By Erin Peterschick
In a few days, Chinese television viewers will get to see yet another small-screen treatment of historically bad Chinese-Japanese relations. Look out, Middle Kingdom, ’cause this is also my debut as an “actress” in China.
My part (American Nurse), filmed over 5 days in late June, was some of the most fun “work” I’ve ever done. By no means the easiest work (heat, potential dehydration, language barriers), but definitely enjoyable. A colleague at the university where I teach connected me with the opportunity as well as an agent he’s worked with on several occasions.
The miniseries, called “49 Days” in English, centers around some Americans and other foreigners (expats) who helped establish a safety zone in Nanjing (then called Nanking) when the Japanese invaded China during the Second Sino-Japanese war— around the late 1930’s. In China/Chinese, this war is usually referred to as the “2nd War of Japanese Aggression” and Chinese TV is rife with programs that depict that time, no doubt contributing to a rather strong anti-Japanese sentiment pervading China to this day.
If you’ve ever heard of the Nanking Massacre (a.k.a the Rape of Nanjing) or saw the 2011 movie starring Christian Bale and directed by Zhang Yimo called “The Flowers of War”, those are also about this same time period. The flowers in the latter refers to Chinese prostitutes who were protected from Japanese soldiers intent on raping them. These events were just some of the atrocities of this period in Nanjing’s history, perhaps why it’s still such ample fodder for film depiction.
Zhang Yi Mo is a famous director who was the creative genius behind the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies as well as movies such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero. The director of the TV show is a man named Zhang Li, who was the Director of Photography for Zhang Yimo and essentially his protégé. According to Nate, our show was about as big budget as it gets in China. Pretty cool that I could start my film career in China by setting the bar so high!
Some of the plot centers around the actions of the foreigners who helped establish and hold the safety zone, including Dr. Robert O. Wilson who was an American M.D. and one of the few foreigners (laowai) who remained behind to help treat the injured.
Alongside Dr. Wilson and Male Nurse (also played by American expats), our scenes were primarily set in the hospital operating room. Other foreign castmates with larger roles included real-deal professional actress Laura Poe, flown in from NYC and several other American men of varied ages and backgrounds.
Though I’ve spent a fair amount of time around expats from all over the world, this was a particularly interesting subset to get to know. Fascinating personal stories, fantastic senses of humor, wonderful fonts of knowledge and ideal companions for whiling away the non-filming hours (of which there were many).
The part we filmed was in some sort of abandoned smelter on the outer edge of Beijing, set up to look like the town and indoor locations like operating rooms and living quarters. There wasn’t much to speak of in terms of the adjacent town where our hotel was, though the guys did immediately find the two pink light oil massage parlors nearby. We also managed to locate the town square where we indulged in Chinese shao kao (BBQ) and draft beer, one of my favorite aspects of Chinese summer.
Our days varied: sometimes we’d get the call to be on set by 9am but wait around until 3pm or later to actually get into costume and film, often wrapping after midnight. My costume comprised a wool skirt, knee-high cotton socks, a polyester button up shirt and a thick wool sweater all under a dirty, “bloody” nurse’s smock with cap and face mask. The setting of the show was the middle of winter, so we had to dress the part and it was freakin’ HOT. Temperatures outside were into the 90’s some days. I sweat so much that by day three the skirt and shirt were fitting much better than they had on day one.
I got to have quite a few speaking lines, and while I have a background in theater, I came to learn film is quite different. Having to understand blocking in addition to knowing where the cameras are is different than being on stage. Chinese dramas are known for— and this experience seemed to confirm— extreme melodrama. Turn on pretty much any program on TV here and you’ll see exaggerated facial expressions/emoting and general overacting elevated to high art.
So, that part was a bit hard to get used to— it’s one thing to do it on the stage, it’s another to do it when you have a camera in your face and you assume you look totally ridiculous. The director came up to me during one scene and asked: “Do you have a heart made of stone and steel?” Flustered, I said I thought my character was being strong- for her doctor, for her patients and well, because most nurses are strong people. I should know; my mom is one and she’s a tough lady! So, after that I understood a lot more what they wanted, and that hey, I wasn’t just a human prop to the bigger part actors, but that I would get camera close-ups and screen time of my own so I better act my little heart out… which is exactly what I tried to do.
All in all it was a fun little excursion into a very different world from teaching English. Here’s hoping that I’ll get to do it again.
Erin (friends call her EJ) has been traveling ever since she can remember. Born and raised in Spokane, WA, she left at 18 to move to France, and hasn’t looked back since. Early adventures included study, volunteer and work stints in the UK and Europe. In 2008, she and her husband Craig quit their jobs, bought one-way tickets and began teaching English in China. They’ve been calling China home off and on ever since. With multiple degrees and languages between them, they’re still trying to figure out how to make this whole “location independent” thing work. (She can be reached at email@example.com)