Anthony Gavard (left) with Chinese actors (COURTESY PHOTO)
This summer I had the pleasure of visiting the city of Quzhou in east China's Zhejiang Province to watch my Chinese boyfriend act in Gu Cheng Qiu Yuan, or Les As de la Pétanque. Zhejiang is well-known for Chinese filmmaking and home to Hengdian, China's Hollywood.
The movie is about a French sports teacher named Anthony who comes to a local Quzhou school as part of an exchange program. During his stint at the school, he befriends the local Chinese staff, among them a Chinese sports teacher named Jackie, played by my boyfriend. Anthony introduces the French sport of pétanque to Jackie and the whole school and gets his Chinese hosts excited about the sport, which involves throwing metal balls toward a target ball on a court.
The film is a comedy about East-meets-West and intercultural friendships that are fostered through sport. Despite initial slip-ups and cross-cultural misunderstandings, Anthony eventually forges close ties to the local Chinese community.
Filming locations included the Quzhou No. 2 High School, the Quzhou Confucius Temple, where Anthony's new Chinese friends introduce him to local culture and a local restaurant, where he struggles with chopsticks and Chinese toasting habits and has a hard time trying a Quzhou specialty, duck's head. The movie also contains references to popular French actors and the French people's proverbial love of romance.
The film was written and directed by Frenchman Anthony Gavard, who played the main role, the eponymous sports teacher. His Chinese wife in real life, Fu Hong, also played a key part in making the film, which could be called the cross-cultural couple's "Chinese dream." The couple has two young children, Oscar, who held the clapperboard in between scenes, and Melody, who charmed everyone on set and boosted morale with her cuteness.
The film employed some local talent too. Fu, who is from Quzhou, doubled as an actress and played Lily, a teacher enamored with all things French who becomes Jackie's love interest. She and Jackie make Anthony feel at home in China and familiar with Chinese culture. A teacher at the high school acted as the father of one of the students, who is displeased that his daughter is more interested in pétanque than her math studies and argues with her on the sports field. Some of the high schoolers were also cast in the movie wearing their school uniform.
I was surprised at how well they performed, considering they were first-time actors! In addition, a prolific local actress named Han Yueqiao played a student's wheelchair-bound grandmother, and I was surprised to discover that she has played both Soong Ching Ling and Soong Mei Ling (the sisters, respectively married to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek) in previous Chinese TV series, among many other roles.
A Frenchman named Benoit was flown in from France to do the camera work. Benoit used to be a Broadway ballet dancer in his younger days. He had a relaxed style and worked barefoot despite rain puddles and caterpillars underfoot, obviously enjoying his Chinese surroundings. Gavard gave some instructions in French, which made me feel I was at a cultural crossroads with Chinese, French and English on the set. As an American, I sat back and enjoyed the interplay between different cultures.
I admired the on-camera chemistry between Gavard and the Chinese actors, with this creative project bringing the two cultures closer together during the course of several weeks. Gavard reminded me of a blend between the French actor Gerard Depardieu's personality and the Italian actor Roberto Benigni's presence transported to China; but of course, he had a camera presence that was all his own.
When I visited the set for several days, they were mainly filming at the school. It was my first time visiting a Chinese dormitory (the school accepts boarders), complete with four wooden bunk beds and numbered stools in each room. I also ate meals in the school canteen and was intrigued by the metal trays, which reminded me of my student days back in the West. Finally, I enjoyed talking to the students, whose English was exceptional, considering their limited interactions with foreigners.
I enjoyed the Quzhou No. 2 High School's beautiful grounds, lush vegetation and Chinese pond herons flapping through the trees. An English teacher at the school named Philip told me, "You can feel the harmony between humans and nature here," The same could largely be said about the different cultures interacting on set.
The author is an American living in Beijing
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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