I know it's all a big ruse. As I enter the pretentious Maxim's de Paris on Chongwenmen West Avenue, a so-called "party" is
in progress, with several hundred of Beijing's hipoisie gathered to relive the good old
pre-Sanlitun days, imbibe alcohol, and take part in an event cleverly designed to exploit their labor without
their knowledge. (You'd be surprised what some people will do for free snacks and cheap white
"Extra?" exclaims Beijing screenwriter Lucy Guo (Love in the Age of the Internet
(Wangluo shidai de aiqing). "Whaddya mean 'extra?' I'm not extra! I came here for the party and the free alcohol."
The suspiciously-worded invitation should have tipped off more alert minds: "Dress formal or
avant-garde. Participants are invited to play music, dance, and act."
One does not need a law degree to see the embedded caveat emptor, and yet a sizable, obedient
herd of foreigners, locals, journalists, film industry VIPS, three bona fide rock stars, and one
transvestite still show up.
None of the guileless partygoers seem to notice the small contingent of filmmakers surreptitiously
setting up lights in corners, while a small shoulder-mounted 35 millimeter film camera moves
shark-like through Maxim's 15-year-old, ornately cluttered, somber environs. Even litigator Steven
H. Wang's steel-trap legal mind fails to notice the bulky electrical cords snaking along the carpets,
distracted as he is by the copious amounts of free food. ("Boy, these ham sandwiches on white
bread are actually quite good!" says Wang, with a mouthful of cheese. "Is that plastic wrap?")
But as a professional journalist, I'm not here to be duped into some meaningless role as an unpaid
extra in an art film.
No, I have a much higher purpose: I'm here to catch master film director Ning Ying's renowned
on-set temper, to record a sensationalist portrait of her dressing down an actor or perhaps just
bitching out a crew member. (She once brought a tough Beijing cop to tears because he couldn't
get a scene right, and forbade the crew from comforting the poor public servant until they finished
But instead of discovering the former Bertolucci assistant director reducing actors to quivering
masses of inadequacy, I find a sprightly, engaging, beautiful hostess of sorts, looking more like a
busy schoolgirl than a fierce, barking director. Sporting a small designer backpack (de rigueur for
China's generation-Y crowd), she's holding hands with her husband Francesco, an Italian
anthropologist-cum-businessman-cum-movie producer. They're conversing intimately in a
melange of English, Mandarin, and Italian. Ning Ying looks irrepressibly happy for some reason.
She's also standing behind the camera, which I notice, for the first time, seems to have been
pointed in my direction for longer than I've been awareÑalong with the sound boom, several lights,
and the eyes of the entire crew. As Ning Ying kindly instructs me not to look directly into the lens,
I have the stark realization that I've been sucker-punched. I'm no longer a journalist. I'm an extra.
Ning Ying is a recorder of things vanishing before our eyes. Since she first worked as
Bernardo Bertolucci's assistant director on The Last Emperor (1987), her filmmaking career has
involved wielding a 35-millimeter movie camera to capture characters, institutions, professions,
even colors of the sky, that are quickly becoming antique memories destined for the footnotes of
future history books and travel guides.
The focus of her often darkly comic plens has found its depth of field exclusively in Beijing. Not
unlike Woody Allen's Manhattan, Ning Ying's Beijing is a comic nexus of hard reality and farcical
Since her first directing debut with the commercial hit Someone Loves Just Me (you ren pianpian
ai wo 1990), Ning's choice of stories has shown an uncanny habit of alighting on Beijing
institutions and characters on the verge of extinction. In her highly-acclaimed sophomore feature,
For Fun (zhao le 1992), she used all non-professional actors to tell the bittersweet tale of a
retiree-comprised amateur Peking opera troupe.
With her 1995 cop-bites-dog tale On the Beat (minjing gushi) utilizing exclusively
non-professional actors again Ning told the story of an ordinary Beijingolice officer during a
campaign to rid the neighborhood of allegedly rabid canines. The comic portrait of bureaucracy,
boredom and frustration "on the beat" not only garnered bundles of awards, but established the
young director as the comic philosopher of a millennia-old city in the process of being torn down
and replaced with neon kitsch and toilet-tiled skyscrapers.
Ning Ying loves Beijing. Unfortunately she's not allowed to say as much. The original
Chinese title of her new film I Love Beijing got a thumbs-down from the film authorities, fearing
it might be interpreted as sarcastic. Hence, in what is possibly an oblique reference to her first
non-winter production of a film, the revised Chinese title is xiatian nuan yangyang (The Warmth
of Summer). Jointly produced by Beijing Film Studio, Hua Yi Brothers Advertising and Happy Village
Productions, the RMB 3 million I Love Beijing follows the meandering adventures of a
taxi-driving Don Quixote on his four-wheeled, metered Rocinante, as he pathetically pursues
amour through several levels of Beijing society.
Although recent newspaper reports have made much hype about the "art film" director going
"commercial," I Love Beijing is distinctly Fellini-esque in its roundabout, wandering narrative,
and employs much of the same naturalist spur-of-the-moment realism of which Ning is an
undisputed master. In the film, cab driver Dezi divorces his wife, and then proceeds to venture through a
summer-long series of short-lived relationships with women from all levels of society: a waidi
(migrant) waitress from Northeast China, a popular radio show host, a primary school teacher (and
daughter of a university professor), and finally a peasant from the countryside.
