Two facts that I will expand on in later posts, but the bare bones of which are necessary for this post to make sense:
1. I am wandering around the Worldfest International Film Festival in Houston this week as a stand-in for the director and producer (who happen to be married to each other) of a Chinese documentary which (a) featured Helen as the narrator and (b) has won a Remi award at this festival. The awards dinner is the 28th. Their baby is due…the 28th. Hence the need for a stand-in, which is me, despite the fact that I don’t know much more about movies other than that there is no situation in life that cannot be met with a quotation from The Princess Bride and that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie of all time. I am very much a fish out of water but am having a great time in my evenings after work this week, wandering around with my complimentary thousand-dollar Prize-Winning Director badge that lets me into every screening, dinner, champagne-gala after-party and yachting excursion associated with the festival. (I am not making that last one up; I have to buy boating shoes this week for the regatta at the Houston Yacht Club.) By the way, the documentary, which I find profoundly moving (you may discount my opinion as you see fit), is called Home of Mephibosheth, and I will talk about it at great length if you choose to ask me about it. [Update: young Chén Zàn was born a few days early; everybody is healthy and happy.]
2. Whenever I am in China, it is utterly routine for perfect strangers to come up and ask to have their picture taken with me. There are lots of fifty-year-old Chinese men, as well as cute young Chinese college students (there’s a honeymoon story behind that one that I’ll tell in another post) who have pictures of themselves with their American BFF-for-ten-seconds. So I long since stopped being surprised when a Chinese stranger asks if they can get a picture with me; this seems quite normal.
Now for the actual anecdotes:
Worldfest has a big focus on China every year — more new Chinese films are world-premiered here every year than at any other film festival anywhere outside of China. At the theatre where all the screenings take place, and where the red carpet was set up for opening night last Friday, a large American flag and a large Chinese flag have been put up side-by-side. The Chinese film Nine to Nirvana was having its world premiere that night and so the lobby was filled with basically all Chinese Beautiful People except me and three of my friends and Ethan Hawke, whose also-being-world-premiered movie Blaze we were there to see. I noticed that all the Chinese folks were getting their picture taken in front of the Chinese flag; so I told my friend Preston, “I’m here representing a Chinese movie, and Helen always complains that I don’t take enough pictures; so I think I need to get my picture taken in front of that Chinese flag.”
As I stepped up, I got there just as a Chinese group did (I later figured out that it was one of the Beijing film community’s luminaries and his family). I excused myself and waved them forward with a polite, “对不起 dùi bu qǐ [generic phrase that means anything from excuse me to I’m sorry to, in this case, please go ahead and go first].” Then followed the standard Chinese dialogue that happens when a Chinese person suddenly thinks, “Hey, the white guy speaks Chinese”:
“啊，你会说普通话吗？” Oh, do you speak Mandarin?
[holding up thumb and forefinger very close together] “一点点，一点点。” Just a little.
[with excitement akin to that felt when meeting a real live unicorn in the flesh] “你为什么会说？” How is it that you speak Mandarin?
“我太太是中国人。” My wife is Chinese.
We talked for a minute or so, switching to English (which Important Beijing Film Guy, though not his wife, spoke well) when the wellsprings of my Mandarin ran dry. Then they took their picture, and then Preston took mine — and the moment Preston was done, a young and dressed-for-a-world-premiere Chinese lady quickly stepped up and asked in careful English, “May I have my picture taken with you?”
As I said at the beginning, this happens to me so often in China that it didn’t strike me as being in the least odd; so I said, “Sure,” and she handed her phone to Preston, and I stood next to her and beamed my best American BFF smile, and then she thanked me — and then another young and dressed-for-a-world-premiere Chinese lady, who had clearly been waiting her turn, asked for a picture as well…
…and as Preston (with a grin that showed he was having difficulty restraining his mirth) took that picture it suddenly struck me, “Wait — this isn’t China, this is Houston — there are white guys all over this town (though, admittedly, not at the moment in this particular theatre lobby). Why do they want pictures with me?”
