Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
Chen Hsin got up early the next day, feeling much better after sleeping for a day and a night. He had just eaten some porridge when he heard the notification tone for an incoming text on his phone. It was a message from Zhang Zhun, containing only a single weblink. Baffled, he opened the link and entered a video-sharing website. A small cartoon TV popped up in the middle of his screen, shaking.1 “What in the world…”
In an instant, the buffering ended without warning, and Chen Hsin saw his own face appear onscreen. It took him a while to find the play button. Then, his gut aflutter with an inexplicable sense of expectancy, he started the video. The image of his face moved on the screen, and the young brigand from Galloping Steed came to life. As he darted a casual, dazzling glance over his shoulder into the camera, the music began playing; it was “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo:2
The past – the present – what is gone will never return
Fallen red leaves, long buried in the dust
At the beginning – in the end – nothing ever changes
Lingering in the sky, you wander beyond the clouds…
Chen Hsin’s entire career, spanning across the better half of his life, was distilled into the three-minute clip. Starting from his very first appearance as a greenhorn, the video tracked his growth over every single year. It recorded every award ceremony he had attended, and captured the backward glances of every single character he had ever played. One after the other, his onscreen personas cast their varied gazes at the viewer, at times frivolous and audacious, at others decadent, rugged, or breathtakingly beautiful.
Row upon row of red and yellow text darted across the screen without pause. Chen Hsin knew that the feature was called a “bullet screen.” Amidst the chaotic onslaught of comments, such as “Let me have your babies” and “Master Chen is so handsome the heavens are shook,” Chen Hsin noticed a single row of text in white: “Dafuq! OP must be in true love!”
Chen Hsin’s heart skipped a beat. He rushed to check the heading of the video, but found little information in the bland title: “Montage of Chen Hsin’s Onscreen Personas.” Even the uploader’s username gave nothing away. The system indicated that the clip was uploaded at eleven the night before, and approved at three in the morning. All of a sudden, Chen Hsin recalled that night at the KTV lounge – that night when Zhang Zhun sang his heart out in a drunken daze and poured his soul into the most moving of lines:
The sea of suffering churns with love and hate
In this world, there is no escape from fate
We draw close, but the distance between us cannot be closed
Or perhaps I should believe this is how things are destined to be!
The notification tone sounded once more. Chen Hsin snatched up his phone and opened Zhang Zhun’s new message. There was only a single line: [Too tired. Sleeping now. I’ll pop by to see you later.] Chen Hsin stared at the words for a very long time, so long that he found himself recalling the faded, forgotten memories of Galloping Steed and Northern Peak. He lost himself in deep thought, going through the mess in his head over and over again. Then, at long last, he raised his voice and called out to the young woman doing her hair in the bathroom, “I don’t want to do this anymore!”
The sound of clattering bottles stopped. Feng Yunting came out of the bathroom, combing her fingers through her long tresses. She looked somewhat surprised, but also a little pleased and triumphant. “Me neither.”
Chen Hsin tossed her a withering look. “Go on. How much do you want, and what are your terms?”
In a profession like theirs, there was always a price to pay for breakups. Feng Yunting had it all figured out a long time ago. Admiring her red, newly-painted nails, she replied, “Twenty million in cash. One film and two TV dramas with stellar casting, and I have to be the second female lead at least.”
“Twenty million?” Chen Hsin did not expect her price to be this high. “You sure you’re worth that much?”
“I don’t know about me, but he’s definitely worth it.” Feng Yunting tossed her hair over her shoulder in a rather business-like manner. “We’re all in this line of work together. I have no intention to ruin you,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. It was a tacit reminder of the damage that a homosexual scandal could do, highlighting just how reasonable her demands were. “If not, I suppose you could try putting up with this for a little longer.”
Since Chen Hsin had decided to call it quits, he would never go back on his word. “Deal. I’ll make the transfer in installments.”
At this, Feng Yunting added, “But we can’t announce it yet. You’ll have to wait a few more days.”
Chen Hsin raised an eyebrow. “New assignment?” he asked, comprehension dawning at once.
“Endorsement deal for luxury cars,” she answered, beaming sweetly. “It’s so hard for women to get opportunities like these. Thanks, Honey!”
This was a reward that she earned for herself by going public with their relationship, Chen Hsin knew. “How many days?”
“The client hasn’t gotten back to us, but you know me. I won’t create any trouble for you.”
Chen Hsin lay back, thinking, and pillowed his head on his arms. In truth, getting a clean break for twenty million was a pretty good deal. Besides, he did know Feng Yunting well; she had good business sense. “Make it quick then, as soon as possible.”
