Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
The photoshoot ended after three in the afternoon. On their way back, Zhou Zheng received a call in the car. After making some acquiescent noises on the phone, he instructed the driver, “Head straight to the KTV lounge, the one we went to previously.” Then, he turned around and explained, “The director’s throwing a welcome party for you, Wu-laoshi.”
Wu Rong was quite the party animal: he relished excitement, he enjoyed having fun, and he loved the feeling of alcohol rushing to his head. “Took him f***ing long enough!” he exclaimed, “I’d quit if he put it off any longer!”
Chen Hsin sat coldly in the middle row. He looked into the rearview mirror and saw Zhang Zhun’s hair showing up as a black spot in the corner of the back row. He knew nothing about Zhang Zhun’s second shoot with Wu Rong; similarly, Wu Rong knew nothing about their shoot either. He was the first to get out of the vehicle when they reached their destination, but he hung back on purpose and waited. As Zhou Zheng emerged from the car, Chen Hsin pulled him aside. “They’re filming a bedroom scene next?”
Lighting a cigarette for the other man, Zhou Zheng replied in the affirmative, “Yes, with a closed set.”
Closed set. Feeling a little sour, Chen Hsin asked, “When is he leaving?”
“Probably this weekend,” Zhou Zheng answered, knowing whom Chen Hsin was referring to. “He doesn’t have many scenes left.”
They snuffed out their cigarettes, crushed the sticks underfoot, and entered the lounge together. When they opened the door to the room, they saw countless bottles of beer waiting on the tabletop. The main light was on. Seated on the black soft couch, Wu Rong slung an arm around Zhang Zhun, hugging the other man with a cigarette in his hand. He leaned in close, making a nuisance of himself as he bugged Zhang Zhun for a joint number, “But why? C’mon, what’s wrong with singing ‘Clingy’ with me?”
“No go.” Zhang Zhun was puffing away on a cigarette as well. “Your taste in music sucks.”
As they continued bantering back and forth, the rest of the crew arrived. Chen Cheng-Sen headed straight for Wu Rong as soon as he stepped through the door, insisting on exchanging first drinks with him. A great lover of alcohol, Wu Rong immediately knocked back three drinks without fuss. Then, pointing at the jukebox machine, he ordered, “‘Clingy’, by Second-Hand Rose!”1
Wu Rong loved rock music, Northwestern and Northeastern styles alike. When the music came on, he began hollering at the top of his lungs:
Together we row, looking at the scenery, looking at the scenery
Rowing till the boat leaks, the water rusts
Together we ride the wind, looking at the scenery, looking at the scenery
Riding till the wind is randy, the mist scorched
Not understanding what Wu Rong was singing, Chen Hsin turned around to look at the subtitles on-screen:2
Third watch, together we enter your bedroom
Getting onto your ivory bed
Unbuttoning the flower bag, releasing the scent of chrysanthemum
A fresh flower is picked by this lad, hiya, oh hiya
You’re asking me if it’s nice
Still confused, he turned to Xiao-Wang, who was sitting next to him. “What’s this song about, exactly?”
Xiao-Wang was a little embarrassed by the question. Cupping a hand around Chen Hsin’s ear, he whispered, “It’s about that sort of thing!”
Chen Hsin understood immediately. The control screen for the jukebox machine was right behind him; in an instant, he reached behind and cut off the song. Wu Rong was in the middle of the chorus when the music died, “You ask me to come, who the hell wouldn’t want to come, yeah? Only a bastard wouldn’t – who the hell cut the music off!”
Chen Hsin feigned ignorance. Fuming, Wu Rong picked a second song. This time, it was a more tender and mournful number:3
The pomegranates are blooming and the leaves are yellowing
Mothers4 teach their children to be able and virtuous…
It was yet another weird song; Wu Rong’s preferences were a telling reflection of his personality. Although Chen Hsin did not dislike the songs per se, he became irritable the moment they were associated in any way with Zhang Zhun. As Chen Hsin mulled over his thoughts, Wu Rong was joined by a new voice – soulful, with an edge of passion. It was a voice that Chen Hsin knew well:
You’re the most exceptional man in this world
I’m the commonest lalaying5 on the ground
I want to give you a gift of fresh flowers
While you give me a whiff of a bone-piercing fragrance!
Microphone in hand, Zhang Zhun locked gazes with Wu Rong as they sang together, sharing a common warmth in their eyes that told of the deep brotherly bond between them. It was too much for Chen Hsin. He could stand neither the sight of their closeness nor the sound of their voices rising and falling in unison. In contrast, the crew was much more appreciative of the performance. They went up to Wu Rong in batches to pay their respects. Since he could hold his liquor well, the crew kept the drinks flowing even after he stepped off the stage. Zhang Zhun stayed by his side and drank along with everyone else. The drinks kept coming, round after round, and it did not take long before Zhang Zhun began to feel the effects of the alcohol. Having learnt his lesson from the previous party, he withdrew early from the crowd and sat down on the couch. Then he closed his eyes as if he was already wasted.
In the darkness, his hearing seemed to have become sharper. Amidst the noise, he could pick out voices – near and far – urging others to down more drinks, as well as nonsensical remarks uttered in a drunken daze. Out of nowhere, someone exclaimed, “Director! The Winter Crows crew is here as well! I just ran into their lighting staff. They’re upstairs!”
“Old-man Deng’s crew?” With a drunken slur, Chen Cheng-Sen ordered, “Everyone get up now! Follow me! Let’s go say hi!”
