Deep in the Act
First Published on Chaleuria
When assistant director Zhou finally called to tell Zhang Zhun that “the contract was ready for signing”, Zhang Zhun found himself filled with unease rather than joy. Three days later, as he stepped into the foyer of the Ocean Star Hotel with his suitcase, his fear came true. Chen Hsin was already there, leaning casually against the receptionist counter in his hoodie, a large cap partially concealing his face. Zhang Zhun spotted him immediately in all his wild, untamed charm.
Assistant director Zhou came up to him, keycards in hand. “Zhang-laoshi, you’ll be staying in room 3804.”
Zhang Zhun took a card. Before he could thank the assistant director, however, the other man cut in, “The director wants both of you to work on getting comfortable with each other during this half-month stay.”
Zhang Zhun looked at him, perplexed. He added in embarrassment, “It’s a single suite, but there will be two beds.”
Zhang Zhun turned his gaze on Chen Hsin, who was standing a little farther away with the other card in hand. His face was hidden in the shadow of his cap, making it impossible to read his expression with any certainty. Assistant director Zhou continued to explain, “The filming schedule was finalized the day before yesterday. We’ll start with the intimate scenes, so you’ll need to…” Zhang Zhun nodded in understanding. Saved from further embarrassment, assistant director Zhou patted him on the shoulder and hurriedly excused himself before disappearing from sight.
“Do you snore?” Chen Hsin asked as he sauntered over with his luggage in tow.
“Do your feet stink?” Zhang Zhun retorted, still unable to look Chen Hsin in the eye.
Chen Hsin broke into a smile – another one of his lopsided grins – and slung an arm around Zhang Zhun’s shoulders in friendly familiarity. Zhang Zhun said nothing; within the confinement of Chen Hsin’s arm, under his touch, Zhang Zhun’s flesh began to take on a warmth of its own. Together, they took the elevator to the thirty-eighth floor. The crowds that streamed in and out of the elevator on the lower floors slowly thinned out over time. By the time it went past the twenty-fifth floor, they were the only ones left in the elevator. All was quiet in the enclosed space except for the sound of their breathing, one slower than the other.
“There were two more after you that day,” Chen Hsin spoke up suddenly in a careless tone, his eyes averted from Zhang Zhun.
“Oh.” Zhang Zhun understood what he meant, but was at a loss for a reply.
“My mouth was all numb by the end.”
Zhang Zhun could not help but laugh at the thought. Chen Hsin began to laugh too. Falling back against the elevator wall, he finally turned to face Zhang Zhun. “I chose you.”
Zhang Zhun dropped his gaze as he replied, “I suppose I owe you my thanks then.”
“How are you going to repay me?”
The ease with which Chen Hsin slipped into character disconcerted Zhang Zhun. It felt too soon, too fast. His pretty brow creased into a troubled frown as he suggested, “You get first dibs on the beds.”
“How boring!” Chen Hsin replied dismissively, turning away in disappointment.
Simple and earnest by nature, Zhang Zhun was not one to take things lightly. “What would you like then?” he asked now, in all seriousness.
Chen Hsin looked up at the ceiling of the elevator. Staring at their clear reflections in the smooth surface above, he declared, “I want first dibs in bed.”
Zhang Zhun was stunned. But just as he was about to ask Chen Hsin to explain himself, the elevator came to an abrupt stop on their floor with a ding. Chen Hsin reached for the button and held the door open for Zhang Zhun. The moment passed. Distracted, Zhang Zhun stepped out of the elevator and started looking for their room as he wandered down the long corridor. When he found the room and swiped both of them in, however, his mind promptly went blank at the sight before him.
There were indeed two neatly-made beds in the room, but a single rose lay under the turned-down covers on each bed. Stepping in after Zhang Zhun, Chen Hsin remarked absently after taking a single look, “They gave us a couple’s room, huh?”
A deep flush instantly exploded across Zhang Zhun’s face. He tried to hide his reaction from Chen Hsin, but to no avail. Chen Hsin watched him with a grin as he extended a teasing invitation, “Shall we… take a look at the bathroom, together?”
Zhang Zhun’s face reddened further; he binned the roses sullenly. Chen Hsin backed off, speaking smoothly over his shoulder as he walked away, “You pick first — I’ll take whichever bed’s left.”
The remark reminded Zhang Zhun of Chen Hsin’s declaration in the elevator – I want first dibs in bed. A vague understanding of the statement’s implications slowly dawned upon him. With his face flushed to the extreme, he threw himself onto the bed in defeat.
All of a sudden, Chen Hsin yelled from the other end of the room, “What the… You! Come over now!”
