Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
Ocean Star Hotel, thirty-seventh floor, room 3726. This was a suite with a semi-circular living area that led to a bedroom behind a folding screen, and a tiny study tucked into the eastern side of the bedroom. Directorial teams and production crews often took up residence in suites like these for months on end during the preparatory periods. Apart from the occasional round of recreational mahjong or cards, these rooms were primarily used to settle pre-production matters such as casting calls, script adaptations, scheduling, etc. With a thin booklet tightly clenched in his hands, Zhang Zhun sank into the black upholstered couch under him.
He had been called in for a screen test – a test of his compatibility with his would-be partner, to be more precise. When the auditions concluded a month ago, the director had seemed rather pleased with his performance. Thus, when he received the assistant director’s call the day before, Zhang Zhun had assumed that the other man was calling to notify him of the filming dates. But an unexpected demand came through the phone instead: “Are you free tomorrow? We need you to fly in to Shanghai for additional screen tests.”
The demand gave him pause. After all, he now lived with his girlfriend in her hometown, Guangzhou. Nevertheless, he complied readily after briefly considering the matter and realizing that circumstances might have changed. “Yes, I will be free tomorrow. Which scenes are we looking at? I’d like to do some prep beforehand.”
“Scenes involving interaction between the leads,” the assistant director, a man in his forties named Zhou Zheng, replied. He chose his words rather carefully and euphemistically, “As you know, our film is rather unconventional…”
Unconventional was certainly one way of putting it, considering its subject matter: homosexual love. Zhang Zhun had been in the midst of preparing noodles for his girlfriend when he first received the breakdown of the film. After taking ten minutes to read the booklet from cover to cover, he shook his somewhat overgrown hair out of his eyes and directed a question at his manager, “Films like these… are allowed now?”
“Dunno.” Dressed in an apron and armed with a pair of chopsticks, his manager, Xiao-Deng1, popped out of the kitchen and continued, “I heard that they’ve already got the funds though. Haven’t you been saying that you wanted to give drama films a go?”
Indeed, Zhang Zhun had been thinking of trying out for drama films. He started out as an action actor more than a decade ago. Over the course of his career, he had worked in various capacities – as a body double, fight choreographer, and even the occasional lead in small-budget productions. But the fact remained that he had little to show despite having been in the industry for more than ten years. Now that he was fast approaching his forties, it was time for him to invest himself wholeheartedly in a good film – one that had enough depth to truly put an actor’s skills to the test.
“The subject matter is too risky,” Xie Danyi commented as she leaned into Zhang Zhun’s embrace, mug in hand. “Leaving aside the question of whether it would survive the censorship process – let’s assume that it does – it’ll easily cost you your fans once the film makes it to the big screen if you’re not careful.”
Petite, lively, and charmingly sociable, Xie Danyi was a small, exquisite beauty. She, too, started out as an actress, but switched to working behind the scenes when she got older. She and Zhang Zhun had been together for the past three years, and it was safe to say that their relationship was relatively stable. They were even thinking about getting married after trying things out for another year or two.
“You’re just afraid that he’ll end up running away with another man because of the film!” Xiao-Deng quipped glibly from the kitchen.
In response to the challenge, she leaned in further to peer closely at Zhang Zhun’s face. “That so? You capable o’that?” she teased Zhang Zhun briefly in Cantonese before turning to take on Xiao-Deng. “I’m not really worried about other men. But the two of you seem pretty close – have you tried anything funny with my man? ’Fess up now!”
As Xie Danyi left her mug on the table and made her way to the kitchen to continue bantering with Xiao-Deng, Zhang Zhun began caressing the thin booklet gently. He knew nothing about being gay, and the film’s subject matter hardly bothered him; the only thing that mattered was that he liked the story and found its characters intriguing. And so here he was, seated in the hotel suite, his hands still stroking the booklet as he awaited his fate — anxious, expectant, and just a little ashamed.
At the sound of a keycard being swiped behind him, Zhang Zhun got to his feet and turned around. The director, Chen Cheng-Sen, strode into the room. He was casually dressed in a white t-shirt, ripped jeans, and a battered-looking baseball cap. He nodded at Zhang Zhun, “Thanks for waiting.” There were two or three more people behind him, chatting in high spirits just beyond the door; Zhang Zhun figured that they were probably the assistant director, the production manager, and his would-be partner.
“Can’t tell that you’re already in your late thirties, Xiao-Zhang. You don’t look your age at all.” The director studied Zhang Zhun’s face as if it was a painting, “The shape of your face is perfect. And there’s a certain boyish charm about you.”
Somewhat embarrassed, Zhang Zhun replied, “I wish I looked more mature too. It’s hard to land a serious role in big productions with a face like mine…”
“You’re perfect for this role,” the director returned resolutely, lighting a cigar.
Zhang Zhun had beautiful eyes – large, bright orbs framed by the gentle curls of his lashes; in those watery depths, light often diffused into a drunken, misty glaze. His face, perfectly shaped, was accentuated by a delicate chin and fine lips, while years of tireless martial arts training left their mark in the sculpted lines of his lean, powerful body. However, if asked to name Zhang Zhun’s most attractive feature, his friends’ answer would probably be the nape of his neck – especially when his hair was cleanly shaved close to his scalp. A single glance at the curve of his nape was enough to kindle an impulse in anyone to claim that soft arch with a grip.
“There’s an air about you – a certain flavor – which is exactly what I’ve been searching for,” the director continued, seamlessly switching from casual conversation to a professional discussion about the film. “I want you to be beautiful, abstinent, and neurotic. Remember, you’re someone who dresses well and has the cars to match the suits you wear. Feel your superiority and let it show. Be a little particular about details and a little obsessive about cleanliness.”
With a focused expression on his face, Zhang Zhun hung onto every word attentively while frantically committing every detail to memory. The director did not spend too much time analyzing the character for Zhang Zhun at this stage. His attention soon shifted back to the screen test at hand. “You two take some time to warm up. We’ll get the cameras rolling if the mood is right.”
In other words, he would be replaced by someone else if the mood wasn’t right. Zhang Zhun could not help but look towards the doorway at the thought. Following his line of vision, the director called out, “Chen-laoshi, stop chatting! Do you plan to keep us waiting till the cows come home?”
The idiomatic expression rolled off the director’s tongue with occasionally clipped syllables that were typical of Taiwanese accents. Interestingly, the reply came in a similarly soft and expressive lilt, “But Director, I haven’t even seen the actual script, eh?”
A tall figure appeared in the doorway. The man stepped into the room with an ever-shifting smile about his thin, naturally pouting lips. Short fluffy hair fell about and over his lightly stubbled face in waves. Turning, he caught sight of Zhang Zhun on the couch and his large eyes narrowed into long, fine lines as he slowly recalled his name, “Zhang… Zhun?”
Naturally, Zhang Zhun recognized him too. He stood up and shook the other man’s hand in greeting, “Chen-laoshi2.”
Chen Hsin3 started out as a child actor in Taiwan. He was equally blessed in his good looks and his outstanding acting skills. Above all, he was blessed with extraordinarily good fortune: despite his youth, he had already acted in all kinds of productions, tried out all kinds of roles, and won all the accolades there were to be won. He was truly a golden boy, and he dazzled wherever he went.
The director patted Chen Hsin’s shoulder with one hand and signaled Zhang Zhun to sit down with the other. “You should be pretty familiar with each other since both of you worked on Northern Peak by Fatty Liu. Pretty neat work, that film.”
Zhang Zhun nodded, and so did Chen Hsin. They were both supporting actors in Northern Peak, so it was natural to assume that they knew each other pretty well. However, truth be told, they did not exchange a single word on the set.
“Don’t forget Racing Steed!” Assistant director Zhou added as he entered the room with the production manager. As they started setting up the filming equipment, he continued, “It’s been seven or eight years, but damn was it popular back then!”
Zhang Zhun smiled awkwardly at the remark. At the time, Chen Hsin was the male lead in the film while he was a mere stunt double for the female lead. Now, years later, no one could remember if he ever appeared on camera, though they remembered just enough to associate him with the film. But Chen Hsin probably remembered the way things were back then. He glanced at Zhang Zhun quietly and sat down at a comfortable distance – they were neither too close nor too far apart – before he spoke up again, “So, what are we doing today?”
The director stubbed out his cigar and took the opportunity to lower his head as he replied, “We’ll have you two try out some scenes and get a sense of how things feel.”
Chen Hsin snorted. With a knowing grin on his face, he pressed the director further, “What kinds of scenes are we talking about?”
Somewhat embarrassed, the director answered brusquely, “Which scenes? Intimate scenes of course!”
His words were met by utter silence. All of a sudden, the room seemed much smaller, its space much more constrictive; Zhang Zhun clenched his fists. He had mentally prepared himself for all kinds of possibilities – the good, the bad, the disappointing… he’d thought of them all – but not once did he ever imagine that he would be acting with Chen Hsin as his partner. He had seen Chen Hsin in action before; the younger man was a monster who crushed and devoured all his partners with the sheer power of his acting.
Chen Hsin, too, was sizing Zhang Zhun up. Despite having crossed paths before, they had never acted opposite each other. Naturally, Zhang Zhun felt the sharpness of the other man’s sweeping gaze. He unclenched his fists and rubbed his hands self-consciously. “Director…” He began to speak, gesturing between Chen Hsin and himself with a slender finger, “Why don’t we get started on the warm-up?”
The director glanced at his watch and sighed, “You have ten minutes.”
- Xiao-Deng: ‘Xiao-’ (小) literally means ‘small’ or ‘young’ in Chinese, and is commonly used as a prefix in nicknames and informal ways of addressing someone who is younger or less experienced than the speaker.
- When elders are addressing others who are younger, the prefix is often attached to a character in the younger person’s given name (if they are very close). If the younger person is not related to the elder, the prefix may be attached to the surname instead. The prefix may be used by elders to exert their authority over those who are younger, or to convey the affection they feel towards the younger individuals.
- When superiors are addressing their subordinates in informal settings, they often attach the prefix to the subordinate’s surname. In these cases, the prefix does not only serve to indicate hierarchical differences, but also connotes a sense of closeness (which may not be real) between the superior and the subordinate.
- Chen-laoshi: ‘-laoshi’ (老师) literally means ‘teacher’ in Chinese. In recent years, this term has been adopted in China as a gender-neutral form of addressing someone in a professional or formal context, often as a way of expressing respect for the addressee. However, this is not an established usage in other territories where the Chinese language is commonly used.
- Chen Hsin: His name (甄心) is read as ‘Zhen Xin’ in hanyu pinyin. However, I have chosen to translate the name using the Wade-Giles romanization system that Taiwan has adopted for the anglicization of names. Hanyu pinyin is a very recent invention in modern China, and it is not used in Taiwan. Although the translated names sound very different because of the different systems, the pronunciation of this name in Mandarin is actually the same in both China and Taiwan.
- Additionally, the Chinese character of the given name (心) literally means ‘heart’, while the name ‘Zhen Xin’ is a homonym for ‘真心’ (sincerity / genuineness / faithfulness), giving the readers an insight into the character’s personality from the very beginning of the novel.