Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
The actors got to their feet, one after the other, and walked into the filming area. Two chairs were placed at a sixty-degree angle from each other, and Chen Hsin sat down on one of them. “Please take a seat,” he said to Zhang Zhun. “Today, as mentioned in our previous session, let’s try out some exercises that involve physical contact.”
Standing before Chen Hsin, Zhang Zhun took a deep, shuddering breath. This was just an act, he warned himself over and over again while his shaking hands reached for his jacket buttons. Although Chen Hsin did nothing, he watched Zhang Zhun’s every move with smitten eyes, a provocative glint smoldering in their depths. Burned by the heated gaze, Zhang Zhun blushed. With a twist of his wrist, he began to undo his own buttons one by one, revealing the thin shirt and tightly-cinched belt underneath.
“Slow down,” Chen Cheng-Sen ordered. He sat nearby, cross-legged, observing them up close. “Zhang Zhun, your movements need to be more seductive here.”
Chen Hsin swallowed. The angle of his folded hands shifted as he adjusted his grip again and again. Before his eyes, a sacrificial air came over Zhang Zhun’s movements. As if he were making an offering of his body, Zhang Zhun shed his jacket bit by bit, allowing it to slowly slide down his back. Once the clothing was removed, he turned a little to drape it over the back of his chair, flexing his waist muscles tantalizingly under his fitted shirt. Then, he reached for his tie with a single hand. After a light tug at the knot, the soft silk unraveled and spread itself over his chest.
“I followed your instructions and practiced accordingly.” Zhang Zhun pressed his lips together, his deliberate restraint suffusing him with an irresistible allure. “Is this acceptable?”
Riveted with irrepressible excitement, Chen Hsin stared at the other man in silence. Moments passed without a single word from Chen Hsin. Feeling as if they were playing a secret game in plain sight of everyone else, Zhang Zhun trembled with shame. Lowering his voice, he repeated, “Is this acceptable?”
“Stop here.” Chen Cheng-Sen was at a loss for words. He waved his rolled-up script, not knowing where to begin. After a long pause, he continued at last, “You’re too intense, Chen-laoshi. Tone things down a bit. At this point in the story, Fang Chi’s feelings for Gao Zhun… haven’t gotten that far.”
Although the director kept his language vague, everyone knew what he was trying to say: Chen Hsin’s performance was too eager, too passionate. Just then, taking advantage of the timing, Feng Yunting came over and passed some water to Chen Hsin. “Do you need a break, honey?” she asked, darting a glance at Zhang Zhun at the same time. Zhang Zhun caught it and saw the resentment simmering in the corners of her eyes.
“Hurry up!” Bothered by Feng Yunting’s obstructive presence between the two actors, Chen Cheng-Sen stamped his foot in annoyance. “Continue where you left off.”
Chen Hsin combed back his hair and straightened his glasses. Staring at Zhang Zhun through his spotless lenses, he asked, “What usually goes on in your mind when you carry out these exercises at home?”
His stare filled Zhang Zhun with misery. “I think of you,” he breathed, at once delivering his line and giving voice to the deepest yearning within him. He could not help but tighten his grip on his tie as he continued, “I picture you before me…”
Chen Cheng-Sen cut him off. “Skip over this bit and go straight to Fang Chi’s question, ‘Is this okay for you?’”
As instructed, Chen Hsin stood up. Fixing his eyes on Zhang Zhun, he took a cautious step forward. Zhang Zhun tensed. Although he seemed ready to back away, he stopped himself and waited quietly for Chen Hsin’s approach.
“Is this okay for you?” Chen Hsin asked, so close that their faces were almost touching.
Zhang Zhun dropped his head at once. Despite the pang in his heart, he forced a laugh into his voice. “This… feels really weird.” It was the kind of easy laughter elicited by a friend’s playful tickle, but Chen Hsin heard the strain in Zhang Zhun’s voice. He knew the other man was forcing himself to keep up his act.
“My movements may become more invasive now,” Chen Hsin said. Following stage directions, he took another step forward, oppressive and intimate at the same time. Zhang Zhun backed away. There was no artifice in his weakness; his distress was heart-wrenchingly genuine.
All of a sudden, a sense of disorientation came over Chen Hsin. He could no longer differentiate film from reality. Who were the ones testing each other’s boundaries now? Fang Chi and Gao Zhun, or Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun? “Why are you running away?” Chen Hsin asked. He spoke not with Fang Chi’s voice but his own, and sadness thrummed through every word. “We made it far enough the other night to embrace each other. Why are you afraid now?”