The crowd started moving, and people began brushing by Zhang Zhun’s legs, one after the other. In no time at all, the room was quiet again; it was as if the room had emptied itself in a single rush of excitement. Just as Zhang Zhun was about to heave a sigh of relief, however, a familiar ringtone rang out from the other side of the room: Goodbye my almost lover, goodbye my hopeless dream…
Zhang Zhun shuddered involuntarily. “Hey Yunting,” Chen Hsin drawled into his phone as he answered the call, “I’m in my room.” His voice began moving toward Zhang Zhun, “I’m alone.” Closer and closer. “Yeah, next month.” Then he was sitting down right next to Zhang Zhun, so close that Zhang Zhun could feel the heat from his thighs. “Mm, I need to go now. Call you back later.”
The call ended, and Zhang Zhun felt the heat of an alcohol-laden breath on his face. His body began to tingle all over, but he kept his eyes closed. Sensing that Chen Hsin was about to do something – though he could not be certain – he began to panic even as a sense of slight anticipation rose within him. Then, at last, Chen Hsin closed his mouth over his lips.
Soft, wet sounds began to pervade the darkness, but a burning sense of urgent desperation continued to torment Chen Hsin. Even as he yearned to feel the man before him, he was just as terrified of rousing him from sleep. Dazed with desire, he pinned Zhang Zhun to the back of the couch and enveloped the pliant body with his own. Behind him, the door opened, but he remained oblivious even as someone walked into the room.
It was Wu Rong, coming back to retrieve his phone. He had been waiting for a call from his wife. Although he had gone upstairs with everyone else, he doubled back on his own the moment he realized that he had left his phone behind. Upon opening the door, despite the darkness in the room, he noticed the writhing figure on the couch. Fully aware that Zhang Zhun was lying under that moving body, drunk and helpless, Wu Rong came back to his senses in a split second. Snatching up an empty bottle from the table, he charged towards the couch. “F*** you! Chen Hsin, you son of a b****!”
On the couch, having given in to the stirrings within himself, Zhang Zhun slackened his mouth and allowed Chen Hsin to explore as he wished. Instead of pushing the other man away, he savored the illicit pleasure in secret. The taste of forbidden desires lingered on his tongue as his heart pounded in his chest, and his blood roared in his ears. At the sound of Wu Rong’s shout, however, his eyes snapped open and he saw the bottle arcing through the air above Chen Hsin’s head. His body reacted immediately. Without thinking – not that there was any time for him to think at all – he shoved Chen Hsin down onto the couch with a twist of his body. A split second later, right before Wu Rong’s eyes, the bottle grazed past Zhang Zhun’s ear and smashed into smithereens against the wall behind the couch.
Like a scene from a paused video, all three froze in their respective positions. All was still, except for the falling bits from the broken bottle, and silence descended upon the room. After a long, drawn-out moment, Wu Rong finally managed to force out a question, “Zhun-er, you… you were f***ing awake?”
The same question was on Chen Hsin’s mind as well. Zhang Zhun was still pressing down on his chest, and his skin seemed to have burst into flames, burning and aching under Zhang Zhun’s palm. He wanted to reach for that slender wrist before him, but it shrank from his touch. Just as Zhang Zhun opened his mouth to say something, the door opened again from the outside, and the crew surged back into the room with Chen Cheng-Sen in the center. The room was filled once more with drunken clamor. “Where the drinks at? C’mon! More rounds!”
Nobody noticed the three of them. No one even noticed that Zhang Zhun was awake. After all, the stirrings of mortal hearts were but slight, occasional ripples in the mighty currents roiling through this earthly world – and a mortal’s sin the mere shadow of such insignificant ripples. Acting on the tacit bond between them, Zhang Zhun and Chen Hsin parted from each other on cue. Wu Rong, too, turned away and disappeared into the crowd as if nothing had happened. In no time at all, the waters in this tiny corner of the mortal world regained their calm, once again untouched by any trace of disturbance.
Wu Rong had never drunk so much in his life before. Desperate to drown himself in alcohol, he gulped down drink after drink with a vengeance. When the next morning came around, he found himself unceremoniously dragged out of bed by Xiao-Wang. By the time they made it to the set, the equipment was already on standby. As soon as Wu Rong stepped through the door, he was stunned by the first sight that greeted him: Chen Hsin, sitting on a work chair, waiting along with everyone else.
“Ge,” Xiao-Deng greeted as he came up to Wu Rong, “did you have too much to drink last night?”
“Ah,” Wu Rong panicked, “what’s he doing here?!”
- “Clingy” by Second-Hand Rose: 《黏人》(二手玫瑰) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4znWD_OsCL0
- Second-Hand Rose is a Northeastern rock band.
- The lyrics quoted in this chapter are taken from the official translation by Second-Hand Rose.
- Chen Hsin’s confusion: Northeastern and Northwestern rock musicians in China incorporate local cultural influences, social issues, as well as dialect and slang in their music. Chen Hsin is Taiwanese, so it is likely that he is unfamiliar with the music, as well as the expressions and double entendre in the songs that Wu Rong is singing in this chapter.
- “Able and Virtuous” by Su Yang: 《贤良》(苏阳) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NC3oxJUKn7Q
- Su Yang is a Northwestern alternative rock band. It is known for its incorporation of Northwestern folksong elements in its music.
- ‘Mothers’: The term ‘姨娘’ (yiniang) is used in the original lyrics.
- There are two literal meanings of the term: 1) ‘maternal aunt’ or 2) ‘concubine’. It may also be used as a generic expression in certain colloquialisms to refer to a village or small-town matron.
- In this chapter, I have chosen to translate the term as ‘mothers’, since the context in the lyrics describes the general phenomenon of these women teaching their children to be good, and does not refer to specific aunts or concubines.
- Lalaying: The lalaying plant (辣辣缨 or 拉拉缨) is a kind of potherb commonly found in Northwestern China. It is a hardy weed that is removed if found growing in agricultural fields. Its roots taste spicy, so the plant is also used for seasoning in some local food.