Zhang Zhun jolted upright in bed. An overwhelming desire to tell everything to burn in hell consumed him; at this very moment, he desperately wanted to curse the film, this room, his partner… But work was work. He had made the decision and there was no one to blame but himself. After staring blankly into space for a while, he finally got up and made his way over with great reluctance.
When Zhang Zhun saw the open bathroom, he immediately understood Chen Hsin’s outrage. He, too, was shocked by the absence of partitions between the toilet and the shower, and the completely transparent glass wall between the bathroom and the bedroom. There was absolutely no privacy to be had.
“F***!” Chen Hsin was the first to blow up. This time, flabbergasted by how far the production team had gone, Chen Hsin was no longer in the mood for jokes. “Screw you, Chen Cheng-Sen!” he cursed, roughly putting on his cap and snatching up his keycard before storming out of the room. The door slammed loudly behind him.
Left on his own in the room, Zhang Zhun felt his mind go blank again. He could not imagine how he would live in such a room with Chen Hsin for fifteen days. To bathe in plain sight of the other man – or to watch Chen Hsin bathe before him – and to pass their days getting used to each other’s bodies, endlessly practicing for those sensual erotic scenes… He turned away, pressing his hand hard against his forehead, only to be confronted again by the two large, inviting beds before him.
Chen Hsin must have gone to the director to request a change of rooms, and Zhang Zhun welcomed the prospect. Leaving his luggage untouched, he removed his shoes and socks to change into his flip-flops. He turned on the TV, switched to Channel V, and waited for Chen Hsin’s return.
Chen Hsin came back very soon with dejection written all over his face and a stack of stuff in his hands. Zhang Zhun stared straight ahead at the screen. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” was playing now; he fixed his eyes on the black and white film footages, bathing in the cold blue light from the video as he silently waited for Chen Hsin to speak up first. Without a word, Chen Hsin tossed the stack carelessly onto the table before the TV set; it was a collection of DVDs. From where he was seated, about three to five meters away from the table, Zhang Zhun managed to make out the titles on several covers: Brokeback Mountain, Farewell My Concubine1, and Lan Yu2.
“What did the director say?” he asked weakly, holding a hand to his brow in resignation.
“What else would he say?” Chen Hsin pulled out two sheets of paper. “Who are we to be making demands when the production team has deigned to squeeze out time for us to get ready?” He passed a sheet to Zhang Zhun, explaining, “The script for the first scene is out.”
As he scanned the page, Zhang Zhun felt the color drain from his face. “Does it really have to be so… detailed?”
Wearing a look of disgruntlement, Chen Hsin frowned as he flipped through the DVDs listlessly. “Looks like we really have to get things going… you know, get into the mood.”
Zhang Zhun fell silent. Then, he ran his hand roughly through his hair before speaking up again, “What’s in the pile? Let me take a look.”
They had been given more than ten films. Chen Hsin picked them up and planted himself on the bed beside Zhang Zhun so that they could look through the stack together. All of them had rather explicit covers. Many titles were alien to them. Some were Chinese films, but most were foreign. Zhang Zhun picked one out and asked in a tight, nervous voice, “Seen this one before?”
“Not my thing.”
Zhang Zhun began to give the matter some serious thought. “I think we should work out a schedule, treat it as the professional work that it is.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “At night, we will watch the films. The next morning, we… practice accordingly.”
He looked up tentatively at Chen Hsin and found that Chen Hsin was looking at him too, their gazes touching suggestively, intimately, before falling inexplicably on each other’s lips at the same time. Zhang Zhun tensed, whipping his head away as he continued, “We’ll consider the remaining hours in the day as personal time. I’ll go to the gym, and you can do whatever you want. Let’s keep things professional like normal coworkers.”
“That goes without saying. How else should we go about it?” Chen Hsin shoved his hands into his pockets and stood up with a sneer. “We’re not really gay, after all.”
- Farewell My Concubine: One of the seminal films in the Fifth Generation movement in Chinese cinema, directed by Chen Kaige, who was a leading auteur of the movement.
- The film explores the effect of mid-20th-century political turmoil in China on the lives of ordinary individuals.
- It tells a tragic story of the complex relationship between two Beijing opera actors and the woman who comes between them.
- It was the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, amongst other international honors.
- Lan Yu: A keystone film in Chinese gay cinema, directed by Stanley Kwan.
- It was highly controversial in its time for its explicit depiction of gay sex scenes (including male full frontal nudity) and vivid reference to the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
- It won various awards at numerous Hong Kong and Taiwan film festivals, including the Best Actor award for Liu Ye (who played the titular role) at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards in 2001.
- The film was also an official selection at various international film festivals, including the Sundance and the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.