Concerned that his arms might go numb, Feng Yunting stuffed a proper pillow under his head instead. “Honestly, why are you so impatient?” As she spoke, she nestled against his chest like a real girlfriend and fingered the curls in his hair. “Isn’t a casual on-set fling enough for you? Do you really have to take it to heart?” Chen Hsin did not reply. She continued, “What happens after the film’s done? Move in together and play house?”
“Why are you being so chatty?” Chen Hsin retorted, agitated by her slew of questions. “Shoo. Get off.”
“Seriously though,” Feng Yunting breathed, her lips almost touching the tip of his nose, “he’s a good one. Don’t wreck him with your games.”
Chen Hsin cut her off. “What kind of luxury car would want you for endorsement, anyway? Cars for mistresses, I bet.”
In response, Feng Yunting reached under the covers and gave him a hard pinch on his butt. “Yesterday, did the two of you… hm?” Instead of pulling her hand away, she reached for his crotch. “You seem rather energetic, don’t you? Since we’re breaking up for good, want to go at it one last time?”
Maddened to the point of amusement, Chen Hsin pushed her face aside and flipped her off himself. “Hurry up and scram!”
Filming resumed at night. To make up for lost time, Chen Cheng-Sen decided to start with a night scene. Zhang Zhun was still in bed when he received the notice. Xiao-Deng came knocking on Zhang Zhun’s door with a full suit in his arms. “He’s recovered?” the older man blurted out as soon as he saw the costume.
Knowing whom Zhang Zhun was referring to, Xiao-Deng replied with deliberate half-heartedness, “Dunno.” Once he was in the room, the young man grumbled in earnest, “The entire production has already been on hold for two days and a night because of him, but I suppose he’s worth all the losses incurred, eh?”
Zhang Zhun remained unaffected. He knew that Xiao-Deng was just venting. “You’re still young. Don’t be so quick and mean with your words,” he soothed, stripping down to his underwear in plain view of his assistant.
Yet, Zhang Zhun’s openness only fueled Xiao-Deng’s embarrassment. For reasons he did not understand, ever since he noticed the suggestive relationship between Zhang Zhun and Chen Hsin, Xiao-Deng had become shy about looking at his big brother. “Ge… um…”
“What is it?” Zhang Zhun asked, holding onto the collar of his shirt.
“It’s… um… you…”
Zhang Zhun pulled up his trousers. “What’s wrong?” Fastening his waist, he sat down beside the young man – too close for comfort, and too close for Xiao-Deng to take.
In the very next instant, the young assistant sprang to his feet as if his own pants were on fire. “Um, that’s right, we’re running late!” He rushed to open the door. “Why don’t you get dressed on the way?!” Baffled, Zhang Zhun followed Xiao-Deng out of the room. The young man walked very fast, and he kept up his odd, flustered behavior all the way until they reached their destination thirty minutes later.
The film site was a luxury apartment community. Zhang Zhun had his walk-through under a streetlamp by a sycamore tree. The lights, already adjusted for effect, bathed the scene in warm shades of yellow and hazy tints of purple. The director talked him through the scene: at the end of a long, harrowing journey through the dark, Gao Zhun waited for Fang Chi in the night, all on his own. The director wanted Zhang Zhun to convey the central conflict rending his character apart; he needed the actor to show that even as Gao Zhun was overwhelmed by terror, he was also filled with hope.
Zhang Zhun was ready. He imagined himself to be Gao Zhun, a fragile patient tormented beyond belief by his fears. Gradually, he began to make out the sound of a motor engine in the distance. Roaring, it came nearer and nearer, bringing his love – his savior – ever closer to him. “Action!” came the director’s cue, but the voice felt so faded, so far away that it seemed little more than a trick of the senses. His only reality was the Volvo suddenly gliding out of the night before his very eyes.
The car came to a sharp halt, askew by the side of the road, and “Fang Chi” emerged from the vehicle. Then, through the darkness, the tall figure with windblown hair came toward the light with urgent strides, approaching him with a secret love known only to themselves. Trembling, Zhang Zhun almost broke down in joy.
- Bilibili: The cartoon TV is one of the mascots for Bilibili, a popular China-based video-sharing website.
- Inspired by sites like Nico Nico Douga, Bilibili originated as a site focused on video content related to animation, comics and games (ACG). Over the years, Bilibili has expanded to include a larger variety of video content, and is now one of the most-used video-sharing sites in China.
- The TV mascot appears onscreen, shaking, whenever a video or a page is in the process of loading or buffering.
- “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo: The ending theme for A Chinese Odyssey Part 2: Cinderella. This song was mentioned previously in Chapter 13.1, and briefly explained in the footnotes for that chapter.
The scene they are shooting in this chapter takes place in Chapter 8.2.