Deep in the Act

Translator: Kotoni

Editor: Isalee

First Published on Chaleuria

Chapter 19.1

Ge, you’re scheduled for a photoshoot today,” Xiao-Deng said in the elevator as he played with his phone, “It’s for – what’s that called – oh right, the character posters for the film.”

Zhang Zhun’s brow furrowed at the information. “So early?”

“Director’s orders. I heard that the set for the next scene isn’t ready yet, so the director asked to have the photoshoot over and done with in the interim.”

The elevator stopped at the top floor. In the morning, there was always a huge crowd at the restaurant. The two joined the morning queue and moved down the long buffet tables with everyone else. After collecting their bread and coffee, they made their way to a booth seat.

“Wu-ge will be going as well,” Xiao-Deng continued as he opened a sugar sachet for Zhang Zhun and buttered his bread. “So will Chen Hsin.”

Zhang Zhun’s hand paused in the midst of tossing his salad. “Where’s the shoot going to be? Do you know what the plan is?”

Xiao-Deng replied with a conspiratorial blink of his eyes, “I heard there’s more stripping involved.”

Zhang Zhun was about to say something when someone gave him a firm pat on the shoulder. He looked up and saw Wu Rong, a plate in his hand, grinning at him with dimpled cheeks. “Move in.”

The booth was a four-seater. Zhang Zhun scooted further in, and Wu Rong threw himself onto the seat without ceremony. “That scene yesterday – damn, I’m still reeling from it now.” With an expression of half-excitement and half-disgust on his reddened face, he concluded, “In hindsight, that was f***ing sick!” As he was speaking, he slung an arm around Zhang Zhun’s shoulder out of habit.

“Has sister-in-law heard about it yet?” Zhang Zhun lifted an eyebrow and glanced at him with mock derision.

Wu Rong was tickled. Shameless in his amusement, he leaned closer to Zhang Zhun as if they were engaged in some clandestine discussion of deep, dark secrets. “You acting in this kind of film… your girl’s okay with that? She didn’t throw a fit or make a scene?”

They were so close that their cheeks were almost pressed together, and their lips were only a couple centimeters apart – but Zhang Zhun remained unfazed by the other man’s proximity. “It’s not the same,” he replied with ease, “I’m just attached, but you’re married.”

Wu Rong was clearly up to no good. His eyes took on an unusual, excited gleam as if he had picked up the scent of some top-secret information. “What’s that supposed to mean? You guys keeping breakup as an option?”

Knowing that Wu Rong was just fooling around, Zhang Zhun could not even be bothered to come up with a response. He looked away and saw Chen Hsin heading in their direction, carrying a steaming bowl of glutinous rice balls and a glass of fresh orange juice in his hands. Zhang Zhun could not tell how he was feeling at the moment. Sensing that Chen Hsin was coming towards him, he pulled away from Wu Rong instinctively and took a quick glance to check if there was enough space on Xiao-Deng’s side for Chen Hsin.

Zhang Zhun was right; Chen Hsin had indeed seen him. Instead of joining them, however, he narrowed his inky eyes and made a detour to a square table in a far-off corner. Zhang Zhun became distracted; from this point onwards, he was unable to keep his wits about him anymore.

“Wu-ge, it’s going to be a bedroom scene up next, isn’t it?” Xiao-Deng asked.

With an indignant nod, Wu Rong grabbed Zhang Zhun by the neck and gave it a forceful squeeze. “Zhun-er, you tell me, have I ever chickened out on anyone in my career so far? And yet, acting with you really freaks me out!”

Zhang Zhun looked at Wu Rong blankly. His mind was filled with the image of those narrowed black eyes –  it was all he could think of as he watched the movement of Wu Rong’s lips. “Why the hell do I lose my mind the moment I’m on top of you?” Wu Rong lamented, “It’s as if I’d completely forgotten how to act!”

Chen Hsin had pretended not to see him. Chen Hsin ignored him – Zhang Zhun felt a numbing, dull ache in his heart at this awareness. A cold sense of loss swept through his being. Yet, as soon as he noticed his own dejection, he was immediately overwhelmed by a new sense of helpless panic.

“Zhun-er… Zhun-er!” Wu Rong scraped the rough pad of his thumb against the sensitive skin at the nape of Zhang Zhun’s neck, triggering a swathe of tiny goosebumps in its wake. “C’mon, tell your big brother… what’s it like filming those kinds of scenes with that wacko? How do you do it?”

Zhang Zhun waved his arm away in resignation. “Give me a break, Senior!”

