Thursday, January 31, 2008

ICE COLD IN HENGDIAN : On location for ‘Painted Skin’.

I emerge from the Hangzhou airport into China’s coldest Winter in 50 years. Its only a two hour flight from Hong Kong, but feels like a complete climate change. I’ve visited the Hengdian World Studios several times before, but the two and a half hour ride to hotel has never seemed longer. Living in Asia, I’ve lost my tolerance for what the northern English call ‘brass moon-key’ weather…

As we ride through the generally featureless terrain, I note that a disproportionate number of the new houses visible from the road have spires built onto them, as though they’re each one lost corner of an unfinished castle.

The Hengdian International Conference Centre Deluxe Hotel advertises itself as being a four star facility. For what were these stars awarded, I wonder? Zero room service? Vast, empty echoing corridors? Unheated rooms in the depths of winter? This place has it all… When you consider the scale of the films that have been shot at the studios (Hero, Dragon Tiger Gate, The Promise, DOA, the forthcoming Forbidden Kingdom and Mummy 3), you’d suppose that the facilities would have been upgraded to match. Word is that a number of major brands wanted to sell franchises in the area, but the local power brokers have declined to cede power, or potential revenue, to them. Having stashed my bags, I repair to the (relative) comforts of the Bonny Café. I had dinner with David Carradine last time I was in Hengdian. (There’s now a framed photo of him with the staff, commemorating the two films he shot there, Son Of The Dragon and White Crane.)

Whatever my gripes about the accommodation, the studio itself is truly extraordinary. Stretching over 49,5995 square metres, it contains a full scale replica of the Forbidden City, first seen in Hero, and a massive indoor Buddha statue, which is billed as being the world’s largest. (I wonder where the second largest is…?) The following morning, I get up to play my Tai Chi and spread some energy into my frozen limbs. The golden sun gleams off the replicated pagodas and towers of an older, perhaps wiser China. By the time my whole body is steaming, I’m ready to face the day. (Now, if only there was a decent cup of coffee to be had…)

I’m in Hengdian to visit the set of Painted Skin, a period supernatural actioner being helmed by Gordon Chan, starring action idol Donnie Yen, and three of China’s hottest leading ladies, Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer), Zhao Xun (The Banquet AKA Legend of the Black Scorpion) and Li Sun (Fearless). (I’d like to be able to tell you that Gordon and Donnie were the main attraction drawing me to visit the set…)

I’m met at the hotel by a group of producers for the film, and we go on a tour of those areas of the back lot being used for Painted Skin. We cross paths with a tour bus, containing shivering but happy film fans who have paid to see where their favourite movies were shot. These tours sometimes feature guest appearances by Chinese actors, and live recreations of scenes from the films shot at Hengdian.

Donnie Yen told me how, when he was making Dragon Tiger Gate, he was getting his make-up done one early morning, when he opened his eyes and saw two men passing. One was dressed like Jet Li’s character in Hero, and the other like his own. What film am I making?, he wondered to himself. The guys turned out to be stuntmen, and they were recreating the Hero courtyard fight between Jet and Donnie, five times a day.

As the producers and I are about to ascend a tower for an over-view of the back lot, a few of the tourists want to take a photo with me. They think you’re Jason Statham, one of my guides explains, sheepishly. ‘Coming soon,” I tell them. ‘Transporter 3! Don’t miss it…’

After wending our way through the apparently limitless expanse of back lot (it literally stretches as far as the eye can see), we board our bus and head to the Painted Skin set. As we approach, I realize that the scene is being filmed on the exact same soundstage used for the finale of Dragon Tiger Gate. It actually seems colder inside (if that’s possible) than it was on the street set. A row of tent-like structures have been set up, and they seem to be positively glowing with heat. I’m eyeing this refuge longingly, but the producers want to show me the props from the film.

A long hall is packed with carefully organized rows of helmets, armour, (presumably) fake antiques. There are weapons leaning against the wall. Bey knows martial arts!, exclaims one of my hosts, pointing at a metal halberd. Everyone claps. I feel stiffer than the Tin Man before he got the oil, but grasp the weapon and oblige with a few moves from Lau Gar Kwan. Everyone claps again, and one of the producers reaches out to shake my hand. Unfortunately, the weapon’s metal shaft is now frozen to the skin of my ungloved palms. I decide I either have to thaw it off, or else this is going to take some explaining on the flight home…


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