Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
Zhang Zhun opened the door. Xiao-Deng stood outside his room in a casual suit and ripped jeans, his hair styled with care. The youth before him was so well-dressed he looked the very image of a young and rising star. “Someone’s looking real good today,” Zhang Zhun observed with a chuckle.
Xiao-Deng’s eyes shone as he blushed a little at Zhang Zhun’s comment. “With so many big shots around, I need to make sure I don’t become a disgrace to you,” he replied as he stepped into the room and closed the door. Zhang Zhun did not switch the lights on. The evening glow shone through the windows and cast a gray, reddish tint over the space.
“Are you feeling better now, Ge?” Xiao-Deng asked, concerned about the injuries between Zhang Zhun’s legs.
“Much better.” Zhang Zhun sat down on the edge of his bed. With a look of weariness on his face, he asked, “Have they headed off already?”
“About half an hour ago.” Xiao-Deng sat down next to him. “The KTV lounge is just across the road.”
Zhang Zhun nodded and fell silent. The silence dragged out between them. Several minutes later, Xiao-Deng spoke up again in a cautious, tentative tone, “You’ve really suffered, Ge.” He withered and hung his head in dejection. “Whenever I see Chen Hsin these days… I feel this overwhelming urge to smash his face!”
“It’s nothing,” Zhang Zhun replied in a mild voice. “It’s just work.”
“They’re all scumbags, the lot of them. Dammit!” Xiao-Deng was getting worked up. “Ge, let’s skip the bloody party altogether,” he said with clenched fists, “why the hell should we hang out with such trash?”
Zhang Zhun teared up a little as he turned to look at the rash youth beside him. “Don’t let pride get in the way of things. Learn to let go.”
“I should have come over earlier.” Xiao-Deng’s eyes were far wetter than Zhang Zhun’s. Pinching the corners of his eyes, he slung his arm around Zhang Zhun’s shoulders in a brotherly hug. “Ge, it pains me to see you suffer like this.”
Gritting his teeth, Zhang Zhun stood up and said, “We should get going. I’ll get changed.”
He wore a simple outfit, his white T-shirt and sneakers giving him a clean, boyish look. When they reached the lounge, many at the party were already drunk. Qin Xun-er was belting out a song by Sa Dingding at the top of her lungs, proudly proclaiming her status as ‘a flower freely roaming the earth’.1 The walls shook from the sheer volume of her singing. Chen Cheng-Sen and Chen Hsin, on the other hand, sat at the center of a milling crowd, all of whom were holding up glasses overflowing with alcohol.
“Xiao-Zhang! C’mon o’er!” Chen Cheng-Sen called out, a drunken slur in his voice even though they had only been drinking for under an hour. “Well, well. Chen-laoshi here kept going on about how great you are, how good it feels acting with you…” Someone passed him another drink. Holding on to Zhang Zhun’s wrist with an iron grip, he ordered, “Drink up! Three glasses for being late!”
Zhang Zhun did not hold his liquor well, so Xiao-Deng often drank on his behalf at social gatherings. However, afraid of incurring the director’s displeasure, Xiao-Deng did not dare to offer his help this time. Zhang Zhun obeyed the order and downed three drinks without complaint. As he was wiping his mouth, Chen Hsin came over. He, too, had alcohol in his hands – not a glass, but a full bottle. “You’ve only drunk your respects to the director. Have you forgotten about me?” Standing with his mussed hair and a rakish air about him, Chen Hsin looked so handsome in the colorful lurid lights that he seemed almost unreal.
Anxious to defend Zhang Zhun, Xiao-Deng bellowed at Chen Hsin, “My big brother can’t drink! Leave him alone!” The revelation took Chen Hsin by surprise. He was about to withdraw the proffered drink in a hurry when Chen Cheng-Sen piped up all of a sudden, “Drink up, both of you! You have to exchange drinks in the traditional wedding style! Do it!”2
The crowd began clamoring in support of the idea. The air in the room thickened with the smell of smoke, alcohol, and sweat. The noise rose to an unbearable pitch as deafening music blasted from the speakers: ’Cause we could be immortals, immortals… Chen Hsin saw the pain on Zhang Zhun’s face, and his heart ached torturously in response. He wanted to call off the drunken challenge, but it was too late. The excited crowd was unstoppable as it surged towards the two of them, countless cries echoing the same idea, “Wedding style! Wedding style! Wedding style!”
A whole bottle of beer was shoved into Zhang Zhun’s hand. He was a lamb led to the guillotine, and before him stood his executioner, looking at him with ruthless eyes filled with lingering, moving affection. Propelled by the crowd around them, they drew closer and closer to each other. Then, locking their wrists together, Zhang Zhun acted on a mulish streak within himself: with hardened resolve, he shut his eyes and knocked back the drink in his hand.
Chen Hsin held his liquor well. Now, as if he was engaged in some sort of competition with Zhang Zhun, he began chugging down his beer at an alarming speed. He emptied his bottle in record time. Before anyone realized what he was doing, he snatched Zhang Zhun’s bottle away and continued gulping down the beer. The crowd went wild. The girls started screaming in excitement, and Chen Cheng-Sen even jumped onto the couch to cheer Chen Hsin on, “F*** yeah! You’re the man!”
Although he had just finished one and a half bottles of beer in one fell swoop, the alcohol in his system seemed to have no effect on him. He tossed the bottles onto the table and tried to grab Zhang Zhun by the hand. He wanted to apologize. But Chen Cheng-Sen cut in again with new orders from the couch, “Zhang Zhun! Sing something for Qin-laoshi!”
