I found myself in Fuzhou promoting a film I made, but I also found myself hot-footing after Jackie Chan under the gaze of our Chinese handlers.
When I started making an independent film, there were many places I hoped it would take me. But none of those was the cobbled streets of Fuzhou, a city of around seven million people in the south of China, filled with concrete skyscrapers and famous for absolutely nothing.
The Chinese government was hell-bent on making Fuzhou famous for something, so they set up the annual International Silk Road Film Festival. I received the invitation to the festival only a few days before it started, made a mad rush to get a visa and arrived with my co-producer, Steve.
We were allocated a driver and 20-year-old intern as our guide, who insisted we call her Sarah. When we asked if Jackie Chan would be attending the festival, she nodded politely. But we didn’t spot him in any of the first day’s scheduled activities, as we were shuttled from one event to another—a two-hour battle with snarling traffic in pollution-choked streets between one venue and the next.
We were treated to a solitary meal from long buffet table in a large concrete hall—which was empty. In another official-looking building next door, we watched a man play the saxophone at a “party” for about 20 teenagers snacking on wrapped sweets. No one introduced themselves to us.
“Are these filmmakers?” we asked Sarah, and she shook her head uncertainly, then apologised for us being so late. It was 7pm. We got back in the van and braced ourselves for the two-hour drive back to the Sheraton Hotel.
In the morning, we defied our orders to wait in the hotel until 2pm and went for a stroll in our neighbourhood. The only destination we could stroll to that wasn’t a highway into the city was a shopping mall. It was completely empty on this Saturday morning—except for one attendant waiting in the doorway of each store.
Upstairs on an equally vacant floor, Steve and I were surprised to come across a room with a piece of paper on which was scrawled “SILK ROAD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL” and then “NEGOTIATION ROOM”. A couple of women were disinterestedly helping themselves to wrapped sweets from a table. An older fellow appeared to be napping in the corner. Jackie Chan was entirely absent. No one spoke to us.
After a press conference with a handful of journalists seated on plastic seats, we had some hours to kill before the grand Chinese premiere of our film. That was how we came to be shivering on the cobbled streets outside the cinema—beside a life-size cut-out of Jackie Chan whose presence at the festival seemed increasingly unlikely.
Sarah ordered us—politely, smiling—to wait, while she received her next set of instructions on the phone from an anonymous superior we never met. A crowd of teenage girls had already lined the red carpet before we stepped foot on it. It turned out the gala event we’d been promised was not just for our film: Steve and I were in a line of other people walking the red carpet and waving to the rent-a-crowd, in a haze of screaming and a steady stream of announcements in Chinese over the loudspeakers.
We waited awkwardly at the edge of the red carpet, until a woman in a glittery ballgown indicated that it was our turn to be accosted by screams. I walked with her up the red carpet, not sure who I was supposed to be waving to exactly. Behind me, the shrieks grew even louder and when I turned around, I saw Steve at the barricade just barely holding back the excited teens, fighting over who could clutch the hand he’d unfurled towards them like royalty.
To be clear: these adoring fans had no idea who we were.
Politely, smiling, Sarah gave the order to the driver to return us to the hotel. Still no sign of Jackie Chan. It was 9pm on a Saturday night in downtown Fuzhou.
Another lady in a glittery ballgown was waiting at the top of the red carpet, holding a microphone. She announced to me in English that I would now be interviewed by some “student journalists”. I looked down at the children quickly encircling me. The average age would have been eight.
A little girl stepped forward to the microphone and the sparkling hostess translated. “What is the message of your movie?” she asked.
Now, my film is about a 30-something year-old man whose girlfriend has an affair and tells him that he can also sleep with someone else. I was going to say, “Don’t have sex,” but some quick-thinking made me come up with the more opaque, “Love is complicated.” The hostess translated and the little girl giggled with just a hint of confusion.
As we entered the cinema, more teenage girls were waiting to take selfies with us, squealing with delight as we signed copies of our poster and postcards. The bejewelled hostess was waiting in front of the screen as the cinema filled up with a hundred or so audience members. She had another round of questions, which was unusual because no one had seen the film yet.
“So tell us, why did you decide to make a family film?” she said, still smiling.
I fumbled for an answer. “I’d say it’s more a relationship film than a family film.”
That’s when I looked across the audience, my eyes hoping to lock with Jackie Chan’s, and realised they were mostly children. “Oh dear,” I thought, “this is not going to go well.”
The comic moments in the film were met with stony silence—whether because of dodgy subtitles or cultural differences, I couldn’t be sure. About an hour in, a puppy briefly appeared on-screen, and the cinema burst into laughter.
Politely, smiling, Sarah ushered us straight back into the van and gave the order to the driver to return us to the hotel. Still no sign of Jackie Chan. It was 9pm on a Saturday night in downtown Fuzhou.
Sarah instructed us—politely, smiling—to be ready for the hair and make-up artist to arrive at the hotel at 11am the next morning. The closing ceremony started at 7pm and she didn’t want us to be late.
“No make-up artist,” I said, firmly. “And we want to go out.”
“No make-up artist?” she repeated, still smiling but nervously now. This wasn’t going to go down well with her superiors.
We waited while she made some frantic phone calls, explaining that we wouldn’t stay in the hotel as we were told. Finally, the phone call ended and Sarah told us we had to be back before 3pm so we wouldn’t miss the bus taking us to the ceremony with the other filmmakers.
