translate.

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