It took a little while for the penny to drop: I was dressed up in a bright red shirt and blue bow-tie, and I had been having an animated and friendly conversation with a Beijing Big Shot, and — most importantly of all — I had a big VIP Prize-Winning Director badge hanging around my neck.
They thought I was somebody famous!!
Fred and Janette and Preston and I thought that was pretty doggone funny. But then it occurred to me…I wonder how much time those two girls spent later (having zoomed in on the badge to figure out my name) googling Ken Pierce to figure out which famous American film dude they had landed pictures with?
Famous American film dude in front of Chinese flag
Preston and I had shared a shuttle on the way over with two friendly and interesting young Englishmen, one of whom, Hayden Munt, has a short sci-fi film that is being screened on Sunday (In My Mind, in the Sunday 5:00 “Drama Shorts” slot). That night at the Champagne Gala after-party, they happened by our table, and we enjoyed five minutes’ additional conversation (in which I learned that Mr. Munt had just graduated with a degree in classics, which caused me to burst with joy into a recitation of the first few lines of the Aeneid, having FINALLY AFTER THIRTY YEARS IN POST-COLLEGE LIFE met somebody who would recognize them). As soon as they left, two young Chinese ladies, both of whom were very charming and one of whom was dressed quite spectacularly in a glittering red formal dress, stepped up to introduce themselves. We stepped out into the lobby where there was light for photographs, and there had the sad duty of informing them that in their efforts to build up their professional networking contact list, they had chosen two redneck oil-and-gas IT guys who had practically nothing at all to do with film despite my clearly-all-too-deceptive VIP Prize-Winning Director badge. Yao Xin, it was true, was sort of a peer of mine. Along with handling the duties of production manager, she had translated the English subtitles for the short film My Bride (screening Sunday at 1:00 in the second Panorama China shorts slot, and it looks like it’s worth seeing). Yu An was the female lead for the same film. Well, the only thing I have ever done that had anything to do with movies, other than to buy tickets, was to rework the English subtitles on the Chinese documentary that landed me at Worldfest; so if ever there is going to be anybody in the Chinese film industry of whom I am a colleague, it would be Yao Xin. She gave me her card, bless her heart — a picture of which I attach below so that if any actual film person ever reads this she will get at least some professional good out of the ten minutes she and Yu An invested in me and Preston — and I gave her mine, though what possible good she will ever get out of having the business card of an energy industry IT and trading consultant I can’t imagine.
My competitor in the cutthroat world of Chinese-to-English movie subtitling (she seems like a nice person and her English is very good so if you actually NEED this particular service you should get into contact with her)
About that time — it was almost midnight by now — Helen texted me the following:
“Did you like it? Happy to see so many well dressed beautiful ladies?”
“Here you go”
Yao Xin (English translator for My Bride), Preston Newton (Chevron IT security guy who was more interested in the fact that Yao Xin’s e-mail domain was purely numeric than in any other topic that arose in our discussion), and Yu An (star of My Bride)
And having sent that particular picture as part of that particular response, I decided that prudence required that I go home right then.
I’ve run into Yao Xin and Yu An a couple of times since, and said hello, and they have been very polite even though I am a complete waste of their time. Helen got annoyed with me, in fact, because I insisted on introducing her a couple of nights ago as we encountered them on our way out of Grass Ring. Afterwards, she informed me that she had just come to the theatre in ordinary clothes without makeup because we were having a family night at the Chinese movies with Kai and Sally and Helen’s parents, and that she did not consider herself to be prepared to be introduced to Movie Persons. I have trouble taking such objections seriously (though I try) because she always looks delightful to me; but I only spoke up in disagreement with her at the very end:
“If I am going to be introduced to people as your wife at this festival,” said Helen indignantly, “I need to be dressed up suitably to be the wife of an Important Man like yourself.”
This I couldn’t let go; so, laughing, I replied, “Sweetheart, I can assure you that Yao Xin and Yu An have long since figured out that I am not an Important Man.”
I’m just playing one at this festival.
Later Worldfest 2018 posts:
Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)
Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!