One of China's biggest female movie stars stands about 5 ft.-1 or 2 and probably weighs as much as a couple packs of instant noodles. Her name is Zhou Xun and when I saw her about two years ago at a press conference in Shenzhen she was wearing blue jeans, a white sweater, and a pair of classic black "Chucks" (Chuck Taylor All Stars) and a light blue cashmere cap that covered her hair and emphasized her enormous, expressive eyes.
At the time she vaguely resembled Audrey Hepburn; she was gamin-like and appeared younger than her 28 years. Zhou also has an alluring husky cigs-and-bourbon soaked voice testimony to her slightly seedy past as a struggling bar singer in Beijing and at odds with an appearance that looks as if she should be cheerfully exclaiming in helium tones: "Gosh, Mr. Funny Bunny Wabbit! You sure look hippity-hoppity happy today!"
I was at the Shanghai Hotel tagging along with one of our intrepid reporters, an eager young pup named Alfred who had been assigned to cover the press conference, though he said there was little chance any story would result. The paper's entertainment coverage was spotty to say the least and it was only after I badgered him gently that he began to take notes.
Zhou was in town with the two male leads and the female director to promote the release their "newest" release, “Baober in Love”. I say newest in quotes because the movie was filmed in 2001, but shelved until 2004 by censors due to racy sexual content. Racy by Chinese standards, I suppose, though the clips I saw in the press conference were pretty tame by my jaded Western standards.
Let's just say based on what I saw it's no “Das Booty”, “Gonad the Barbarian” or even “9 1/2 Weeks”. It's a contemporary love triangle story involving Zhou and the two guys, one of whom plays a handicapped fellow in a wheel chair.
I was curious, though having covered more than a few such affairs while writing entertainment drivel for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado to see what the Chinese version of flackdom was like.
It was remarkably similar, right down to our names and media outlets being checked off a list at the door, being handed gimme bags with various promotional items, including CDs of the soundtrack (which wouldn't play on my home player) and having to wear oversized access cards (a reproduction of the Baober poster) on cords around our necks. The crowd of TV cameramen and photogs hogging the front rows made it impossible for the miserable ink-stained print wretches behind to see – just like home. But the Chinese are too polite to yell "Down in front, jerk offs!"
Things finally settled down. It began with a long, formal announcement Alfred translated everything for me assuring all concerned that the movie hadn't been pirated to DVD because of strict and unusually stern security measures taken by the movie company.
I turned and whispered to Alfred, "Funny, I was offered it two days ago by the video pirate boys near my apartment." Which indeed I had.
He looked aghast and made a shushing motion with his fingers.
Before taking questions, the stars posed repeatedly for pictures against oversized backdrops of the poster and then came over to another backdrop two feet from Alfred and me to pose with a corporate sponsor, a middle-aged cell phone czar who was slightly bloated and sported one of the worst toupees I've ever seen. I had to scrunch down and fold myself nearly in half to avoid being in the photo and after fixating on her tiny Chucks, I found myself looking up at Zhou who flashed a quick sardonic half smile and half-shrugged a shoulder when we made brief eye contact.
The drama though, began courtesy of the only other foreign barbarian who was there. I'll call him Charles. Our paths crossed several times in Shenzhen and I still never figured out what exactly he does. Charles is an American in his 30s, married to Chinese woman who manages a men's soccer team; he is from the deep south and speaks elementary Chinese with a Mississippi accent. He had casually mentioned that he's involved in show business, but the specifics were vague.
When I'd last seen him he tried to sell me on an Amway-type operation involving nutrients that he thought would be huge in China. We'd greeted each other upon arriving at the press conference and when the questions began I saw him edge forward wearing wraparound shades with a Chinese woman who was translating for him.
I followed just to see what he had in mind. I heard him ask his translator if anyone in the cast spoke English. She said she didn't know.
Finally there was a lull and Charles spoke up in English. "I'm a film producer from L.A.! Los Angeles! In California, USA. Hollywood!" he proclaimed.
Alfred, who also knew Charles, whispered to me. "What? He is?" I shrugged and didn't know whether or not to laugh or to leave.
The cast and director looked at him quizzically. If Charles was disappointed for not receiving immediate adulation and applause, he didn't let it show. Though his line was complete bullshit, I had to admire the chutzpah.
"Do you speak English?" he asked one of the male leads.
The guy looked at him evenly and said. "Yes, I do. A little."
"Good! Good!" Chuck said, pressing on. "I am a Hollywood producer and we want to make a film in China and we are looking for actors for it."
He focused on Zhou and smiled. "Do you? Speak English?"
"No," she said. Charles looked crestfallen. " None?"
Zhou lifted her right hand and made an extremely small space between her thumb and index finger. "Very little," she said.
"Well, maybe we can use you, anyway," he blustered. Imagine some Chinese loonball interrupting a press conference with Scarlet Johansson to say he might be able to use her in a Hong Kong kung fu flick and you get the general idea of the impression Charles was making. But instead of unleashing security goons, the assembled celebs just kept staring at him. Some press folks were giggling, however. I wanted to apologize on behalf of my country.
Charles turned back to the male actor and said, "Would you like to be in my movie?"
The actor smiled patiently, said something in Chinese and pointed to a woman standing at the other end of the table.
"What did he say?" Charles asked his translator.
"He said you have to talk to his agent," she replied. "That is her."
A very Hollywood answer. To which Charles, the director, had no reply. Shrug, retreat and fade to black.