Qin Xun-er was leaving the set the next day for another project, and it would take at least a month before she could return to wrap up her parts in this film. The party today was, in name, a send-off party for her. Somewhat overwhelmed by the alcohol he had ingested, Zhang Zhun clamped a hand over his mouth in discomfort as a deep red flush spread across his face and neck. Chen Hsin noticed. He wanted to speak up for Zhang Zhun, but the words died in his throat when he caught sight of Xiao-Deng’s hand at Zhang Zhun’s waist. Distraction drove him to silence. In the end, Zhang Zhun did as he was told and picked a song from the menu, “Love of a Lifetime”.3
However, no one was particularly interested in Zhang Zhun’s singing. The crowd had come for a good time, and it was just a matter of routine for them to take turns to keep the others entertained. Zhang Zhun took his seat in a drunken daze at the front of the room. All around him, intoxicated revelers lost themselves in the excitement of their drinking games. Amidst all the noise and confusion, Chen Hsin sat on the other side of the indifferent crowd and listened quietly as Zhang Zhun began to croon:
The past – the present – what is gone will never return
Fallen red leaves, long buried in the dust
At the beginning – in the end – nothing ever changes
Lingering in the sky, you wander beyond the clouds…
He sang in Cantonese, his voice deepening as if he were singing of broken dreams shattered beyond recognition. At parties like these, no one else would ever pick a song like this. His voice, like a single drop of water falling into a lake, sent an inexplicable ripple across the room. The crowd began to quieten down. The drinking games came to an abrupt stop. Drinks were forgotten as heads turned in puzzlement towards Zhang Zhun. Oblivious to his surroundings, Zhang Zhun continued singing to himself in a trance:
The sea of suffering4 churns with love and hate
In this world, there is no escape from fate
We draw close, but the distance between us cannot be closed
Or perhaps I should believe this is how things are destined to be!
Zhang Zhun’s voice was beautiful – so beautiful that the thunderous heartbeat in Chen Hsin’s chest had become the most intolerable noise in his own ears. The noise was so chaotic, so loud, that it seemed his heart would burst from his chest at any moment… all because the voice was too beautiful – too much – for him to bear. Just then, Qin Xun-er appeared and sat down beside him with a drink in her hand. She turned on her charms as she pressed herself against his chest. “Chen-laoshi, you seem rather fascinated. What caught your fancy?”
Chen Hsin was irritated; he did not like her at all. Considering that she was leaving soon, however, he replied with a drawl, “I fancy anything he sings.”
Qin Xun-er giggled as if Chen Hsin had just told a joke. “Don’t delve too deeply into all this. It’s just acting. There’s nothing tangible about it. You see things but they’re just illusions that you can’t touch.” She placed a manicured hand over the buckle of his belt. “I leave in the morning. Tonight…”
Chen Hsin had no intention to humor her. He was about to remove her hand when Xiao-Deng came up to them. He greeted Qin Xun-er first before turning to Chen Hsin. “Chen-ge,” he greeted, seeming somewhat eager to please the older man.
Since Xiao-Deng had dated Qin Xun-er’s former assistant for a while, the two of them already knew each other and had a rather amicable relationship. Showing no sign of removing her hand from Chen Hsin’s waist, she acknowledged the younger man as if he were a puppy or kitten, “Good boy, Xiao-Deng.”
Flashing a half-hearted smile in response at Qin Xun-er, Xiao-Deng looked at Chen Hsin with pleading eyes. Chen Hsin remained unmoved. Xiao-Deng knew that Chen Hsin had been waiting to teach him a lesson, but he could not care less about his own dignity at this point. “Chen-ge, may I beg a favor of you?”
Chen Hsin smiled. He slowly got to his feet, brushing aside Qin Xun-er’s hand in the process, and stood side by side with the younger man. Xiao-Deng cast a discreet look towards a darkened corner near the karaoke jukebox machine, signaling for Chen Hsin to take a look as well. “Things might turn out badly if I went over… can you help me out?”
It was hard to see anything in the darkness. Someone else was singing from the high stool now; it was a girl with a ponytail. Chen Hsin frowned and swept his gaze around the room – where had Zhang Zhun gone? Xiao-Deng’s voice was filled with anxiety as he urged, “On our way over, Zhun-ge said that I could look for you if anything serious cropped up.”
At this, Chen Hsin finally made out the two figures seated in the corner – Zhang Zhun and Chen Cheng-Sen, so close that one seemed to have draped himself completely over the other.
- “The Flower that Roams Freely” by Sa Dingding: “自由行走的花” (萨顶顶) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPEOTwVzULA
- Exchanging drinks in traditional wedding style: This is a traditional Chinese wedding rite that is commonly translated as ‘drinking cross-cupped wine’ (交杯酒). This rite requires newlyweds to cross their arms with each other while holding their respective drinks, and finish their drinks at the same time. Such a practice symbolizes the couple’s commitment to share their joys and sorrows with each other.
- In this chapter, I chose to translate the term in a more explanatory manner instead of using the more common translation. This is so that the significance of what the crowd is demanding of Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun is immediately clear to any reader who may not be familiar with Chinese customs.
- “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo: “一生所爱” (卢冠廷) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYkOG5OmUcA
- This is a timeless masterpiece that draws upon Chinese philosophical ideas and Buddhist concepts to capture the helplessness and futility of a love that can never be requited.
- Co-written by Lowell Lo and his wife, Susan Tong, “Love of a Lifetime” is one of the theme songs for Stephen Chow’s A Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella (1995).
- In this movie reimagination of the Chinese classic Journey to the West, the main character sacrifices his humanity and freedom in order to save the love of his life. He fulfills his destiny by becoming the Monkey God, which allows him to save his love, after a fashion. But in doing so, he is no longer able to return to her side.
- Sea of suffering: This is a direct reference to the Buddhist concept of dukkha (苦), which is the chief of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.