J said he had to get an early night as he had an exam in the morning. He is German, studying at a Chinese film school, I assumed the exam would be on Hitchcock or Truffaut or somesuch and he had to hit the books. No; he wanted to go home to practise basketball, which he had never played before in his life. Because it was a sports exam. Which he had to pass. Every student in China, whatever their subject, has to have a certain basic competence at sports.
I said fail, what does it matter? Qualifications don’t matter to a filmmaker, and he agreed, but he was still desperate to pass the dumb sports exam. Because otherwise, he said, what was the point? He had done the crazy thing of learning Chinese, and then going to a Chinese film school, which was even stupider, and what was the point of it any of it if he didn’t even pass the exams?
We’d met to discuss a script and were sharing a bottle of wine in a French restaurant by my hotel. I said I would help him write a ten minute film which he would shoot and use as a pilot to make money to make a feature. The feature was based on his girlfriend Chun Sue’s novel, Beijing Doll.
Bejing Doll was a cause celebre when it came out in 2000 because it was banned for being immoral. It’s a teenage girl’s confessional, about dropping out of school and dying her hair and becoming a punk and annoying her parents and so on.
Because of all the hoohaa she got famous, regarded as a spokesperson for China’s Gen X; she was on the cover of Time Asia. The publisher changed the title from ‘World of Ice’, (probably a good idea), and the book was packaged in a pink cover with yellow ransom-note writing, in pastiche of the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies all over the world.
J asked me if I had read it. I said I’d read half of it, which was an exaggeration. It was well written but it didn’t go anywhere. I had reviewed it for the guide; I said, ‘A rambling roman a clef about a confused teenage girl who has unsatisfactory sexual encounters with preening rock and rollers – though if it wasn’t China it wouldn’t be interesting.’
I told J that the fact that the book did not have a story does not matter. The title and the controversy would be enough; someone somewhere would pay money to have it made. Probably not by him, of course. They would just go straight to Sue and buy the rights and give it to a more experienced director. Still, it was worth a shot.
Chun Sue came round to say hello. Mostly she looked like the voice of a discontented generation, with spiky hair and a pop art t-shirt with guns on it, but like many successful twenty something Asian girls she carried a Louis Vuitton bag. I pointed out that it didn’t fit her image and she said she’d spent a couple of thousand dollars on LV stuff but now regretted it cause she couldn’t afford to go on holiday.
She was celebrating; she was to become singer of the band ‘Demerit’, and had just come from Modern Sky records and they had given the band a record deal. I asked her how many songs they had, she said three. But it was okay; their first gig was in a couple of months and they’d have six by then. She ordered another bottle.
Her third novel had just come out (Red Children) but she was stuck on her fourth. Like most confessional writers she had continued mining her life, but it seemed she had enough material to keep her going.
The fourth book was to be about this time she went to Thailand to see some American guy she’d met on the internet and he turned out to be really fat (every story that begins ‘we met on the internet’, ends ‘but he/she was really fat’). And not just fat but mad, and he locked her in a hotel room and threatened to slit his wrists. And she called the Chinese Embassy and they said, ‘well what did you expect’, and she called J and… but she didn’t know where to take it as what really happened after this wasn’t satisfying.
I thought it was obvious; get all the principals in the same place, bring J and the man’s wife (oh yeah he was married) out to Thailand too, bosh, there’s your book. Doesn’t matter that that’s not what happened.
More wine appeared. They were a sweet couple but I could see she was hard work; J said she was like a hyperactive kid, always demanding attention. He said she only focused when she wrote, between 8pm and 3am every day. I left them to it. I shouldn’t think he got much basketball practise in.