"This is a very Chinese story," says actor Yu Ailei, who plays the role of Dezi. "Driving a taxi is a
unique profession. And I would guess that foreign cab drivers aren't quite as interesting as our cab
drivers, especially Beijing cab drivers. "They're on the road for 16 hours a day, most of their time spent in a cab, so what can they do?
They listen to the radio, which is why in their spare time they're always talking about important
affairs of state, and feel that everything has something to do with them. Beijing cab drivers really
know how to talk up a storm."
When he's not driving a cab, one of Dezi's main distractions is chasing women. "He's a bit of a
playboy," says Yu. "But he's not really that attractive, which you can tell from looking at me," he
laughs, with unnecessary modesty. (Yu is a handsome man. After I Love Beijing hits the screens
early next year, he'll no doubt be fending off plenty of female admirers.)
With a scruff of stubble on his chin, short-cropped hair, and a plain gray T-shirt, Yu has become
his character, exuding a kind of friendly anomie that seems to be at the heart of Ning Ying's film.
"In the beginning, I felt that I was really distant from this character," Yu explains. "But then I
started having lots of conversations with taxi drivers to understand their lives.". By the time
shooting began, the former stage actor from Hebei began to feel comfortable with the part. "First
of all, I really like women. No need to act that."
"He has no goals in life," Yu says of his character. "But he's got several unique qualities, such as
his ability to make fun of himself. And very importantly, he has a car, so if he wants to go on a
date, he's got wheels."
In early versions of the script, Dezi begins the film driving a luxurious Toyota Crown Salon and
winds up in a beat-up yellow miandi (cheap minivan) by the end. Unfortunately, by the time Ning
Ying began shooting Salon's were scarce, and miandi's had already become a popular source of
scrap metal. Reality, for the first time in her career, was changing faster than she could record it.
"In the end, he winds up marrying an ordinary girl from the countryside," says Yu. "I think for
most playboys, the end is always like this. They discover that their former way of life didn't hold
much meaning, so they find a nice girl, get married and settle down."
One of the spiritual anchors of Dezi's windmill-chasing existence is Wang Jing, the host of a
popular marriage-introduction radio program.
Actress Zhang Haiyan, playing the part of Wang Jing, admits a certain pleasure at being the object
of the fictional cab driver's affection. "In all the dozens of productions I've been involved in
[including an internationally-acclaimed supporting role in Zhou Xiaowen's classic rural comedy
Ermo], this is the first time I've played this kind of character," Zhang relates. She points out that
most of her previous roles have been as homely, unglamorous characters? as a peasant wife, an
auntie, motherly types, that sort of thing."
"It's a big challenge for me. There hasn't been much time for me to get to know the character,"
Zhang says. "And it's very rare that I'm asked to play the role of a beautiful woman. So when Ning
Ying said she was determined to shoot me 'beautifully,' I knew I absolutely had to take the part."
On the subject of Ning Ying's directing style, Zhang nearly jumps out of her chair, exclaiming,
"She doesn't know the meaning of sleep! It's like she doesn't even need it. She can go without any
sleep and show no sign of fatigue, always her same spirited self. Most of the crew can't keep up
with her. She can stop shooting at midnight and wake up four hours later all ready to go! She
doesn't care what or how much she eats. Doesn't require any special treatment. She's all about
doing the work."
Yu concurs: "She's two different people when directing and in normal life," says Yu. "Normally,
she's really easygoing, but when shooting she's very rigorous and strict."
When I ask if he and Zhang have been yelled at on set, Yu says meekly: "Regularly. She has really
high standards, and requires that a professional actor perform to the level of seeming like a
non-professional actor, totally natural." Recognizing the method behind Ning's work style, Yu explains, "There have been scenes where
we've had to do 10, 20 takes. That takes a lot out of you, and you get a little numb. But then a
good dressing-down picks up the spirit and you can keep going."
"This is the first time I've worked with such a unique director," says Zhang. "Among the younger
generation, we're lazy whenever possible. But Ning Ying takes her work so seriously. We need to
learn from her."
As the Maxim's party gets rowdier, and a wave of spontaneous flamenco dancing erupts, I
begin to feel a bit like the taxi driver in Ning Ying's film and make my way out of the nightclub.
As I leave, I catch snippets of improvised conversation that Ning Ying is coaxing from her
part-time, amateur foreign cast as the camera rolls: A well-regarded foreign correspondent is asked his opinion on the China-Taiwan impasse, "Well,
I've been here for seven years, so I'm the right person to ask. But tonight no politics. Only
Two old Italian Maoists, who first arrived in China in 1968, get drunk with nostalgia, bemoaning,
"No one cares about politics anymore, only making money." A Chinese person asks a Yugoslav to explain his country to him. "Sure," the Yugoslav fellow
replies. "Just let me know when you have a couple days of spare time."
French discuss Chinese law, Germans talk of banking, and two Spanish women debate the
difference between Chinese and foreign men. A Spanish expert on the Taoist sage Zhuangzi drinks wine and ponders the ceiling as he quotes
from the master: "Everyone knows the use of useful things, but few know the use of useless
Ning Ying, you might argue, is the most Taoist of Chinese filmmakers and the most Italian of
Chinese filmmakers. She is certainly the most Beijing.