In January, I acted in a short movie called I'm spending Spring Festival in China. The dialogue was almost exclusively English, about a Western family with a Mom, played by myself, a Dad played by a Russian who had no lines, their 20-year-old daughter Meghan, played by a vivacious Australian intern at the company producing the film, and a Grandpa played by a talented Canadian.
Meghan gets a scholarship to study in China and is worried about going since she has heard negative things about the country, but is encouraged by her Mom and Grandpa to go. Upon arriving in China, she discovers that these negative aspects are mostly exaggerated and ends up enjoying her time there with its combination of contemporary and traditional charm, including the modern Beijing airport, using a taxi-hailing app, shared bikes, and cupping. While Meghan is celebrating the Spring Festival with a Chinese friend, she has a video chat with her family back home.
The location for the film was a swanky villa, about an hour's drive from downtown Beijing, built in a bizarre interpretation of Western style.
Mom appeared in two of the six scenes. The first, which was the last to be shot on the day, saw me in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Meghan sulks at the kitchen counter because she is worried about going to China, and when her mother learns what's wrong, she suggests Meghan ask Grandpa for advice because he used to work there.
While filming the scene, I had to multi-task, using kitchen props and chatting at the same time. I was asked to roll around a piece of fruit and read my lines but it didn't look natural, so I tried cutting a stale piece of toast instead, careful not to cut myself while delivering my lines. While filming the camera was on a dolly and space was limited, so my large feet could only barely squeeze between the track and the kitchen counter. Another challenge was that my film daughter and I were freezing since there was no heat in the house, even though the community we were in was ironically called Oriental Hawaii.
When it was time for me to approach the kitchen counter, the director, who could hardly speak English, ran down the stairs and yelled, "Mom, come out!" When the translator was needed to help those actors who couldn't understand Chinese, he called, "ABC come!"
The kitchen scene was my least favorite because in real life I loathe cooking and having no children myself, I found being maternal upon command to be difficult. I did, however, look the part in an oversized sweater and large plastic glasses! I tried to channel a cross between my own mother and matriarch Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch TV series into the role, doling out maternal advice to her children from behind a counter, but the cold and exhaustion from a long day of filming prevented a successful performance. My Russian costar was so tired he stole a nap in the family room downstairs when he wasn't needed.
The second scene I was involved in was in the living room. I felt better in that setting, working in an office in real life, seated in front of a laptop. It was a cozy moment with me, Grandpa and Dad sitting on the couch and Skyping with Meghan, who was celebrating the Spring Festival in China. While pretending to Skype, we had to stare at the computer screen, wave excitedly and say hi to Meghan. There were no fixed lines here so we had to improvise, which added flexibility and creativity but could also be a source of annoyance when the director didn't like our improvisation. Sometimes he thought we were too lethargic.
"Amazing!" I exclaimed, pretending to see Meghan enjoying a Spring Festival meal with her new Chinese friends. The actor playing Grandpa said, "Meghan, where are you?" asking "can you make dumplings now?" Meghan then shows her family a gift she has made for Grandpa: a new photo of Grandpa and his late wife which superimposes them into the same location in China where an original photo was taken. Grandpa slowly takes off his glasses, a master act which had to convey the right mix of surprise, profound emotion, a pinch of happiness and grief, and be perfectly timed. Mom then wraps her arm around Grandpa's shoulder to comfort him.
At the end of the day, I felt I had bonded with my foreign film family on the set over our shared challenges and experiences, and felt the Spring Festival spirit kindled within me. I hope we will reunite one day for another project!
The author is an American living in Beijing
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton