American sees beyond the glamor in filmmaking

Updated: 2012-08-26 08:25

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

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American sees beyond the glamor in filmmaking

Filmmaker Jay Hubert and actress Karen Mok have a profession - and perhaps great legs - in common. Provided to China Daily

American sees beyond the glamor in Chinese filmmaking, he tells Zhao Xu.

Ask Jay Hubert, a 34-year-old American who had previously studied cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy, about his most memorable experience working with a Chinese film crew, and the answer is well beyond any stretch of imagination.

"To be Karen Mok's nudity substitute," he says in his studio-home in northwestern Beijing, referring to the wide-smiling, long-legged Hong Kong beauty with whom he was on set during the making of the 2007 movie Lost Indulgence.

"There's this one scene of her in the bathroom sitting on a stool and bathing. The camera would be zooming in on her sensual, foam-covered long legs. So they wanted someone who's not only tall but also very white," he says. "The director looked around, looked at me, and called out 'Hubert!'"

"That was my greatest moment because I sacrificed for the sake of art," he says, in his typical joking, self-deprecating way.

But how about the, um, leg hair?

"The scene was shot through an opaque glass door, so it didn't matter," he says.

However, that doesn't mean being "a hairy foreigner" hasn't cost him, well, more than a few hairs.

"My job title for that movie is 'film loader', which means, quite literally, opening the canister, taking out the film and taping it up onto the movie camera," he says. "Nothing hard, except that you've got to put your hands inside a bag and do it in the dark, because the film is light-sensitive."

One day, about a week after the first batch of films had been sent to Beijing for developing, Hubert was told that a couple of hairs had been detected on the initial few shots of the film. "They said to me 'Be careful'."

"I guessed what they meant was, 'Go and shave your arms', which I did, promptly," he says, apparently bemused by the little incident.

The arm hair has since had a chance to grow back, thanks to Hubert's career evolution from a film loader to an independent artist making short movies funded by his earnings from shooting commercials for local and international brands.

But back then, his zero tolerance for interfering hairs won him a big hug from the director. "He says he loved me," Hubert recalled, laughing out loud.

From there, Hubert went on to shoot a mini-documentary on the making of the 2010 Chinese film Love for Life, directed by Gu Changwei and thought to be Chinese cinema's first take on the blood-transfusion-caused AIDs outbreak in an impoverished Chinese rural area in late 1990s and early 2000s. Casting the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi and the veteran Hong Kong heartthrob Aaron Kwok in leading roles, the movie was filmed in a small village on the western fringe of Beijing.

Not knowing anyone on the crew beforehand, Hubert was impressed by the stars "as themselves". "They were fantastic people to work with - Aaron Kwok was entertaining the crew all the time, dancing and teasing with everybody," he says, referring to the sweatshirt-wearing singer-actor who's seen on Hubert's documentary twisting his well-trained body for some electrifying movements. "I think they were just so tired of their celebrity and wanted to be normal people."

And in this, Hubert recognized his own longing to be "inconspicuous".

"In certain parts of Beijing, being a foreigner still begets curious looks and the occasional finger-pointing," he says. "None of that existed while I worked with the crew."

The village where the film was shot - so close to Beijing - has become a popular set. "So the villagers are accustomed to, even bored with, seeing star faces. And none of them would give a damn about a big white guy who's essentially nobody."

Over the past few years, Hubert has made a handful of short films, recruiting actors from among his artist friends and classmates - or randomly from the streets.

One is titled Banana, about a white American who traveled to Beijing, woke up one morning and found himself trapped under the skin of another man - a local rickshaw puller with a wife and a daughter.

At the end of the 11-minute film, after much travail, the man ventured back to the doorstep of his hotel room and bumped into Egg, the guy with whom he had mysteriously exchanged looks with.

"I know 'banana' is a byword for Chinese who have grown up in the West - yellow outside, white inside. The reverse of that must be 'egg'. And both represent for me conflicted identities and the nonstop search for true self."

"People judge based on their stereotypes, and would often not give others the benefit of doubt," says Hubert, still soured by his own experience of having learned Cantonese fluently but finding no one to speak to while in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. "They all insisted on talking to me in English, which is deeply frustrating."

Hubert says he adores a more profound - some may say abstruse - narrative style embraced by the Chinese art cinema, but doesn't think in a linear way.

"Comedy is my answer," he says, pointing to his reputation as a "class clown" throughout his school years. "It's my way of getting things out of my system without being judgmental."

In Love for Life, Hubert says, there is also a bathing scene - "the climatic end in which Zhang Ziyi's character lies submerged in cold water, then re-emerges to help cool her fevering husband down with her own chilled body."

Any luck being a stand-in for the husband on that one?

"I tried, but they wouldn't let me," he says.

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