Chen Hsin seemed to be talking about last night instead. Zhang Zhun felt a twitch in his brow. He wanted to reply, but his line was caught in his throat and he could not make a single sound. Chen Hsin did not wait. In a heartbeat, he stepped forward again with urgency and pinned Zhang Zhun to the wall, pressing his back into the hard cement plaster. Their faces barely two centimeters apart, Chen Hsin exhaled against Zhang Zhun’s forehead, his breath warm and anxious on Zhang Zhun’s skin. Zhang Zhun squeezed his eyes shut. No one but Chen Hsin could see how close he was to tears. The world faded into oblivion; all was empty except for the two of them, and those soft lashes quivering in the air.
Even though Fang Chi was supposed to pull away at this point, according to the stage directions, Chen Hsin refused to step back. Instead, he pressed his lips to Zhang Zhun’s ear and murmured tenderly, “Next, we’ll attempt some forms of physical contact together.” He waved his fingers before Zhang Zhun’s eyes. “May I touch your face?”
Zhang Zhun shifted his eyes between Chen Hsin’s fingers and face. He watched as Chen Hsin’s hand came toward him, and broke into a sweat as he felt the press of Chen Hsin’s palm against his forehead. Then, as described in the screenplay, Chen Hsin’s fingers traveled over the contours of Zhang Zhun’s face: they ran down the bridge of his nose, pressed at the dip of his philtrum, and trailed across his lips. But a buzz was growing steadily in Chen Hsin’s head; the noise was so loud he no longer remembered the scripted sequence he was supposed to follow. Soon, he lost all sense of restraint and began groping Zhang Zhun’s body at will.
Everyone on set sensed how wrong the situation had become. Discomfited, the staff exchanged worried glances with one another, all at a loss as to what to do. “Please… Please stop!” Zhang Zhun pleaded in a panic.
“Just bear with it for a little longer…” Impatient and sex-crazed, Chen Hsin delivered his line with an indifference that did not fit the story at all.
“Don’t… Don’t…” Zhang Zhun began shoving at Chen Hsin. According to the script, Chen Hsin ought to appear surprised before putting up a token fight with very little force – but he did not. Instead, he trapped Zhang Zhun’s hands with all the strength he could muster. Then, as if he was trying to claim Zhang Zhun as his own, he flipped the older man’s body around and crushed him to the wall, holding him there with all his might. Tears streamed down Zhang Zhun’s face while tremor after tremor racked his body, but the ordeal was not yet over. Gripping the older man by the chin, Chen Hsin forced Zhang Zhun’s face toward himself before leaning in with eager lips…
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Chen Cheng-Sen flung his script onto the floor in rage. “Chen Hsin, you’re doing this all wrong!”
Aware he had gone too far, Chen Hsin released Zhang Zhun in embarrassment; yet, he kept up the appearance of self-righteousness as he tried to defend himself. “I think this interpretation is more intense, and it adds more dramatic tension to the scene.”
Out of consideration for Chen Hsin’ dignity, Chen Cheng-Sen held back his retort. “Zhang Zhun, go explain the scene for him.” After barking out his order, he directed an additional, loaded remark at Chen Hsin, “If this continues any further, we’ll end up using closed sets even for ‘non-action’ scenes!”
Was Chen Cheng-Sen really asking Zhang Zhun to parse the scene for Chen Hsin? Of course not, Chen Hsin knew. He hung his head. As he was about to sling his arm around Zhang Zhun, someone grabbed his hand. It was Xiao-Deng. Glaring at Chen Hsin with impetuous anger flashing in his eyes, the young assistant gave him a good hard shove. At this, Feng Yunting rushed over as well. Fearing that a fight would break out among the men, she clung to Chen Hsin’s arm and tried to hold him back. Thus, the four of them came to a tenuous standstill, rife with unspoken tensions.
No one said a word for a long time, until Zhang Zhun acted at last. After wiping his face on his sleeve, he brushed Xiao-Deng aside and tugged Chen Hsin’s sleeve out of Feng Yunting’s grasp. “We need to discuss the scene,” he said to her, by way of explanation, before pushing Chen Hsin into the bathroom.
Then, with a loud click, the bathroom door closed and locked behind the two men.
In case anyone is interested (and wants to compare differences), the scene being filmed in this chapter took place in Chapters 10.1 and 10.2.