Deep in the Act
Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Note: As many of you may be aware, China has recently intensified its attempt to censor webnovel content. Many writers have been affected. Around the same time, Weibo (China’s main social platform) started purging accounts of writers and high-profile reviewers/rec sites without warning or explanation. While Weibo has always been known to manipulate traffic, purge posts and lock accounts without explanations, this recent wave of purges has been rather suspiciously timed. Unfortunately, Tongzi (author of DITA) was one of the affected authors, and she lost her Weibo account on 9 June. This has been a huge blow to her, and though she’s taking a break from social media to recover from the shock, we hope to help lift her spirits however we can. Hence, we’re inviting all DITA fans to show your support for her and her writing through fanmail.
If you’ve enjoyed DITA in any way, please take some time to type some words of encouragement or share your thoughts about the novel, and send them to [email protected]. We will be compiling them and sending them to Tongzi on your behalf. Thank you!
Chen Hsin left on tiptoe in the wee hours of the morning, bowing his head against the roaring chaos within him as he walked back to his room on the thirty-eighth floor. When breakfast time came around, he reached the restaurant as early as he could, in the hopes of seeing Zhang Zhun as soon as possible.
But Zhang Zhun never showed up, and neither did Xiao-Deng. Chen Hsin’s phone lay untouched on the table, beside the milk which had long lost its warmth. He kept staring at the black screen, never finding the courage to pick it up. When breakfast was almost over, Xiao-Wang came up to him with a full plate in hand. “Chen-laoshi, Zhou-ge’s gone to meet the extras and wanted me to give you a heads-up,” the young man began as he fished out a crumpled note from his pocket. “There’s an interview scheduled this morning. To promote the film, y’know. The director wants both you and Zhang Zhun-laoshi to go.”
Written on the slip were details about when and where the interview would take place, as well as the organization conducting the interview. “Zhang Zhun’s down for this as well?” Chen Hsin took the note from the man and asked in a seemingly careless tone, “Why isn’t he here for breakfast then?”
“Huh?” Xiao-Wang was stumped by the question. “No idea. Maybe he’s sleeping in. I told Deng-ge that we’ll be dispatching the car in a bit, though.”
The car, a Ford Edge, was scheduled to leave at half past nine. By the time Chen Hsin made his way downstairs, Zhang Zhun was already standing by the vehicle with Xiao-Deng beside him. Chen Hsin strode over with his eyes set on the older man; he did not even dare to blink, for fear that he might miss a glance from Zhang Zhun, or the hint of a suggestive smile. “Why are you waiting outside?” he asked with feigned nonchalance despite the thumping of his heart and the strain of keeping a straight face.
Chen Hsin had spared no effort preening for Zhang Zhun: he sported a black leather jacket and high cut boots, styled with his hair with gel, and wore a faceted metal stud in his ear. He looked so dashing, so incredibly charming that it was almost annoying – yet Zhang Zhun turned a blind eye to it all. Denying Chen Hsin of even a cursory glance, the older man turned around, opened the door, and got in. There was some oddness to the movement of his lower body, however, and Chen Hsin realized at once that he was still hurting from the injury. With a few quick strides, the younger man reached the opposite side of the car and pulled the other door open. “Are you having a temperature?”
Yes, he was. Xiao-Deng had found Zhang Zhun running a low-grade fever when he went to look for the man before breakfast. At the time, Zhang Zhun had remarked in passing that he had too much on his mind, and that he was getting out of form. Xiao-Deng did not think much of it then. The young man had always considered himself a fool after all; he knew how slow, dense, and simple-minded he could be. But now, at the sight of the pair before him, Xiao-Deng was struck by an unexpected thought. His eyes, wide with disbelief, followed Chen Hsin in shock as the actor ducked into the SUV and shut the door. Only when the driver sounded the horn did the young assistant recover a little from the blow. Struggling to collect his wits, he climbed into the front seat and glanced backwards at the two men. His big brother looked very ill; his head lay limp against the headrest while his body slumped to the side. And though Chen Hsin remained controlled as he looked out of the window, the touch of rueful misery in his expression gave the loser away.
The car began moving as Xiao-Deng turned back to face the front. The driver, seeming to be in high spirits, tried to start a conversation. “What fine weather we have today, eh?” he asked rather cheerfully, but no one answered. After casting an awkward glance in the rearview mirror, he shut his mouth and fell into a tactful silence for the rest of the drive.
The interview was to take place in a modest studio nestled amongst narrow corridors and maze-like turns at the TV station. While Chen Hsin was ushered through the space by enthusiastic staffers, Zhang Zhun was left to follow in tow, supported by Xiao-Deng. When they reached the filming area, a simple setup consisting of three chairs was already waiting under the lights. Two were placed right next to each other; Zhang Zhun picked one at random and sat down, drenched in perspiration.
