In the summer of 2002 I had the honor to work on the Chinese kung fu film Stone Moon. No one will ever see this film because it ran out of funding at the editing stage. Even if it was finished I would have little hope of ever finding it among the mass amounts of crappy domestic Chinese film grinded out ever year. Although I will never see Stone Moon I am proud to say I died in three of the film’s scenes and had a blast learning about film and acting.
In Kunming, China I was approached with a job offer to be a foreign extra in a war film. At that moment I had had just returned from the Western Xinjiang Uygur province and was anxious to fly on to Thailand the next day for a little sun and beach action. I had not yet bought my flight and acting in a war film seemed at the very least, interesting. 30 bucks US a day, free hotel on the Myanmar border, and the enticing “rape the nuns and burn the temple” movie scene sealed the deal. I was off to get a visa extension for three weeks of acting in Ruli, China.
I was to be a British soldier on the Burmese front during 1880 or so. The basic premise of the film was that a rogue commander of the British troops had greedily grabbed a big slice of the Chinese Yunnan province by force. A Burmese princess meets up with a Chinese version of a Jungle Jim, they get arrested, the cute couple escapes and proceeds to raise a peasant army. The peasant army goes on to massacre the completely ineffectual and comic British troops.
I arrived in Ruli with another 15 western extras from England, Germany, Israel, and so on. Historical accuracy and acting skills were not necessary for this film, a white face was. The film was to have real actors though and I immediately fell in with that crowd. Our army commander and several other of the film’s western actors specialized in Chinese film and domestic television. These actors had studied both Chinese language and film in collage and now have good careers making very comfortable amounts of cash in the Asian film industry. For us extras our acting got off to a slow start. It seemed that the rape the nun and burn the temple scene was on hold indefinitely and we had to sit around a week in the hotel as other scenes were filmed. There were 6 Burmese elephants that were doing scenes at that time and these pacaderms were more expensive than the foreign extras. There was nothing to do but wait, watch world cup football, and explore the shithole of Ruli town.
When our time did come we were issued our uniforms and bused out to the battle scene. For several days we did what we were told. Go here, run there, shoot this gun, run away from that elephant and so on. We had one translator to deal with all of us western extras and quickly some problems and personality conflicts arose. The French and Israeli dudes were the big problem makers of the group. They were continuously messing around, late for all the shots, and forever arguing about the contract and their belief that they would get ripped off on payday. They money was extra for me. At this point I was just enjoying the experience, hanging out with the real actors and learning about film. It was at this time during our early scenes that I had my first death experience. Luckily I lived to write about it. Perhaps it was because I was a good worker (note I will never say I was ever a good actor) that they picked me out of the crowd for a close up scene. I was to die on the battle field by being head bucked by an elephant. The actual head buck was done with a dummy on a wire. In the film (if ever produced) it will be my terrified face with a film cut to my body dummy flying impossibly into the depths of the Burmese jungle. Completely preposterous stuff.
The days went on and the acting got tough. We started 12-14 hour nighttime shoots in the jungle. By this time the elephants had turned the place into a mud field. We also had new friends to act with, the Chinese army’s Ruli regiment. At this point we had been chased around enough by elephants and it was time for a good hand to hand combat ass kicking by the Chinese army, convincingly dressed up as Burmese peasants. Because I had studied judo the stunt men set me up in front of the camera with the strongest adversary they could find and let us go at it as the princess expertly chopped up my unlucky comrades. Three nights of wrestling with an 18 year Chinese soldier showed me how out of shape I was. In the end I died my 2nd pitiful and anonymous death on the muddy battle field.
