People: Chen Daming, director

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Actor and director Chen Daming was expelled from the Henan Opera School when he was 17. He got into a fight with a boy whose father was a coach at the school. "I kicked his ass," says the brawny young director.

Chen has come a long way from his native city of Kaifeng. After seven years in Hollywood, he returned to China in 1997 where he has embarked on a promising career as a director. This is what Variety magazine said about his debut feature, Manhole (lead actress Ning Jing pictured below):

A beautifully structured script, in which the characters ripen and all the elements click together, makes "Manhole" a fine standard-bearer for quality Chinese commercial cinema. [This film is] an entertaining crime caper-cum-black comedy-romance.

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Chen's own life story could be rich material for a feature film. After being rusticated from the Henan Opera School, he was forced to move away from Kaifeng to look for work. He found a job with a performing arts troupe attached to Henan Province's Central Oil Field which allowed him to use the acting, singing dancing and martial arts skills he had learned at the Opera School. At the OIl Field, he sang folk songs and performed modern and ethnic dances which led to an opportunity to take a six month course at the Central University of Nationalities (Zhongyang Minzu Daxue).

He returned to the Oil Field to work in a drama team. One day there was a lot of talk about the Beijing Film Academy. Some of Chen's colleagues saw an enrollment notice in the People's Daily, advertising places for 20 students in the acting department.

The Film Academy is the most prestigious film school in China, counting the directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among its alumni, and competition for place to study there is fierce. Chen Daming came to Beijing for an audition, and was accepted after three auditions. He also had to pass the college entrance examination that is compulsory for all Chinese university applicants, no mean feat since he had never studied English and math at the Opera School.

Chen did a four year bachelor program at the Film Academy, and then stayed on as an assistant to a professor for two years. During this time he played the lead role in a short film called Peering from the Moon, a co-production of the Film Academy and the NYU Film School.

Peering from the Moon was screened at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. Daming went to the USA for the first time to attend the festival where he met Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard Linklater, and various Hollywood producers who encouraged him to stay in the US and act.

At the Sundance festival, he decided two things: to stay in the US, and to write and direct his own films.

After a year studying at the University of California Davis, Chen drove his 1971 VW bus to LA, to look for work acting. "People liked me because I was from China," he says, "There were no male Mainland Chinese actors in Hollywood at the time, only Joan Chen."

This was before Jackie Chan and Chow Yunfat made an impression on US audiences and producers, so Chen's foreign accent made it difficult for him to find work. His break was the lead role in an Italian production called Genghis Khan that featured Charlton Heston. Chen describes the time he spent shooting the movie in Russia and Kyrgizstan as "one of the best experiences in my life."

Genghis Khan never made it to the big screen — the producer ran into difficulties and the film was eventually re-edited into an 8 hour mini-series. But the experience Chen gained pushed into him the ranks of employable actors. In the next few years he acted in TV series, played a Yakuza mob boss in Beverly Hills Ninja, and starred in Foreign Moon, a multi-lingual drama about 3 Chinese immigrants living in London. Foreign Moon won a Golden Horse award in Taiwan.

In 1997, he returned to Beijing to play a role in the Sino-American co-production Restless. He decided to move back to China and has been living in Beijing sinced then.

Although he still takes the occasional acting job — he recently played the quirky Professor Ho Chung in Michelle Yeoh's new film Silverhawk and is on the small screen as evil lawyer Kang Zhaoming in the popular Chinese serial drama Farewell Vancouver.

Chinese TV screens — Chen's main drive is to write and direct feature films.

This is how the San Francisco Film Festival described his debut feature Manhole (jing gai'er), which was nominated for the best picture award:

Chen Daming’s directorial debut displays an authorial sophistication and ambition well beyond its commercial genre format. An acute observation of Chinese society today, Chen turns what could have been an over-the-top farce into a witty dark comedy whose core is a classic story of true love threatened by the forces of greed and immorality. On parole after serving seven years for a brawl defending the honor of Xiao Hui, his high school sweetheart, Tang Daxing looks for work so they can marry. But China has changed during his incarceration and his lack of skills and unemployment draw him reluctantly into a heist with an added motive: The target is the wealthy businessman Xiao Hui has decided to marry, choosing money over love. At the same time, Tang’s relationship with his policeman parole officer has turned from routine reporting to therapy as the two discover their common problems. As he skillfully twists and turns the narrative towards a surprise ending, Chen elicits subtle performances from his actors, portraying a spectrum of humanity from Jiang Tong’s stoic Tang, through the luminescent Ning Jing as Xiao Hui to the thoughtful cop played by well-known director Zhao Baogang. Something of a rarity these days: a movie where the laughter makes you think.
But the course of true filmmaking in China never does run smooth. Chen specifically wants to make films that will be seen in China, not 'underground' films that win a sympathy vote in foreign festivals but never play in local cinemas. This meant that Manhole had to pass through the State Film Bureau's byzantine approval process. The first draft did not pass and had to be changed. The adjustments included the name, originally 'The Perfect Woman' which was deemed politically incorrect.

After the movie's successful completion, Chen faced what he calls the biggest problem of the Chinese film industry: distribution. Manhole has enjoyed an excellent reception at various international film festivals and it has all the permits it needs for local distribution. But there is a problem with the distribution company, and it hasn't yet been resolved despite the fact that Chen's second feature is due to start shooting in September this year.

His new film is called One Foot off the Ground. It's a story about three former opera singers in Chen's hometown Kaifeng, and how they cope after losing their singing jobs. It's a bitter but humorous tale. Chen hopes to bring out a side of China that is not much seen on the big screen: the loud, verbal jokey side of the Chinese character that Chen finds similar to Latino culture. Like Manhole, One Foot off the Ground is a story about change and about contemporary urban China, world's removed from the historical epics that have dominated Chinese film making for the last half century.

Shooting starts in mid September.One Foot off the Ground will be funded by Huayi Xiongdi, and produced by Chris Lee.

You can find more about Manhole on Asianfilms.org here, and on the website of the San Francisco Film Festival here.
A Variety review of Manhole is reproduced on Danwei here.

- By Jeremy Goldkorn

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