Chen Hsin was in the midst of greeting some key personnel for the program when he noticed where Zhang Zhun was sitting. “Hey,” he called out naturally, “take that other chair instead.” Distracted by the discomfort of his abnormal sweating, Zhang Zhun shifted over without much thought. As he sat down once more, however, he realized the difference between the two: despite their identical appearances, the second chair was a little more padded than the first. For an instant, Chen Hsin sensed the group around him falter in their chatter. Despite its briefness, the pause was rather unusual; the flash of emotion in the actor’s unexpected remark had not gone unnoticed. After exchanging a meaningful glance among themselves, the program team politely led Chen Hsin to his seat at last.
A young, boyish reporter got into position and handed a pair of ear mics to the actors. Since Chen Hsin was closer, he took both from her. As he passed a set to Zhang Zhun, their fingers touched for the briefest instant, and Chen Hsin almost melted from the burst of sweetness within himself. “Do you need help?” he whispered into Zhang Zhun’s ear. Shaking his head, the older man struggled to pin the amplifier on his waistband. After the crew completed the equipment check, the cameras began rolling.
The questions were focused on the film itself, covering various aspects such as the storyline, the production team, and the participating actors. One stood out in particular for Chen Hsin. “Based on what we’ve seen so far,” the reporter began in all seriousness, “you’re playing the more proactive role in the film. Does having Zhang Zhun-laoshi as your partner – with all that physical training he’s had as an action actor – ever stress you out during the sex scenes?”
Chen Hsin could not help laughing out loud. Every interview needed some highlights to spice things up, and questions like these could be glossed over with a brief remark or two. The program team did not even expect him to give a straight answer, yet Chen Hsin surprised them all. “Yes,” he admitted with a shy nod and a hand on his chin. “Yes, it does.” Then, seeing a tiny scrap of paper on Zhang Zhun trousers, he subconsciously tried to brush it away. But Zhang Zhun reacted just as fast and swatted his hand aside. Neither of them minded the exchange, and their subtle movements escaped everyone’s notice. “He’s got this really hot body, you know. Not too jacked, but…” Chen Hsin continued, glancing at Zhang Zhun in a half-serious, half-jesting manner, “It feels amazing to the touch.”
Laughter rippled through the surrounding crew. A suitable amount of humor never failed to bring life to an interview. The reporter followed up with a question to the other actor, “How about you, Zhang Zhun-laoshi?”
Zhang Zhun was stunned for a moment. “Sex scenes…” He straightened in his seat. “I’ve always found them stressful.” In a moment like this, no one could miss his honesty, nor could anyone resist the quiet charm of such sincerity. “I’ve only ever acted in action films, so performance has always been a huge challenge for me. When I first heard I’d be acting with Chen-laoshi, I could feel all my hair standing on end.”
“That bad?” the reporter asked in surprise. Stroking his chin, Chen Hsin turned his gaze toward Zhang Zhun as well. This was the first time he was hearing such comments from the man.
“Yes, I’m serious,” Zhang Zhun replied in a low voice, as candid as if he were chatting with his friends. There was nothing performative about his manner. “We’ve worked on the same productions in the past. Although we’d never interacted, I’ve seen his acting before. He’s really…” He glanced at Chen Hsin, but the fear of being found out made him look away again at once. “He’s a genius. I never thought I’d ever get the chance to act with him one day.” He paused before adding, “I never dared to, that is.”
In the momentary silence that followed Zhang Zhun’s response, Chen Hsin lowered his head, trying hard to blink his tears away. The young reporter continued, “So how does it feel now that you’ve gotten the chance to work together?”
With a smile softened by perhaps by his fever or pain, Zhang Zhun replied, “It feels amazing.” Chen Hsin looked up at this and broke into a knowing smile in response.
Overall, the interview process was very pleasant. Filming was wrapped up under an hour, and the length of the final clip was expected to be around forty minutes after editing. After the session concluded with a round of genial handshakes, Zhang Zhun was the first to head for the exit. As he passed through the doorway, he tripped on the threshold and stumbled towards the wall. Chen Hsin dashed forward at once to break the fall. He folded the man to himself in an attempt to hold him up, but Zhang Zhun shoved him out of the way. Perhaps his fear and discomfort were too much to take, Zhang Zhun failed to control his strength – and Chen Hsin fell against the opposite wall instead.
Everyone was shocked. The two men, however, were unbothered by the brief scuffle. Without so much as a change in expression, Chen Hsin unthinkingly rushed forward once more. “Stay away from me!” Zhang Zhun hissed, still refusing to accept his help. This time, Chen Hsin gave in and released Zhang Zhun with great reluctance. Then, following along, he watched as the older man walked out of the studio with slow, pained steps, supported by nothing but that quiet stoicism he knew only too well.
Staffers accompanied them all the way to the underground parking garage. Once they were in the car, Chen Hsin blew up at last. “Where the hell’s Xiao-Deng?!” he hollered at the driver.
The driver started the car. “He um… left because something cropped up, I think? He said we didn’t have to wait for him.”
There was a fire in Chen Hsin’s chest, scorching his heart with feelings he could not comprehend, tormenting him with reminders of his helplessness. He had been unable to comfort the man he cared for, and too afraid to speak the words he wanted to say… How he wished he could turn the world upside down and abandon everything he had without giving a f*** about what anyone thought!