Off camera we were all exhausted and sick and tired of each other. The trouble makers of the group had threatened to quit over a host of silly reasons and at that point the production team would have been happy if they did. Ruli has little to offer other than dodgy red light karaoke bars and opium dens. Ruli is the big border crossing for the Burmese frontier. The town is definitely the wild south of China with more drugs and girls being moved across the border than rice and farm equipment. The one highlight for my friends and me was the amazing Chinese/Burmese food market, in my opinion the best I had eaten at in all of China. Frog legs, snails and all kinds of other tasty critters. To wash it all down were delicious fresh fruit smoothies whipped up on dice game street. Next door to our hotel were the blind massage guys who would expertly work out all the kinks from last nights fighting scenes and give advice on how to get your life force and energy back in order. A bargain for only two or three dollars a hourly session. One night out at a disco I ended up being the big winner of the nightclub’s games. Mainland Chinese discos have all kinds of strange gimmicks. Out in Urumqi, Xinjiang western China, I was amazed to see the 2:00 AM show featuring little Muslim contortionists and acrobat children doing their routines on stage. Here in Ruli the entertainment was a big giant dice game. Before very long my friend and I were befriended by locals who sponsored us to go on stage and give the dice a throw. To throw you either had to buy a beer and put it on the pyramid or give the Chinese equivalent of a dollar. The pyramid and the money were stacked high and I proceeded to roll three sixes, best roll of the night. The crowd went crazy over the big nose high rolling foreigner who had just won the night’s prize. After being told that we would have to stay all night until the pyramid of beer was consumed, my friend and I grabbed an armful of the winnings and left the rest of the beer for who ever wanted it. Our stealthy getaway was a smarter decision than showing up the next morning for hung over fight scenes.
Back on the battle field our work contract was coming to an end. The trouble makers were happy to move on and the production team was not going to miss them one bit. Others were asked to stay longer. I was the only one who signed up for another 10 days of work. With a new crew of fresh backpackers coming down from Kunming I was to be the veteran of the foreign extras. This gave me an opportunity to do some real acting and even some one on one work with the “famous” Chinese stars. In one scene I was in command of a small detachment of troops guarding the Burmese border. Trying to sneak over the border was the Burmese Princess and her Chinese Jungle Jim Boyfriend. I stopped them by gunpoint and demanded them searched. Upon being searched Jungle Jim produced a big snake out of his bamboo shoulder case. The live snake sprung out of the case at me and with a ridiculous look on my face I fell to the ground as I pushed one of my soldiers ahead screaming to arrest them. I would like to say that there were no animals hurt in this scene, but this is China, the snake sprung out at me because it was tied to a stick. After the scene I didn’t have much hope for the snake other than it becoming the tasty dinner for the film director. In another scene I got to lead a group of prisoners by gun point down a road. Of course the prize of the group was a shackled Jungle Jim. I got to whack him a few times with the butt of my gun and the director ordered me to swear a bit in the scene to make the beating more authentic. I came out with something silly like “move it you ****ing rats” and the production team loved it. The highlight of the film work was several days of filming in the rebel occupied mountains of Myanmar. Officially the Chinese government says that there is no rebel activity in the Ruli region, yet our production team paid off the rebels to let us do some filming on a small bridge in their territory. The scenery was amazing but the sightseeing was very restricted. No border posts, just a bamboo gate to walk through and you are out of China and into a rarely visited region of Myanmar. The village was amazingly primitive and I can only wonder what the locals thought of us British soldiers as they went through their daily work and routine of planting rice. The scene we filmed there was a prisoner exchange between my captured Princess, Jungle Jim, and the captured girlfriend of our evil British commander.
The final scene I did was on my last night of shooting. Perhaps as a reward for good work the director chose me for the honor of a 3rd death on the battlefield. This was to be death by elephant trunk smack to the head. No real elephant this time but a shot of myself getting it by a big prosthetic plastic trunk. The stunt men went easy on me for the practice take but the real one almost knocked me out. I was seeing stars as I got up off the ground so it must have been good. They were happy with just that one take and I was relieved not to have to get hit again. With that last scene my acting career was over. I had a plane ticket to Thailand and within a week I was in Vietnam on a Russian Minsk motorcycle for a two week solo journey through the northern mountains.
Old scans from work on Stone Moon
Old scans from work on Stone Moon