*

The photoshoot took place in a private studio at the Bund. It was a modest establishment owned by a female photographer in her forties. She went by her surname, Zhu. With her short, prematurely grayed hair, long limbs and tall figure, she looked like a handsome man at first glance. The crew had prepared the required costumes beforehand – three black tuxedos made out of satin. Zhou Zheng was sent along to oversee the shoot. On their way to the studio, he issued a warning to the three actors, “All of you watch your mouths later on.” He bent his index finger with a hint of mockery before continuing, “Zhu-jie isn’t straight.”

Indeed, one could determine her sexual orientation at a glance. There was an iciness in her fine features as she studied the men before her. Holding a large Hasselblad in one hand, she pointed at Zhang Zhun and ordered, “You, come over here.”

They were about the same height. Dressed in his tux, complete with a black bowtie and a crimson sash, Zhang Zhun stood before her – refined and elegant – like a freshly completed painting. After examining him from head to toe, Zhu-jie called out to her assistant, “Xiao-Hai, pass him the white ones, and give the red ones to Chen Hsin.”

The assistant, Xiao-Hai, went into the storeroom as instructed and returned with two large baskets of roses. The baskets, long and shallow, were of a rare vintage design: one was filled with red roses, the other with white ones. Wu Rong began acting up at once, “Eh what about me? Where’s mine?”

Zhu-jie paid him no mind as she turned to give Xiao-Hai further instructions, “We’ll start with the individual shots first. Rembrandt lighting.”

Her lighting choices for her commercial shoots differed from most photographers. Instead of the typical studio lights, she preferred using yellow lighting that gave her works an oil-painting-like finish. In the heavy, haloed light, the straight fold of Chen Hsin’s white pocket square balanced out the highlight on his right shoulder. Standing in position with the basket of red roses in one hand, Chen Hsin cast his proud, untamed gaze straight into the camera.

Watching from the sidelines, Wu Rong could not help but acknowledge how handsome Chen Hsin was: there was an air of mystery and decadence about him that was absolutely captivating. Even the saturated hue of the roses in his hand, darkened to near-black in the heavy lighting, was no competition to his dazzling brilliance. What a fine-looking kid! – he thought to himself. Then, turning his head, he caught the expression on Zhang Zhun’s face. It was an expression that escaped description. It flickered with evasiveness and yearning even as it was suffused with an unspoken feeling much like some form of desperate adoration.

It was soon Zhang Zhun’s turn. Dissatisfied with how Zhang Zhun’s small build was overwhelmed by the basket of flowers, Zhu-jie decided to do away with the basket altogether. She ordered him to hold the dozens of roses directly in his arms. “Think of Princess Sissi,” she instructed, “hug the flowers with dignified restraint.”

Zhang Zhun did not know what she meant by holding the roses ‘with dignified restraint’, but he remembered watching Sissi as a child. He could never forget how she looked as she stood under the chandelier with roses in her arms. She was the very image of a true princess: pure as an angel, innocent as a child. Awash in the yellow light, the long-stemmed white roses took on a delicate, creamy glow. Brimming with vitality, they blossomed in his arms with lissome grace. He looked up a little bashfully at the camera and put on a vague, dream-like smile.  

After his shoot was over, Zhang Zhun stepped away from the screen and handed the roses with care to Xiao-Hai. Zhu-jie, however, had the flowers thrown onto the ground and crushed them underfoot. The trampling went on until the ground was covered with their ravaged remains. “Respectable-Wu-laoshi,” she called out, “will you please squat down over there for a while?”

At this, Wu Rong glanced at Zhou Zheng. “So this is the treatment you get when you’re just a supporting actor, huh!” Despite his complaint, he quickly strode over and stepped into the frame. With a dashing tilt of his head, he turned his body to put his muscular arm on full display before the camera. Then he squatted down without fuss, looking cool and suave as he got into position. “For my junior’s sake, I’ll take this lying down!”

Chen Hsin snorted in derision. He cast a glance in Zhang Zhun’s direction and found that Zhang Zhun, too, was gazing at him. In the warm, yellow glow from the Rembrandt lighting, the contours of Zhang Zhun’s cheeks took on an ever-shifting quality. Even his expression seemed to be colored with an old-school, classical romance.

Zhang Zhun looked away in haste, like a thief whose tracks had been discovered, and Chen Hsin felt as if a part of him had indeed been stolen. Why else would his heart tighten with nervousness in one moment and flutter with panic the next, as if he had completely lost his wits? He was so overwhelmed by his own helplessness that he no longer knew how to face Zhang Zhun when Zhu-jie called them over for their couple’s shoot.