“There are other filmmakers?” We were incredulous. “Staying in this hotel? Why haven’t we met them yet?”
At 2pm, Sarah was already out the front on the phone—polite, smiling, yet clearly fretting about us being late. I hurried upstairs and did my own hair and makeup, which her polite yet distasteful smile told me she didn’t think much of.
Steve and I clambered on to the bus waiting out the front of the hotel and sure enough, it was full of filmmakers. They came from all across the world—and every last one of them was as confused as we were.
“I don’t even know if my film has screened, I just got here yesterday so I think I missed it,” a vivacious actress from Cape Town was lamenting. She suddenly broke into hysterical laughter. “I mean, what? Where am I? Is this really China?” She was being flown back out again a day after she arrived.
We poured out of the bus and into a concrete plaza, as more buses with filmmakers pulled up. There must have been at least 50 or 60 of us, all with our flights and five-star accommodation provided care of the government of China, and not one of us knew what was going on. Hushed rumours of Jackie Chan’s arrival spread through the crowd.
We were hours early for the closing ceremony and instructed to wait in the plaza. A tent had been set up with some chairs in it so at least we could sit down—but no food, drinks or entertainment was provided to us. Sarah was on the phone constantly. When we asked her for updates every half-hour or so, she told us we would be rehearsing our red carpet walk soon.
“Rehearsing?” Clearly, someone had been unhappy with our initial attempt at “walking”.
Another hour crawled by. Jackie Chan was frustratingly elusive. Sarah informed us that there was no time to practise our walk after all, so we would just have to do the best we could. For the amount of worry this was causing it was as though they thought we’d never walked before.
A suited man took over a microphone and began calling out numbers—we were all issued with a card. Ours said 52 so we knew the wait would be lengthy. Some teenage girls were shipped in from somewhere to line the red carpet and scream at us.
The tent slowly began to clear out.
We were handed a wooden ship for some purpose that we hoped would become clear as the events proceeded.
Finally, we were summoned—almost pushed—out the door of the tent, past two people dressed up as the festival mascot, a beaming blue film-reel, and onto the red carpet.
This time I was so prepared, I didn’t even need the rehearsal. We were instructed to put our wooden ship onto a shelf of identical wooden ships in the middle of the red carpet, and that simple action was met with overwhelming applause. The awaiting teenage girls called out to us and as I made my way over to the barricade, I stretched out my hand and a sea of hands reached back, accompanied by screams of “I love you!” and “You’re beautiful!”
These girls, if indeed they were the same ones, still had no idea who I was but I stopped to take selfies with them because it didn’t look like Jackie Chan was going to show up so I had to make it worth their time.
Off the red carpet, we were herded into yet another room for yet more waiting, although this one had nourishment in the form of a table laden with—you guessed it—wrapped sweets. It was dinner time and we’d been held hostage all afternoon so we were a pack of hungry filmmakers, but food was not to be forthcoming. Not now, and not at any time in the next four hours until we were shepherded back to the hotel to find the restaurant closed.
Clearly all the organisation and resources went into making the closing ceremony a smash hit for Jackie Chan’s pleasure. I tried to gauge his level of awe from the very slight movements of his head.
Finally, we were let into the main arena and it was an impressive sight. Some thousands of people were seated in front of a stage that was lit up from one end to the other with an LED screen appearing to depict a ship sailing on a sea of lava. The girls were there, of course, now waving placards which apparently screamed the names of Chinese pop stars as they entered.
We were shown to our seats: all the foreigners were in the first few rows, which I guess was the prime position to be picked up by the many cameras and broadcast to a national audience. There was still no food and no Jackie Chan, my only two areas of interest at this stage.
A ruddy Moldovan on my right was complaining loudly about the lack of organisation at the festival. Then, a cheery Bangladeshi filmmaker to my left pointed to the back of a man’s head in the front row.
“Jackie Chan,” he whispered.
And it was. Although I could only see it from behind, the head was unmistakeably Jackie Chan-shaped. Jackie Chan was not only in the building, he was seated a couple of metres in front of me.
The show began—and it was spectacular. Clearly, all the organisation and resources went into making the closing ceremony a smash hit for Jackie Chan’s pleasure, and that of millions of Chinese viewers tuning in to the state-owned television channel. I tried to gauge his level of awe from the very slight movements of his head.
The theme, for some reason, was Under The Sea and a whole variety of marine life sailed over the audience’s heads: octopuses, jellyfish, and even men in diving suits. The arena was lit up like a disco, a rolling relentless assault on the senses as national and international acts took to the stage one by one: acrobats, opera singers, classical pianists, Chinese pop stars—accompanied by the excited shrieks of their fans.
And then, of course, at every opportunity, there was Jackie Chan. He was pulled up on stage again and again: being presented with awards, handing out awards, doing something with lanterns and then something else with lanterns. All the while, the two masters of ceremonies—one man, one woman—rattled off commentary in Chinese. English subtitles flared on the screen, presumably for our benefit, but they were utterly incomprehensible.
And just as suddenly, it was all over. The foreign guests were abruptly rounded up and ushered out to our buses still waiting in the carpark and sent packing back to our hotel.
Jackie Chan was whisked away elsewhere.