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  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 3, October 29 - November 4

A  Beijing Cabbie's Summer of Love
Veteran film director Ning Ying documents changing Beijing through the eyes of a philandering taxi driver.
by Christopher Barden

I know it's all a big ruse. As I enter the pretentious Maxim's de Paris on Chongwenmen West Avenue, a so-called "party" is in progress, with several hundred of Beijing's hipoisie gathered to relive the good old pre-Sanlitun days, imbibe alcohol, and take part in an event cleverly designed to exploit their labor without their knowledge. (You'd be surprised what some people will do for free snacks and cheap white wine.)

"Extra?" exclaims Beijing screenwriter Lucy Guo (Love in the Age of the Internet (Wangluo shidai de aiqing). "Whaddya mean 'extra?' I'm not extra! I came here for the party and the free alcohol."

The suspiciously-worded invitation should have tipped off more alert minds: "Dress formal or avant-garde. Participants are invited to play music, dance, and act." One does not need a law degree to see the embedded caveat emptor, and yet a sizable, obedient herd of foreigners, locals, journalists, film industry VIPS, three bona fide rock stars, and one transvestite still show up. 

None of the guileless partygoers seem to notice the small contingent of filmmakers surreptitiously setting up lights in corners, while a small shoulder-mounted 35 millimeter film camera moves shark-like through Maxim's 15-year-old, ornately cluttered, somber environs. Even litigator Steven H. Wang's steel-trap legal mind fails to notice the bulky electrical cords snaking along the carpets, distracted as he is by the copious amounts of free food. ("Boy, these ham sandwiches on white bread are actually quite good!" says Wang, with a mouthful of cheese. "Is that plastic wrap?") But as a professional journalist, I'm not here to be duped into some meaningless role as an unpaid extra in an art film. 

No, I have a much higher purpose: I'm here to catch master film director Ning Ying's renowned on-set temper, to record a sensationalist portrait of her dressing down an actor or perhaps just bitching out a crew member. (She once brought a tough Beijing cop to tears because he couldn't get a scene right, and forbade the crew from comforting the poor public servant until they finished the take.)

But instead of discovering the former Bertolucci assistant director reducing actors to quivering masses of inadequacy, I find a sprightly, engaging, beautiful hostess of sorts, looking more like a busy schoolgirl than a fierce, barking director. Sporting a small designer backpack (de rigueur for China's generation-Y crowd), she's holding hands with her husband Francesco, an Italian anthropologist-cum-businessman-cum-movie producer. They're conversing intimately in a melange of English, Mandarin, and Italian. Ning Ying looks irrepressibly happy for some reason. 

She's smiling.
She's also standing behind the camera, which I notice, for the first time, seems to have been pointed in my direction for longer than I've been awarealong with the sound boom, several lights, and the eyes of the entire crew. As Ning Ying kindly instructs me not to look directly into the lens, I have the stark realization that I've been sucker-punched. I'm no longer a journalist. I'm an extra.

Ning Ying is a recorder of things vanishing before our eyes. Since she first worked as Bernardo Bertolucci's assistant director on The Last Emperor (1987), her filmmaking career has involved wielding a 35-millimeter movie camera to capture characters, institutions, professions, even colors of the sky, that are quickly becoming antique memories destined for the footnotes of future history books and travel guides. 

The focus of her often darkly comic plens has found its depth of field exclusively in Beijing. Not unlike Woody Allen's Manhattan, Ning Ying's Beijing is a comic nexus of hard reality and farcical fantasies.

Since her first directing debut with the commercial hit Someone Loves Just Me (you ren pianpian ai wo 1990), Ning's choice of stories has shown an uncanny habit of alighting on Beijing institutions and characters on the verge of extinction. In her highly-acclaimed sophomore feature, For Fun (zhao le 1992), she used all non-professional actors to tell the bittersweet tale of a retiree-comprised amateur Peking opera troupe.

With her 1995 cop-bites-dog tale On the Beat (minjing gushi) utilizing exclusively 
non-professional actors again Ning told the story of an ordinary Beijingolice officer during a campaign to rid the neighborhood of allegedly rabid canines. The comic portrait of bureaucracy, boredom and frustration "on the beat" not only garnered bundles of awards, but established the young director as the comic philosopher of a millennia-old city in the process of being torn down and replaced with neon kitsch and toilet-tiled skyscrapers.

Ning Ying loves Beijing. Unfortunately she's not allowed to say as much. The original Chinese title of her new film I Love Beijing got a thumbs-down from the film authorities, fearing it might be interpreted as sarcastic. Hence, in what is possibly an oblique reference to her first non-winter production of a film, the revised Chinese title is xiatian nuan yangyang (The Warmth of Summer). Jointly produced by Beijing Film Studio, Hua Yi Brothers Advertising and Happy Village 
Productions, the RMB 3 million I Love Beijing follows the meandering adventures of a taxi-driving Don Quixote on his four-wheeled, metered Rocinante, as he pathetically pursues amour through several levels of Beijing society.

Although recent newspaper reports have made much hype about the "art film" director going "commercial," I Love Beijing is distinctly Fellini-esque in its roundabout, wandering narrative, and employs much of the same naturalist spur-of-the-moment realism of which Ning is an undisputed master. In the film, cab driver Dezi divorces his wife, and then proceeds to venture through a summer-long series of short-lived relationships with women from all levels of society: a waidi (migrant) waitress from Northeast China, a popular radio show host, a primary school teacher (and daughter of a university professor), and finally a peasant from the countryside. 

"This is a very Chinese story," says actor Yu Ailei, who plays the role of Dezi. "Driving a taxi is a unique profession. And I would guess that foreign cab drivers aren't quite as interesting as our cab drivers, especially Beijing cab drivers. "They're on the road for 16 hours a day, most of their time spent in a cab, so what can they do? 
They listen to the radio, which is why in their spare time they're always talking about important affairs of state, and feel that everything has something to do with them. Beijing cab drivers really know how to talk up a storm."
When he's not driving a cab, one of Dezi's main distractions is chasing women. "He's a bit of a playboy," says Yu. "But he's not really that attractive, which you can tell from looking at me," he laughs, with unnecessary modesty. (Yu is a handsome man. After I Love Beijing hits the screens early next year, he'll no doubt be fending off plenty of female admirers.)

With a scruff of stubble on his chin, short-cropped hair, and a plain gray T-shirt, Yu has become his character, exuding a kind of friendly anomie that seems to be at the heart of Ning Ying's film. 

"In the beginning, I felt that I was really distant from this character," Yu explains. "But then I started having lots of conversations with taxi drivers to understand their lives.". By the time shooting began, the former stage actor from Hebei began to feel comfortable with the part. "First of all, I really like women. No need to act that."
"He has no goals in life," Yu says of his character. "But he's got several unique qualities, such as his ability to make fun of himself. And very importantly, he has a car, so if he wants to go on a date, he's got wheels."
In early versions of the script, Dezi begins the film driving a luxurious Toyota Crown Salon and winds up in a beat-up yellow miandi (cheap minivan) by the end. Unfortunately, by the time Ning Ying began shooting Salon's were scarce, and miandi's had already become a popular source of scrap metal. Reality, for the first time in her career, was changing faster than she could record it.
"In the end, he winds up marrying an ordinary girl from the countryside," says Yu. "I think for most playboys, the end is always like this. They discover that their former way of life didn't hold much meaning, so they find a nice girl, get married and settle down."

One of the spiritual anchors of Dezi's windmill-chasing existence is Wang Jing, the host of a popular marriage-introduction radio program.

Actress Zhang Haiyan, playing the part of Wang Jing, admits a certain pleasure at being the object of the fictional cab driver's affection. "In all the dozens of productions I've been involved in [including an internationally-acclaimed supporting role in Zhou Xiaowen's classic rural comedy Ermo], this is the first time I've played this kind of character," Zhang relates. She points out that most of her previous roles have been as homely, unglamorous characters? as a peasant wife, an auntie, motherly types, that sort of thing."

"It's a big challenge for me. There hasn't been much time for me to get to know the character," Zhang says. "And it's very rare that I'm asked to play the role of a beautiful woman. So when Ning Ying said she was determined to shoot me 'beautifully,' I knew I absolutely had to take the part."

On the subject of Ning Ying's directing style, Zhang nearly jumps out of her chair, exclaiming, "She doesn't know the meaning of sleep! It's like she doesn't even need it. She can go without any sleep and show no sign of fatigue, always her same spirited self. Most of the crew can't keep up with her. She can stop shooting at midnight and wake up four hours later all ready to go! She doesn't care what or how much she eats. Doesn't require any special treatment. She's all about doing the work."

Yu concurs: "She's two different people when directing and in normal life," says Yu. "Normally, she's really easygoing, but when shooting she's very rigorous and strict."

When I ask if he and Zhang have been yelled at on set, Yu says meekly: "Regularly. She has really high standards, and requires that a professional actor perform to the level of seeming like a non-professional actor, totally natural." Recognizing the method behind Ning's work style, Yu explains, "There have been scenes where we've had to do 10, 20 takes. That takes a lot out of you, and you get a little numb. But then a good dressing-down picks up the spirit and you can keep going."

"This is the first time I've worked with such a unique director," says Zhang. "Among the younger generation, we're lazy whenever possible. But Ning Ying takes her work so seriously. We need to learn from her."

As the Maxim's party gets rowdier, and a wave of spontaneous flamenco dancing erupts, I begin to feel a bit like the taxi driver in Ning Ying's film and make my way out of the nightclub. 

As I leave, I catch snippets of improvised conversation that Ning Ying is coaxing from her part-time, amateur foreign cast as the camera rolls: A well-regarded foreign correspondent is asked his opinion on the China-Taiwan impasse, "Well, I've been here for seven years, so I'm the right person to ask. But tonight no politics. Only dancing!"

Two old Italian Maoists, who first arrived in China in 1968, get drunk with nostalgia, bemoaning, "No one cares about politics anymore, only making money." A Chinese person asks a Yugoslav to explain his country to him. "Sure," the Yugoslav fellow replies. "Just let me know when you have a couple days of spare time." French discuss Chinese law, Germans talk of banking, and two Spanish women debate the difference between Chinese and foreign men. A Spanish expert on the Taoist sage Zhuangzi drinks wine and ponders the ceiling as he quotes from the master: "Everyone knows the use of useful things, but few know the use of useless things."

Ning Ying, you might argue, is the most Taoist of Chinese filmmakers and the most Italian of Chinese filmmakers. She is certainly the most Beijing.

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