Over the next week, The World of Chinese web guru and martial arts fanatic Keoni Everington will take readers backstage during the filming of Tai Chi 0, the first of a three-part martial arts trilogy produced by Huayi Brothers and backed by old-school kung fu hero Sammo Hung’s stunt team.
Late on a Wednesday night I suddenly get the call from a female casting director. She tells me that the director of a Jet Li movie likes me – “Can you be available for a nine-day shoot tomorrow at midday?” I’d recently performed a spoken part in Jackie Chan’s latest movie, Armour of God III: Chinese Zodiac, so I guessed the casting director from that film had passed on my info. It was last minute and just before the Christmas break. Aside from the short notice, I’d be forced to leave my family over the festive period, but I had no choice. Jet Li has been my hero since the 1990s, and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to go toe-to-toe with him on film. Even the Jie (杰) part of my name is inspired by his. I later realized that Jet Li had at best a marginal relationship with the film, but by then it was too late because I was already on my way. In less than 24 hours, I was riding in a minivan towards the main movie studio in Beijing’s Huairou District to get my measurements taken. We were then transported across to neighboring Changping under cover of darkness, and I tried to steal a couple hours of sleep before our official rendezvous with the shuttle bus to the studio the next morning at 5:40am.
The bus to the studio was packed with foreign and Chinese actors, and the foreign contingent cracked jokes the whole way. When we arrived, the air was freezing cold and the sky smeared with rich brown smog. The building appeared less like a studio than an old abandoned factory, but was crawling with hundreds of actors, stuntmen, production assistants and camera crews. A quick dose of warm zhou (粥, congee) and mantou (馒头, steamed buns) helped to revive my flagging spirits before we were whisked away to the fuzhuang (服装, costume) wardrobe room, where several people assisted in helping us don our elaborate uniforms. We were handed gray mercenary suits from the era of the First Opium War. I’m not sure if they were historically accurate—you can take a look at the photos and judge for yourself—but they looked more like Napoleonic army uniforms to me. The suits were topped with black imitation bearskin hats, crested with a white and red plume shaped like an old-school pipe cleaner. The rest of the uniform consisted of a fancy gray jacket with white trim, epaulets, white shoulder belt and turnback tails, a white vest underneath, thin gray trousers, white stockings and gray leggings on top of black boots. Hardly the kind of attire ideal for performing action sequences in, and I honestly felt that the uniforms, especially the beaver hats, were ridiculous. We later joked that the hat could be used to relieve oneself, and the plume to clean up with afterwards. Next, it was on to huazhuang (化妆, makeup), which was something of a relief as I looked pretty jaded after only three hours of sleep.
The central feature of the set was a giant multi-story steam-powered tank called Troy No.1. This thing was huge—take a look at the movie poster for an idea of the scale—and was seemingly drawn from the fantastical imaginations of the writers. My take on it is that it’s a kind of steam punk version of a monstrous Nazi Panzer tank, and it was hard to figure what the thing was doing in the middle of a Tai Chi movie. The set was amazing in terms of its size, realism and attention to detail. The tank brindled with giant meshing gears and pistons, valves sprayed steam everywhere and black smoke billowed out of coal-powered furnaces. They even added rust to the metallic seams where water might have seeped through. Every time the cameras started rolling the machine would splutter into life and steam and smoke would start flying off in all directions. The drawback to this was that in addition to dust from the constant construction on the set and the Beijing air pollution, the smoke left a thick layer of soot in our noses at the end of each day. I quickly learned to copy the old hands and strap on a protective dust mask like everyone else.
Killing Time with The Team
There was so much preparation to do that first day that we actors had a lot of time to kill. Having worked on a few movies before, I was mentally prepared for this. Some veteran actors were experts in the field and produced folding chairs, iPads, video cameras, books and playing cards to pass the time. Any doubts I had over whether I would be accepted as the newbie kung fu actor on the scene were quickly dispelled, as almost all of the actors were very friendly and I got to know all my fellow foreign soldiers extremely well. One of the actors was particularly talented and would entertain us with magic tricks, mime, dirty jokes, Chinese songs and his impression of a Christian Bale on-set tirade that has been circulating on the Internet lately. He spoke Chinese with an almost flawless Beijing accent and would frequently sing songs like《我叫小沈阳》(Wǒ jiào xiǎo Shěnyáng)—I’m Called Little Shenyang.
Everyone on the set referred to us by our Chinese names. This led to some confusion because three out of the eight foreigners had “dragon” in their name. There was Feilong (飞龙, Flying Dragon), Longfei (龙飞, Dragon Flying), and Xiaolong (小龙, Little Dragon). The confusion reached epic proportions when the Sammo Hung stunt team joined the fray, as a few of them also went by the nickname Xiaolong. At one point all three dragons were on the set at the same time for a fight scene, and there was constant confusion over which dragon needed to be where. Nobody ever figured out which guy was Flying Dragon and which was Dragon Flying.
Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, of the eight foreigners most were from the original eight Nation Alliance that invaded China during the Boxer Rebellion, including Russia, the UK, France, the US, Germany and Italy, with an Israeli guy completing the set. Seven of the foreigners, including myself, were highly trained in martial arts. Each person had a specialty such as Shaolinquan (少林拳, The Shaolin School of Boxing), Changquan (长拳, literally, Long fist), Vo Vietnam or, in my case, Baguazhang (八卦掌, a martial art routine which features frequent use of the palms). The Israeli guy was mainly chosen because of his 194-cm height, but he had some martial arts training in Krav Maga and had also served in a special unit with the Israeli Defense Force during the recent war with Lebanon. The one female in the group was international Wushu champion Xu Huihui, who had already finished shooting her part in the film, but was spending time with her fiancé as he started filming his part. Her fiancé had actually proposed to her a few weeks earlier while she was acting in a scene. At one point several of the guys got in a heated debate over the true meaning of martial arts, prompting another actor to label them kung fu nerds. Despite the gentle joking, we all had some interesting philosophical discussions about kung fu over the nine days we were together. We also exchanged kung fu and Tai Chi training techniques and even sparred with each other when things got really slow. It was hard to imagine the intensity of some of the things they had in store for us in the days ahead.
Want to read more? Check out Part 2 right here for additional updates on Keoni’s progress as he navigates the pitfalls of his first spoken lines, watches colleagues get knocked out, deals with beatings of his own and suffers the agony of onscreen death.
Check out the trailer for the movie here: